How to Identify and Use Homophones for the Praxis Core Exam
The Praxis Core exam will throw in some homophones for good measure. As you probably remember from elementary school, homophones are words that sound the same but are spelled differently. Two things about homophones are likely to trip you up: the differences between words that are spelled the same, but one has an apostrophe; and the meaning of words that sound the same but have different spellings.
Which one has the apostrophe?
The types of homophones that give the average person the most trouble are the ones where one word is a contraction (that is, it has an apostrophe) and the other word is a possessive pronoun — for example, “it’s/its,” “you’re/your,” “they’re/their (and there),” and “who’s/whose.” In all of those cases, the one with the apostrophe is the contraction.
This concept is confusing because the first thing you learn about apostrophes is that they show possession, and now suddenly the word without the apostrophe is the possessive one. But hey, that’s the rule.
The easiest way to keep all this straight (and get the questions right on the Praxis) is simply to get in the habit of reading the words with the apostrophes as though they were two separate words: “it’s” means “it is,” so say/think “it is” whenever you see “it’s.”
Say “you are” whenever you see “you’re,” say “they are” whenever you see “they’re,” say “who is” whenever you see “who’s,” and so on. If the sentence no longer makes sense, then the word in question should be the one without the apostrophe.
If the homophone you have trouble with is their versus there, you can remember that their is the possessive because it contains the word heir, and that there is the one about places because it contains the word here (that’s not actually why the words are spelled that way; it’s just a good way to remember which is which).
Spelled and used differently, but sound the same
When it comes to homophone trouble in cases where neither word has an apostrophe, here are the most common pairs of words that give people grief and how to remember which is which:
Then/than: Then is an adverb indicating order (“I aced the test, and then I went straight to the bar”), and than is a subordinating conjunction used for comparison (“I know grammar better than my friends do”). Getting into the habit of pronouncing them differently helps a lot, but you can just use the “e” and “a” themselves as clues, and think then = order and than = comparison.
Affect/effect: Ninety-nine percent of the time, the difference is that affect is a verb and effect is a noun: “His insults did not affect me” versus “His insults had no effect on me.” Unfortunately, there’s more. Effect can also be a verb meaning “to bring about,” as in “You’ll need to do more than sign petitions if you really want to effect change.”
And just to make sure your day is completely ruined, affect can also be a noun — but you’ll probably never see it unless you’re a psych major, since affect as a noun is only used in scientific contexts to signify the behavioral trait that’s being studied in a psych experiment.
So for the purposes of the Praxis, just remember that affect is a verb and effect is a noun, unless the verb means ”to bring about,” in which case it’s effect.
To/too: To is a preposition that can be used in all sorts of ways. Too is an adverb that can mean either “extremely” or “unacceptably” (“The music is too loud”), or “also” (“I’m coming too”). The best method for keeping them straight is to remember that one word is used way more than the other.
So rather than trying to memorize the million different things that to can do, just remember that if it means “unacceptably/very” or “also,” it’s too, and if not, then it’s to.” (There’s also two, which means the number between one and three, but most people don’t have any trouble with that.)
Compliment/complement: The one with the “i” means saying something nice about somebody, and the one with the “e” means that two things go together well (“He complimented me on the fact that my shoes complement my dress”).
Whether/weather: The first one means that something is in question, and the second one refers to what it’s like when you go outside (“I don’t know whether the weather will improve”). As with than/then, it helps to get into the habit of pronouncing them differently. Your friends may think it’s obnoxious of you to start pronouncing the “h” in “whether,” but you can stop after the test.
Farther/further: These words aren’t technically homonyms, because they’re pronounced differently, but they still give people a lot of trouble. The difference is that farther relates to actual physical distance, whereas further indicates the extent to which you feel like doing something (“I don’t want to have any further discussion about whether you can long-jump farther than I can”).