Clarifying the confusion of the horrible homonym
Homonyms are words that sound the same, or that are spelled the same, but have different meanings. As such, they cause many common grammatical errors.
If homonyms were only rare and obscure words, it wouldn’t be so bad. It also wouldn’t be typically English.
In this article, I am going to take you through two of the most problematic groups of homonyms. They include some of the most commonly used words in the English language.
And, because they are intrinsically linked, wherefore, whereof, whereby and whereafter, and
I will start with the more unique words in these groups. The definitions you just need to remember.
Then I will go through some tricks you can use against the similarly constructed homonyms. If you want to quickly check a specific word, click on it in the above list and it will take you right to the relevant point.
So if you’re ready, let’s dive right in.
Ware is an object of value.
As an item of value is often associated with price, wares are usually goods for sale. A market trader will be displaying their wares for you to buy.
Ware is also twinned with a substance or material to specify the type of valuable object.
Commonly you will see stoneware (items made of stone), potteryware (or pottery ware) and silverware. A warehouse is, literally a ‘house’ for storing sellable goods.
Wear means either to take away from, or to add to.
There are multiple homonyms of this particular homonym but these definitions cover all specifics.
Wear as to take away from.
This could be being eroded, or fading away, or getting duller over time.
Wear as to add to.
Meaning clothed, or adorned, or carrying.
Both meanings can be literal.
The etching wears away when it is polished too much.
I wear my best frock for special occasions.
And both can be metaphorical.
After working long hours, the man looks worn (in this past tense version, it is the man’s energy that has been eroded).
At her wedding, the bride wears a smile (the smile is the ‘thing’ adorning the woman’s face).
Both definitions can also be taken when wear is part of a phrase.
Wear and tear means general depreciation.
Eveningwear is clothing or jewellery for a specific time of day or event.
Their means belonging to them.
The clue here is the heir. An heir is someone who receives or inherits from someone more senior than they are. In essence, from the owner of the heir.
The house belonging to my family is my family’s house. It is their house.
They’re, We’re and Were
Though not all homophones (meaning the pronunciation is the same), I have grouped these together as derivations of the verb ‘to be’.
We know the apostrophe signifies possession when combined with an s. There is no ‘s’ here so we know it pre-empts description instead.
In both they’re and we’re, the apostrophe replaces the ‘a’ from are. The words are then contracted but retain the meaning ‘they are’ and ‘we are’.
Though clearly not a contraction, I have included were in this group as it is also used for description. Were is simply the past tense of are.
There and Where
Here we are looking at the ‘here’. Both words keep the original definition of here, so you know the words refer to some place.
Simplify put, there is literally, that here.
And where is which, why or what here.
The place isn’t always literally something with a location. There can be used to specify an item or underline a point. But the origination is the same. It clarifies ‘that thing here’.
There and where are often parts of transition words. Some of these are only seen in formal documents, but it is still worth taking a quick look at the differences of meaning.
Wherefore, Whereof, Whereby, Whereafter…
The close etymology of where and why and who, means where can be a contraction of ‘why’ or which, and here.
This is useful to know with transitions. Instead of thinking of the place implied by the here in where, focus on the why or which.
I asked for the invoice to be paid in advance, whereafter (think after which) I could begin work.
These is the route whereby (think by which) I will find the treasure.
His knowledge of science means he knows whereof (think of what) he speaks.
When the prefix does refer to a place, it is best to think of it as which place rather than where. If you revert to where, you are more likely to err.
This is why one of the most famous lines of literature is so commonly misunderstood.
‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’
This line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet may have elicited the comic response ‘I’m here in the bushes’ many times. But the joke doesn’t actually work.
The fact that Romeo can hear Juliet's soliloquy from his sneaky hiding place downstage is immaterial. And Juliet doesn’t give a fig whether Romeo is nestling in her bush.
As a suffix, -fore means because. Taking the above tip, substitute the where for another w. Here it is the why. Juliet is asking
‘why because’ are you Romeo’?
To put it more clearly, she doesn’t want to know where he is. She is asking why he is named Romeo, which makes him of the Montague family, the sworn enemy of her own father. Hence the line that follows… “Deny thy father and refuse thy name”.
Therefore, Thereof, Thereby, Thereafter…
Similarly with these (usually) adverbs, don’t think of a place implied by here. Instead replace the leading T with ‘that’ or ‘this’.
These T words follow the same pattern as above but they have a clear point of reference – the ‘that’ on which the next action depends.
He paid the invoice in advance; thereafter (think after that payment), work began.
I was given the map, thereby (think by that map) I found the treasure.
Money, or a lack thereof (think of that money), can have a major impact on health.
The Prime Minister resigned and thereafter (think after that resignation) remained on the back benches.