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Know Your Homonyms! Knight vs. Night, Knit vs. Nit, & More

In the latest edition of Know Your Homonyms, I cover seven sets of homophones in which one of the words starts with "K." Keep reading to learn about the differences between these similar-sounding word pairs: key & quay, knap & nap, knave & nave, knead & need, knight & night, knit & nit, and knot & not.

Know Your Homonyms! key vs. quay, knap vs. nap, knave vs. nave, knead vs. need, knight vs. night, knit vs. nit, and knot vs. not

A Note On the Silent "K"

As you may have noticed, there are a lot of silent letters in this group. The "kn" combination of letters originated in German, where it represents a distinct sound (with a sort of quick "k" preceding a quick "n"). Over time, in English, this combination has come to represent simply the "n" sound—thus leading to most of the homophones in this list. All the "kn" words below are Germanic in origin (indeed, many have cognates in German, Dutch, and related languages), but their homophones are of varied origins.

Key vs. Quay

First off, yes, quay is pronounced the same as key. A quay is a long platform (usually made of wood or metal) that extends from the shore into a body of water; it is used for loading and unloading ships.

You will, of course, know at least a few of the meanings of the common word key; it has a lot, so here is a quick list of its most common noun uses:

  • "an object that unlocks a lock"

  • "a button on a computer keyboard or phone"

  • "a lever that plays a note as part of a piano-like instrument"

  • "a set of musical notes"

  • "tone or pitch" ("tone" can refer to music, writing, or painting)

  • "an important aspect of accomplishing something"

  • "an explanatory list of symbols" (for a map, chart, etc.)

  • "a set of answers" (for a test, etc.)

  • "a system for decoding coded information"

There is also the common adjective form of key, which means "crucial" and a few verb forms, such as "to enter (data)" or "to fasten into place." There is also the slang verb that refers to the act of scratching a person's car with a key, as well as various rare noun uses that we don't need to get into here.

Here are some examples of these homophones in action:

Modern car keys communicate with the car's computer via electronic signals. To play a "G" chord, hit these three piano keys at the same time. Please refer to the answer key to grade each other's quizzes. The key difference between the two plans is that only one can be completed by next week. Bit by bit, Angela slowly keyed the data into the computer.
The workers loaded large pallets of grain onto the ship via the quay.

Because most of these meanings are spelled with a "k," you only need to remember the one meaning that starts with "q." To do that, I think of other words that have a "q" and that relate to water, just as quay does, especially "aqua" and "liquid."

Knap vs. Nap

I'm assuming that you are familiar with nap—as in, a quick sleep (usually during the day). You are probably less familiar with the word knap, though; it means "to shape a stone by striking." This is a common word in archaeology because early humans used knapping to create wide, flat stone ("knapped") blades for knives, axes, and such; these objects are commonly found among the remnants of Stone Age cultures.

Here are some sample sentences:

To create an axe blade, carefully knap a flat stone until one side has a sharp edge.
Until about age 3, children should take a nap every day; this can head off tantrums.

These words are easy to keep straight as long as you remember that knapping is used to make knives (as there is a silent "k" in both). Don't include the "k" unless you are referring to the process of making a stone tool such as a blade.

Knave vs. Nave

Both of these words are somewhat uncommon, so many people do not know what they mean; however, both are common enough that the ensuing confusion is fairly common. A knave is a dishonest or unscrupulous man; this word also is an alternate term for the jack in a standard deck of cards. Be advised that this word cannot refer to a woman, as it comes from an old English word meaning "boy" (related to the German word for "boy," Knabe).

A nave is a central part of a building—especially a church. It can also refer to the hub of a wheel. This notion of centrality perhaps comes from this word sharing the same root as the word "navel" (as in the center of one's belly).

Here are example sentences with each word:

He is such a knave, always cheating others just to make a quick buck. Penelope won the hand when the knave of hearts was revealed as the final card.
The priest spent hours carefully decorating the nave of his church.

Knead vs. Need

The verb knead means "to work thoroughly or massage with one's hands"; it thus usually is used in baking (kneading dough), art (kneading clay), and massage (kneading a muscle).

Need is a very common verb; as I'm sure you know, it usually means "require." However, it is also used as what is called a "modal verb"—one that requires another verb and that has different constructions; other modal verbs include "can," "might," and "will." In this usage of need, there is never an "s" at the end, even for third-person nouns that would take the verb "needs" normally. In addition, the modal need nearly always is used negatively (with "not"). To illustrate this, here is an example of need as a modal verb: "She need not submit an application." Here, "submit" is the additional verb, and need is correct even though, to express the opposite thought, you would write "She needs to submit an application."*

* This sentence is not modal. The modal version—"She need submit an application" —is technically allowed but sounds very odd to most English speakers. For whatever reason, the modal need only sounds right for negative expressions (i.e., those with "not").

Finally, need is a common noun that means "necessity" or "requirement."

Here are some sample sentences:

The bakers kneaded their doughs for 10 full minutes to build up the gluten structure.
Each contestant needs to provide their full name, age, and bank account information. Brigitte need not bring anything to the party, as she is the guest of honor. It is important to find a romantic partner who will help meet your emotional needs.

To keep these words straight, I remember that you can get a "knot" out of your back by having someone knead your back muscles.

Knight vs. Night

You are no doubt familiar with both of these words, but you may still have difficulty knowing when to use the "k" spelling and when not to. The term knight originally referred to a soldier who wore armor, rode a horse, and was pledged to uphold certain virtues; this is probably still the most common usage today, even as this sort of knight does no longer really exists. More generally, a knight can be a person who is devoted to a particular cause, organization, or person (as in a knight for the city's poor). The term knight is also commonly used in certain countries (such as Great Britain) as a term of minor nobility; the related verb form of knight refers to the act of being given this honor (as in being knighted by the queen). Finally, this word refers to the chess piece that is shaped like a horse.

A night, on the other hand, is a period of darkness between sunset and sunrise (or, occasionally, the time from evening through bedtime). By extension, night can also refer to darkness (as in eyes as black as night).

Fans loved the moment when Brienne finally became a knight of the Seven Kingdoms. I vow to always be your knight—to love you, treat you well, and defend your honor Despite his side losing the battle, Reginald was knighted for his valor in combat.
Each night before bed, Angelina works diligently on her novel, a few pages at a time. Hidden by the night, the prisoners were able to sneak past the guards and reach freedom.

To remember that the spelling of knight has an "k", think of the fact that a knight "kills" villains.

Knit vs. Nit

As you may know if you like crafting, to knit is to stitch threads together using loops; knitting typically is done by hand (with needles) or with a machine. By extension, this verb can also be used metaphorically, to mean "to unite" a group of people or items; this usage always includes the word "together" (as in knit each other's children together as a blended family). This word can also refer to the furrowing of one's eyebrows (as in he knit his brows in confusion). Finally, it can be a noun or adjective that refers to a garment made by knitting.

A nit is a tiny insect egg, such as the type that animals try to remove from their fur when grooming. This act is known as "nitpicking"—a term that is much more commonly used in metaphor, to mean "focusing on small or inconsequential errors" (e.g., His complaints were more nitpicking than substantial criticism). You can see how the act of picking out tiny eggs came to be associated with the act of finding minor errors. A nit, then, is also "a minor or trivial error or flaw."

Here are some examples:

It took me three months, but I finally finished knitting you this sweater. The tragedy knit the opposing politicians together; they voted unanimously for the new bill. When lost in concentration on a difficult problem, Vera will knit her brows together.
The chimpanzee ate all the nits that it picked from its fur. Your complaints about the font of the newsletter amount to nothing more than picking nits.

To tell these words apart, try to remember that knitting can be used to produce a "kilt," "khakis," or a "kaftan."

Knot vs. Not

These two terms are also quite common, but they can be confused for each other. I'm sure you don't need an explanation of what not means (it's used before a verb to express a negative). The word knot has many meanings, most of which follow directly from its most common meaning, "a fastening made by tying string, rope, etc." By extension, this word can refer to a tangled mass of anything (such as knotted hair), to a knob or protuberance (such as a knot on a tree), or to a tight muscle (such as a knot in my back).

There is also a unit of measure called a knot (equal to one nautical mile per hour), which is used to measure the speed of watercraft, aircraft, and wind. It dates back to the old sailing practice of measuring a boat's speed using a long rope (with knots at regular intervals) that was tied to a weighted piece of wood (a "log"). The log would be thrown over the side of the ship as it traveled; it would become submerged, with the weighted piece staying in place as the ship moved away. A sailor would then count how many knots on the rope (the "log line") passed by in a set period of time. This produced the approximate speed of the boat. Today, knots are measured much more precisely, of course, but that is the origin of the term.

A log line for measuring a boat's speed (in knots)
A log line for measuring a boat's speed (in knots)

Here are some example sentences:

To become a boy scout, one must learn how to tie many knots. After playing for hours in the woods, Rebecca's hair was dirty and full of knots. The electric saw jumped slightly when the blade hit a knot in the wood. Rei's legs were full of knots because he ran 10 miles without drinking enough water. The new model of cargo ship can travel 3 knots faster than any previous model.
Several board members will not be able to attend the upcoming meeting.

If you are unsure over which spelling to use, just remember that you need to use a "k" unless you are making a verb negative.

That's all for this edition of Know Your Homonyms! 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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