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Know Your Homonyms! Animal Homophones, Part 1

In this edition of Know Your Homonyms, I cover seven sets of animal-related homophones. I will discuss another 7 in the next post (yup, there are a lot of animal homophones!). Keep reading to learn the differences between these animal names and their like-sounding counterparts: ant & aunt, bear & bare, bee & be, coral & choral, deer & dear, ewe & you (& yew) and fawn & faun.

Know Your Animal Homonyms: ant vs. aunt, bear vs. bare, bee vs. be, coral vs. choral, deer vs. dear, ewe vs. you vs. yew, and fawn vs. faun

Ant vs. Aunt

You likely are familiar with both ants (the colony-based insects that have ruined many a picnic) and aunts (the sisters of your parents, or the wives of your parents' siblings), so I won't belabor those definitions. Neither of these words has other definitions, either, so I'll instead just give some examples and a tip for telling them apart when you aren't sure.

First, here are couple examples:

There are more than 12,000 species of ant, with sizes ranging from 0.03 to 2 inches. Scientists have shown that ants work together to solve complex problems. I became an aunt at age 3 when my much older sister had her first child. I have four aunts, including my father's sister Marie and her wife, Angelica.

As a mnemonic for telling these words apart, think about how both aunt and its counterpart, "uncle," contain the letter "u." Alternatively, think about how animal and ant both start with "an." (Yes, I know that ants are technically insects, but for the purposes of these posts, I'm using "animal" in the broader sense, including all life forms more complex than plants.)

Bear vs. Bare

In addition to being the name of the large, furry animal that loves fish and hibernates in the winter, the noun bear has several related meanings. Commonly, bear often refers to a man who is large and hairy, particularly rugged, or rude and unpleasant; each meaning catches a different metaphorical sense related to the stereotypical bear (the animal). In addition, bear refers to a person with a pessimistic view, particularly regarding the stock market; the adjective bearish (pessimistic) comes from this usage. The opposite of bear in this meaning is "bull." Finally, bear can mean "something difficult to deal with" (as in this project is a real bear); you can see how this meaning relates to the animal, which is famously "difficult to deal with."

In addition, bear is a common verb with a variety of related meanings, including "carry" (as in bear the burden), "deal with" (as in I can't bear to lose you), "hold up" (as in the bridge can bear the weight of 100 cars), "give birth to" (as in bear children), "pertain to" (with "on," as in facts that bear on the question), and "produce" (as in this tree no longer bears fruit). You can see how each of these meanings stems from the base meaning of carrying or holding something.

By comparison, bare does not have as many meanings, but it does have several variations. As an adjective, it can mean "lacking a covering" (as in bareheaded), "exposed" (as in bare to the elements), "with little decoration" (as in a bare Christmas tree), and "with nothing left over" (as in the bare minimum). It is also a verb that means "to uncover or expose."

Here are some sample sentences that cover some of the many meanings of these homophones:

The brown bear feasts during the fall so that it can hibernate all winter. Due to the bear market, I'd recommend that you hold onto your stocks and sell them later. I cannot bear to see you suffer like this, so I am going to take you to the doctor now. The mother turtle can no longer bear children, but she has 15 living offspring. Due to a lack of sunblock, her bare neck burned severely during her 3-hour hike. I will bare my soul to you if you will promise not to laugh at my embarrassing story.

Here are some tips for remembering which word has which meaning. First, think of the fact that all bears have ears; to get the verb meaning, remember that they can "carry" things in their paws. However, they have fur, so they are not bare.

Bee vs. Be

The basic meanings of these words are pretty straightforward. Bee refers to the flying, honey-producing insect, and be is the very common verb meaning (among other things) "to exist." However, bee can also refer to a gathering that is devoted to a specific activity (as in a spelling bee or a quilting bee). As long as you remember that both "honey" and "spelling" have an "e," you should remember to add the second "e" in those uses of bee. (Alternatively, you can remember that the nouns are spelled bee and that the verbs are spelled be, but there's no handy mnemonic for that.) Here are example sentences for each meaning:

Ryan is allergic to bee stings, so she is careful to always wear insect repellant. After finishing first in my school's geography bee, I was invited to a state competition. The class spent the day discussing what the students want to be when they grow up. Your plan is well-thought-out, but it could be too expensive for the client.

Coral vs. Choral

Yes, coral is an animal; you may be familiar with underwater coral reefs, which look like colorful stone structures; indeed, the word coral is a common shorthand for these structures. However, it also refers to the marine invertebrate that produces those structures. Each coral colony consists of many tiny polyps; the polyps excrete an exoskeleton near their base, and these stony excretions form the basis of the reefs. Many of these reefs are a deep pink color, and the word coral is also an adjective referring to that color.

By contrast, choral is the adjective form of "choir" (and yes, choral is pronounced just like coral, even though the vowel in "choir" sounds like why, not oh). Use this word whenever you are talking about a group of people singing (as in choral group). To keep the homophones straight, I like to remember that churches often perform choral music (both words start with "ch," unlike the animal name).

Here are some sample sentences:

When in Australia, I hope to see the country's famous coral reefs on a scuba diving trip. For the bathroom wall, I prefer the deep coral color to the classic pink, which is too bright. Johann Sebastian Bach is famous in part for his choral adaptations of Christian hymns.

Deer vs. Dear

Deer—the common, forest-dwelling hoofed mammals and inspiration for Bambi—are a common source of homophones, for some reason; in addition to that general term (and dear), we'll also cover the more specific terms fawn (and faun) and hart (and heart) in this miniseries. This word has no other common meanings.

Dear, on the other hand, has several meanings. As an adjective, it can mean "precious" (as in my dear sister and run for dear life), "heartfelt or affectionate" (as in with dear thoughts), or "expensive" (as in cost me dearly). As a noun, dear is a term of affection for a loved one (often my dear). Finally, dear is used as an interjection (as in dear me and oh dear). Here are some example sentences with both homophones:

When driving at night in the forest, watch closely for deer crossing the road. To express affection for the recipient, start a letter with "Dear" and their name. Due to the shortage of baking supplies, the price of yeast is now quite dear.

To distinguish between these homophones, I like to think of how dear and "heart" are spelled similarly—as something that is dear is close to your heart (metaphorically). By contrast, deer like to roam free.

Ewe vs. You (vs. Yew)

A ewe is a female sheep (the male is known as a "ram"). Anyone who knows even a little English is obviously familiar with the homophone you, which is the main second-person pronoun. However, these terms have a third homophone: yew (a type of coniferous tree known for its red berries).

A Yew Tree's Needles and Berries
A Yew Tree's Needles and Berries

Here are some examples:

The sheep farmer keeps over 300 ewes for the production of milk and wool. You can ask me whatever you want; I'm an open book. The seeds and leaves of the yew are highly toxic, though its berries are not.

I don't think you will have too much trouble with that pronoun, but the other forms may be hard to remember. I like to think of how both ewe and "sheep" contain two e's.

Fawn vs. Faun

Finally, consider fawn, which is the name given to a young deer. By extension, this word can also refer to a young person. In addition, fawn is the name of a grayish-brown color (based on the color of a young deer's fur). There is also a fairly common verb spelled as fawn, but it is etymologically unrelated. It means either "to flatter excessively" or simply "to show affection"; the first meaning is negative and typically refers to people, but the second is more positive and often applies to animals.

On the other hand, a faun is a creature from Roman mythology. It consists of a human upper body with two goat legs, which makes it similar to the satyr of Greek mythology (e.g., the god Pan)—though a faun is less sinister in its intent, by and large. Fauns are symbols of peace and fertility.

To remember the difference, I recommend thinking about how a fawn lives in the woods (with a "w") and about how a faun is part human (with a "u"). See these examples:

As I walked through the woods, I saw a fawn eating leaves, but I did not see its mother. The CEO does not like her employees to fawn over her; she prefers serious, direct appeals. Puppies are well-known for their fawning behavior toward humans. In Renaissance paintings, a faun typically symbolized birth and creation.

That's all for this edition of Know Your Homonyms! I'll be back soon with Part 2 of this miniseries on animal homophones. Please let me know if you need any additional explanation, or if you have suggestions for other homonyms to cover in this series. You can leave a comment below or email me at Thank you for reading, and please visit the next time you need high-quality editing services.



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