The SAT and ACT English sections are notoriously tricky - tricky as in challenging and also tricky as in full of tricks. Though I’ve never (knowingly) met anyone who contributes to writing the tests, I have to assume they all look like cartoon villains, feverishly tugging on their pointy beards, devising new ways to deceive innocent test-takers. One of the SAT and ACT writers’ favorite devious tool is the homophone.
If you don’t remember elementary school, homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings, origins, and/or spelling. A couple of basic examples of homophones are plane/plain and threw/through. The purpose of this post is to get you familiar with some of the homophone or homophone-like words that commonly come up on the SAT/ACT. If you’re not preparing for a standardized test and are still reading this, enjoy an English lesson that will save you from an embarrassing mistake in the company-wide memo. Let’s start with the easy stuff.
Your vs. You’re
If you think this first one is super easy, enjoy a virtual high-five from me. I thought the knowledge of this distinction was widely known until I started grading hundreds of college essays. Yikes. Let’s review.
The word your is the possessive form of the word you.
Example: You will receive your diploma in the mail.
The word you’re is a contraction - a combination of two words. The word you’re combines the words you and are.
Example: Out of all the test-takers, you’re the first to earn a perfect score.
Their vs. They’re vs. There
Here’s another one everyone learned in first grade but many seem to forget.
The word their is the possessive form of the word they.
Example: Their house is down the street from the beach.
The word they’re is a contraction that combines the words they and are.
Example: They may not be the classiest people, but they’re still my cousins.
The word there describes a location.
Example: The ball you’re looking for landed over there.
Its vs. It’s
Because this distinction tends to get glossed over in English class (or not even taught at all), I can forgive people for not knowing it. Read and be enlightened.
The word its is the possessive form of the word it.
Example: The penguin flapped its flippers.
The word it’s is a contraction that combines the words it and is.
Example: Hannah says it’s okay if we host the party at her pool.
Who’s vs. Whose
Who’s excited to get this one right?
The word whose is the possessive form of the word who.
Example: Whose backpack is this?
The word who’s is a contraction that combines the words who and is.
Example: I don’t know who’s going to arrive on time and who’s not.
Than vs. Then
Depending on your regional accent (or personal preference), you might not actually pronounce these words the same, which is why I might classify them as merely homophone-like.
The word than is used when making a comparison.
Example: Jeff is taller than Tyler.
The word then is used to describe the order of events.
Example: I picked up a burger to-go, then I went home.
Must’ve vs. Must Of
I think this pair is an especially nasty trick. The words must of sound like must’ve but are actually a nonsense group of words intended to fool you. On the tests, the answer including must of will NEVER be correct!
The word must’ve is a contraction that combines the words must and have.
Example: Laura can’t find her new blouse; her little sister must’ve stolen it already.
Spoiler: the tests often do the same thing with should’ve/should of, could’ve/could of, and would’ve/would of. Be vigilant!
Affect vs. Effect
This is another case in which the two words might not always be pronounced the same exact way but might as well be homophones. A lot of my students see this particular distinction as some impenetrable mystery, but it’s actually pretty simple. Never get it wrong again!
The word affect is a verb that means “to make a difference to.”
Example: How much sleep you get affects your mood.
The word effect is a noun that means “a change which is the result of a cause.”
Example: The effects of climate change are clear.
Passed vs. Past
A little tricky but definitely doable.
The word passed is the past tense form of the verb pass.
Example: On his way home, Kyle passed by The Hat and felt a craving for pastrami
The word past is a noun that means “a time before the present.”
Example: Best friends for decades, Rose and Marie often met up to reminisce about the
Sight vs. Cite vs. Site
Gotta love this one. No, “sitation” is not a word.
The word sight is a noun referring to the power of seeing or something that can be seen.
Example: Lena loves the part of the movie when the cursed prince finally regains his
The word cite is a verb meaning “to quote as evidence.”
Example: To avoid plagiarism, always remember to cite your sources!
The word site is a noun meaning “a particular place.”
Example: Puvunga is a sacred site of the Tongva nation located in East Long Beach.
Illusion vs. Allusion
This is also a lesson in literary devices!
The word illusion is a noun meaning “a deceptive appearance or impression.”
Example: The couple’s Instagram would make you think they had a perfect relationship,
but it was nothing more than an illusion designed to impress their followers.
The word allusion refers to the literary device: an expression designed to make you think of something or someone else.
Example: The novel East of Eden is full of biblical allusions that the reader might not
catch if they’re not familiar with the Old Testament.
A Part vs. Apart
Full disclosure: this mix-up drives me absolutely nuts.
The words a part describe something that is a piece of a larger whole. The word pair is often followed by the preposition of.
Example: Being a choir member makes him feel like he’s a part of something larger
The word apart is an adverb used to describe two or more things that are separate from one another. It’s often followed by the preposition from.
Example: Summer camp was the first time the twins had been apart from each other for