Words Usage - English Grammar Notes

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  • Words in English language have various meanings depending on their usage in sentences.


  • Homographs are words which are spelled the same but have different meanings.
  • They usually appear as separate entries in a dictionary.

    - The man dug a well in his compound.
    - They worked well together.
  • In the first sentence, the noun well means “a spring of water”. In the second sentence, the adverb well means “in a good manner”.

    Examples of common homographs in the English Language
    Homograph  Meaning Examples











    (V) to support or carry
    (N) an animal

    (V) to plant seed
    (N) female pig

    (V) to guide
    (N) a metal

    (V) lock

    (V) turning something around
    (N) moving air

    (V) to determine the age
    (N) to “go out”
    (N) a kind of fruit 
    (N) time on a calendar

    (Adj) quick
    (V) to choose not to eat food

    (N) animal skin
    (V) to conceal

    (N) woven trap made of rope or cord
    (Adj) amount remaining after deductions
    (N) a kind of tool
    (V) to choose

    I will bear the burden.
    The bear killed the hunter.

    The farmer sowed the seeds.
    The sow is very fat.

    The mother duck can lead her ducklings around.
    Gold is heavier than lead.

    The tiger was now so close. that I could smell it.
    “Will you please close that door?”

    Wind your watch.
    The wind howled through the woodlands.

    Can you date this sculpture?
    I have a date with Mary.
    Dates are grown in South Africa.
    What is the date today?

    He is a fast runner.
    The Christians fast just before Easter.

    He is tanning the hide.
    They hide their money under their pillows.

    They caught fish using a net.
    His net pay is thirty thousand shillings per month.

    He used a pick to dig the hole.
    Pick the dress that you want.

  • Some homographs are spelled the same but pronounced differently.

    The wind is strong today.
    This path winds through the hills.

Exercise 1

Write two meanings of the following homographs and use each of them in sentences of your own.

  1. pen 6. act
  2. tire 7. arms
  3. dove 8. block
  4. wound 9. box
  5. mean 10. bank


  • Homophones are words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings.

    She will buy music composed by my favourite artist.
  • Homophones are often confused when writing by many students because of similarity in pronunciation.

    Examples of common homophones in English
    Homophones  Meaning Examples
    (V) the walkway
    (N) island
    I quickly walked down the aisle.
    He grew up on the isle of Elba.
    (V) permitted
    (Adv) not silently
    His mother allowed him to stay up late.
    She read the story aloud.
    (V) past tense of “eat”
    (N) number
    She ate a quick lunch.
    I bought eight tickets.
    (N) a round object used in games
    (V) to cry
    He took the ball to the beach.
    Please don’t bawl! It’s not that bad.
    (V) to stand something
    (Adj.) naked
    He can’t bear exams.
    He stood outside in the rain completely bare.
    (N) the bottom
    support of something
    (N) the lowest pitches in
    We need a new base for that lamp.
    I sang bass in the church choir.

    More examples of homophones
    lead, led
    least, leased
    loan, lone
    male, mail
    meet, meat
    mind, mined
    morning, mourning
    naval, navel
    new, knew
    no, know
    one, won
    pear, pair
    pie, pi
    piece, peace
    pier, peer
    poor, pour
    rain, reign
    raw, roar
    read, reed
    road, rode
    sale, sail
    saw, sore
    see, sea
    sun, son
    tail, tale
    tea, tee
    their, they’re
    they’re, there
    tide, tied
    too, to
    two, too
    wail, whale
    warn, worn
    weal, wheel
    wear, where
    weather, whether
    week, weak
    weight, wait
    while, wile
    wood, would
    write, right
    yew, you
    your, you’re
    acetic, ascetic
    axle, axial
    formerly, formally
    ion, iron
    loch, lock
    holy, wholly
    heal, heel
    ad, add
    ail, ale
    all, awl
    alms, arms
    altar, alter
    arc, ark
    aren’t, aunt
    anger, augur
    aural, oral
    away, aweigh
    awe, oar, or, ore
    bale, bail
    band, banned
    bean, been
    blew, blue
    brake, break
    cell, sell
    cent, scent, sent
    cereal, serial
    check, cheque
    chord, cord
    cite, site, sight
    coo, coup
    cue, queue
    dam, damn
    dew, due
    die, dye
    doh, doe, dough
    earn, urn
    ewe, yew, you
    faint, feint
    fair, fare
    feat, feet
    few, phew
    find, fined
    fir, fur
    flaw, floor
    flea, flee
    flew, flue
    flour, flower
    for, fore, four
    foreword, forward
    fort, fought
    gait, gate
    genes, jeans
    gnaw, nor,
    gorilla, guerrilla
    grate, great
    groan, grown
    guessed, guest
    hale, hail
    hair, hare

Exercise 2

Give the homophones and the meanings of the following words.

  1. in                    6. knight
  2. heard              7. knows
  3. horse              8. tick
  4. hey                9. rung
  5. need              10. sees


  • Synonyms are words that have almost the same meaning but different spelling and pronunciation.

    Slender – thin               finish – end                 sick –ill
  • Some words have several synonyms. For example, happy has such synonyms words like light-hearted, pleased, and cheerful.
  • Synonyms help vary the writing, just like pronouns do. For example, the word happy and its synonyms help vary the writing.

    Daniel felt happy – Daniel felt light-hearted.
    She was happy with her grade – She was pleased with her grade.
    They sang a happy song – They sang a cheerful song.

    Examples of common synonyms in English
    about, approximately
    accomplish, achieve
    administer, manage
    admit, confess
    almost, nearly
    annoy, irritate
    answer, reply
    arise, occur
    arrive, reach
    begin, start
    belly, stomach
    bizarre, weird
    brave, courageous
    chop, cut
    clerk, receptionist
    close, shut
    contrary, opposite
    correct, right
    daybreak, dawn
    demonstrate, protest
    denims, jeans
    desert, abandon
    devil, Satan
    disappear, vanish
    eager, keen
    emphasize, stress
    enormous, huge, immense
    enquire, investigate
    evaluate, assess
    fanatic, enthusiast
    fool, idiot
    sincere, honest
    skull, cranium
    soiled, dirty
    suggest, propose
    sunrise, dawn
    temper, mood
    trustworthy, reliable
    formerly, previously
    fragrance, perfume
    function, operate
    garbage, rubbish
    gay, homosexual
    grab, seize
    gut, intestine
    hard, tough
    hashish, cannabis
    hawk, peddle
    hint, trace, tip
    homicide, murder
    hunger, starvation
    hurry, rush
    idler, loafer
    if, whether
    illustrate, demonstrate
    imitate, mimic
    immediate, instant
    immobile, motionless
    impartial, neutral
    impasse, deadlock
    impolite, rude
    inconsiderate, thoughtless
    infamous, notorious
    informal, casual
    inheritor, heir
    instructions, directions
    jealous, envious
    joy, delight
    lacking, missing
    lethal, deadly
    ultimate, final
    uncommon, unusual
    uncooked, raw
    unforeseen, unexpected
    unfortunate, unlucky
    unmarried, single
    untimely, premature
    lousy, awful
    madness, insanity
    magnify, exaggerate
    manmade, artificial
    material, fabric
    merciless, cruel
    midway, halfway
    mind, intellect
    mirror, reflect
    mistrust, distrust
    modern, contemporary
    movie, film
    murderer, assassin
    naked, bare
    nameless, anonymous
    nightfall, dusk
    noon, midday
    numerous, many
    object, thing
    outside, external
    overlook, miss
    peaceable, peaceful
    poisonous, toxic
    post-mortem, autopsy
    praise, compliment
    reasonable, fair
    refrain, chorus
    religious, devout
    respond, reply
    scarcity, shortage
    signal, sign
    silly, foolish
    vain, useless
    vary, differ
    vast, huge
    winery, vineyard
    withstand, resist
    zenith, peak

Exercise 3

Give the synonyms of the following words:

  1. start                6. collect
  2. come               7. assist
  3. lengthy            8. build
  4. shattered         9. reply
  5. Fix                 10. purchase


  • Antonyms are words that have opposite meanings. Antonyms also add variety to your writing.

    Cold-hot                 heavier – lighter                fearful – brave.
  • Some words have more than one antonym. Some of these antonyms can be formed by adding a prefix to a base word.

    Kind – cruel, unkind like – hate, dislike

    Examples of common antonyms in English
    absent – present
    absurd – sensible
    abundant – scarce
    accidental – intentional
    accuse – defend
    accurate – incorrect
    admit – deny
    advance – retreat
    after – before
    alien – native
    alone – together
    always – never
    amuse – bore
    anger – kindness
    applaud – boo
    asleep – awake
    beautiful – ugly
    beg – offer
    below – above
    bitter – sweet
    buy – sell
    careful – careless
    cease – begin
    civilian – military
    closed – open
    condemn – praise
    crooked – straight
    dangerous – safe
    dead – alive
    deep – shallow
    destroy – create
    drunk – sober
    east – west
    enemy – friend
    evil – good
    exhale – inhale
    expensive – cheap
    fail – succeed
    fat – skinny
    fertile – barren
    floor – ceiling
    former – latter
    funny – serious
    generous – stingy
    genuine – fake
    guilty – innocent
    humble – arrogant
    husband – wife
    illegal – lawful
    import – export
    indoor – outdoor
    inferior – superior
    intelligent – stupid
    joy – grief
    kind – mean
    king – commoner
    lazy – industrious
    lock – unlock
    majority – minority
    man – woman
    merciful – cruel
    moist – dry
    nervous – calm
    obey – disobey
    original – copy
    patient – impatient
    permit – forbid
    polite – rude
    positive – negative
    private – public
    push – pull
    question – answer
    quick – slow
    reckless – cautious
    rival – friend
    sane – insane
    servant – master
    sick – well
    simple – complex
    slavery – freedom
    smart – dumb
    solid – gas
    spend – save
    stranger – friend
    strong – weak
    sudden – gradual
    suffix – prefix
    tame – wild
    temporary – permanent
    thaw – freeze
    tough – tender
    unique – common
    vacant – occupied
    victory – defeat
    villain – hero
    war – peace
    young – old

Exercise 4

Give the antonyms of the following words:

  1. easy                 6. sweat
  2. whisper            7. stationary
  3. triumph            8. strengthen
  4. dull                  9. precious
  5. dangerous       10. naked

Idioms and Sayings

  • An idiom is a phrase that has a special meaning as a whole. The meaning of an idiom is different from the meanings of its separate words.

    1. It was raining cats and dogs.
      The idiom raining cats and dogs does not mean that cats and dogs were falling out of the sky! It means “raining heavily”.
    2. I put my foot in my mouth today.
      The idiom put my foot in my mouth means “to say the wrong thing”.
  • Sometimes the context in which an idiom is used can give a hint of its meaning.

    - Jeff is talking through his hat when he says that he can spell every word in the English language.
    This idiom clearly means that Jeff cannot possibly spell every word in the English language. Hence, the idiom talking through his hat means talking nonsense


More examples of idioms in the English language

  Idiom Meaning
1 It was a blessing in disguise. Something good that is not recognised at first.
2 He is a doubting Thomas. A sceptic who needs physical or personal evidence in order to believe something.
3  That scandal was a drop in the bucket.  A very small part of something big or whole.
4  The exam was a piece of cake.  A task that can be accomplished very easily.
5  The punishment was a slap in the wrist.  A very mild punishment.
6  The thief received a taste of his own medicine.  He was mistreated the same way he mistreats others.
7  Don’t add fuel to the fire!  When something is done to make a bad situation even worse than it is.
8  The principal is just all bark but no bite.  When someone is threatening and/or aggressive but not willing to engage in a fight.
9  The theory is all Greek to me.  Meaningless and incomprehensible.
10  We are all in the same boat.  When everyone is facing the same challenges.
11  The house cost him an arm and a leg.  Very expensive. A large amount of money.
12 The teacher has an axe to grind with the bursar. To have a dispute with someone.
13 Joyce is the apple of my eye. Someone who is cherished above all others.
14 The boy did the work at the drop of a hat. Willing to do something immediately.
15 The politician is a back seat driver. People who criticize from the sidelines.
16 They were back to square one in their search for the treasure. Having to start all over again.
17 The government has to go back to the drawing board on the issue of the New Constitution. When an attempt fails and its time to start all over again.
18 The investigator realised he was barking the wrong tree. A mistake made in something you are trying to achieve
19 You are beating a dead horse. To force an issue that has already ended.
20 Stop beating around the bush. Avoiding the main topic, not speaking directly about an issue.
21 I will bend over backwards to see you through school. Do whatever it takes to help. Willing to do anything.
22 She was caught between a rock and a hard place. Stuck between two very bad options.
23 You are biting off more than you can chew To take on a task that is way too big.
24 John decided to bite his tongue. To avoid talking.
25 Tom has a cast iron stomach. Someone who has no problems, complications, or ill effects with eating or drinking anything.
26 That is a cock and bull story. An unbelievable tale.
27 I will have to win, come hell or high water. Any difficult situation or obstacle.
28 Don’t cry over spilt milk. When you complain about a loss from the past.
29 He likes crying wolf Intentionally raise a false alarm.
30 Tim is a dark horse. One who was previously unknown and now is prominent.
31 Kinyua is a devil’s advocate Someone who takes a position for the sake of argument without believing in that particular side of the argument
32 My father drinks like a fish. To drink very heavily.
33 This problem is driving me up the wall. To irritate or annoy very much.
34 The students had a field day with the visiting guests. An enjoyable day or circumstance.
35 The food was finger licking good. Very tasty food or meal.
36 He changed from rags to riches. To go from being very poor to being very wealthy.
37 I need to get over it. To move beyond something that is bothering you.
38 She got up on the wrong side of the bed. Someone who is having a horrible day.
39 You must go the extra mile to achieve your goal. Go above and beyond whatever is required for the task at hand.
40 Joan is a good Samaritan. Someone who helps others when they are in need without expecting a reward.
41 I have a gut feeling she will die A personal intuition you get, especially when you feel something may not be right.
42 The player lost his head when he missed the goal. Angry and overcome by emotions.
43 He was head over heels in love with her. Very excited and joyful, especially when in love.
44 He gave her a high five when he won the contest. Slapping palms above each others heads as a celebration gesture.
45 Let us hit the books! To study, especially for a test or exam.
46 I will hit the hay now. Go to bed or go to sleep.
47 The preacher hit the nail on the head. Do or say something exactly right.
48 She hit the sack after a hard day’s work. Go to bed or sleep.
49 Hold your horses, the speaker is coming. Be patient.
50 The certificate was an icing on the cake after the monetary reward. When you already have it good and get something on top of what you already have.
51 The girl became careless in the heat of the moment. Overwhelmed by what is happening at the moment.
52 The policeman kept an eye on him. Carefully watch somebody.
53 He kept his chin up during the burial. To remain joyful in a tough situation.
54 The old man kicked the bucket. Die
55 Lend me your ear. To politely ask for someone’s full attention.
56 You let the cat out of the bag. To share a secret that wasn’t supposed to be shared.
57 The by-election was not a level playing field. A fair competition where no side has an advantage.
58 He ran all over like a chicken with its head cut off. To act in a frenzied manner.
59 Mr. Gumo is a loose canon. Someone who is unpredictable and can cause damage if not kept in check.
60 I am not interested in his mumbo jumbo. Nonsense or meaningless speech.
61 She is the new kid on the block. Someone new to the group or area.
62 He started off on the wrong foot. Getting a bad start on a relationship or task.
63 The accused man is now off the hook. No longer have to deal with a tough situation.
64 I said that off the record! Something said in confidence that the speaker doesn’t want attributed to him or her.
65 I was on pins and needles. Anxious or nervous especially in anticipation of something.
66 The prefects sit on the fence when there is a strike. Undecided.
67 The dog appeared out of the blue. Something that suddenly and unexpectedly occurs or appears
68 You will get the job over my dead body When you absolutely will not allow something to happen.
69 Mark is fond of passing the buck to his brother. Avoid responsibility by giving it to someone else.
70 Dennis is a peeping Tom. Someone who observes people in the nude or sexually active people, mainly for his own gratification.
71 “Pipe down! We have heard you! To shut up or be quiet.
72 You are pulling my leg. Tricking someone as a joke.
73 Rise and shine! It’s time to go to school. Time to get out of bed and get ready for work or school.
74 The businessman has run out of steam nowadays. To be completely out of energy.
75 The convict was saved by a bell. Saved at the last possible moment.
76 He was a scapegoat for amorous politician. Someone else who takes the blame.
77 The naughty boy got away scot-free. To escape and not have to pay
78 She was sick as a dog. To be very sick (with flu or a cold)
79 He has a sixth sense. A paranormal sense that allows you to communicate with the dead
80 The judge smelt a rat when the witness started trembling. To be suspicious or detect someone in the group is betraying the others.
81 The prosecutor smelt something fishy when the accused winked at the witness. Detecting that something isn’t right and there might be a reason for it.
82 We have to start from scratch. To do it all over again from the beginning.
83 The ball is in your court. It is your decision this time.
84 They tied the knot in December. To get married.
85 I will wait till the cows come home. A long time.
86 To make a long story short, you are not coming with us. Said by someone during a long boring story.
87 The government turned a blind eye to the plight of IDPs Refuse to acknowledge something you know is real or legitimate.
88 I am under the weather today. Feeling ill or sick.
89 Forget the water under the bridge. Anything from the past that isn’t significant or important any more.
90 He will pay you the money when pigs fly. Something that will never ever happen.
91 She wines and dines with stars. When someone is treated to an expensive meal.
92 It is without a doubt the best programme. For certain.
93 Your guess is as good as mine. I have no idea.

Common Idiomatic Expressions and Sayings

  1. A bird in the hand is worth to in the bush. – Having something that is certain is much better than taking a risk for more, because chances are you might lose everything.
  2. A fool and his money are easily parted. – It’s easy for a foolish person to lose his/her money.
  3. A house divided against itself cannot stand. – Everyone involved must unify and function together or it will not work out.
  4. A leopard can’t change his spots. – You cannot change who you are.
  5. A penny save is a penny earned. – By not spending money you are saving money (little by little).
  6. A picture paints a thousand words. – A visual presentation is far more descriptive than words.
  7. Actions speak louder than words. – It’s better to actually do something than just talk about it.
  8. Curiosity killed the cat. – Being inquisitive can lead you into a dangerous situation.
  9. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. – Don’t rely on it until you are sure of it.
  10. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. – When someone gives you a gift, don’t be ungrateful.
  11. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. – Do not put all your resources in one possibility.
  12. Drastic times call for drastic measures. – When you are extremely desperate you need to take extremely desperate actions.
  13. Elvis has left the building. – The show has come to an end. It’s all over.
  14. Every cloud has a silver lining. – Be optimistic, even difficult times will lead to better days.
  15. Great minds think alike. – Intelligent people think like each other.
  16. Haste makes waste. – Doing things quickly may result in a poor ending.
  17. Idle hands are the devils’ tools. – You are more likely to get it trouble if you have nothing to do.
  18. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. – When one thing goes wrong, then another, and another ….
  19. It takes two to tango. – A conflict involves two people and both must cooperate to have it resolved.
  20. It’s a small world. – You cannot hide from your evil deeds in this world.
  21. Let bygones be bygones. – To forget about a disagreement or argument.
  22. Let sleeping dogs lie. – To avoid restarting a conflict.
  23. Never bite the hand that feeds you. – Don’t hurt anyone that helps you.
  24. Practice makes perfect. – By constantly practising, you will become better.
  25. Rome was not built in one day. - If you want something to be completed properly, then it’s going to take time.
  26. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. – The bigger and stronger opponent may be more difficult to beat, but when he does, he suffers a much bigger loss.
  27. Variety is the spice of life. – The more experiences you try the more exciting life can be.
  28. When it rains, it pours. – Since it rarely rains, when it does it will be a huge, storm.You are what you eat. – In order to stay healthy, you must eat healthy foods.
  29. You can’t judge a book by its cover. – Decisions shouldn’t be made primarily on appearance.

Exercise 5

Give the meaning of the italicized idioms in the following sentences.

  1. I was completely at sea when the Prime Minister visited my house.
  2. Jane has her hands full. She can’t take on more work.
  3. Do you have a bone to pick with me?
  4. I can’t make heads or tails of this story.
  5. The test was as easy as pie.
  6. I am sick and tired of doing nothing at work.
  7. I am broke! I have to borrow some money.
  8. She dropped me a line yesterday.
  9. He filled in for her when she fell sick.
  10. My business is in the red.


Exercise 1

  1. Pen – a device for writing
    – an enclosure for sheep
  2. Tire – to make weary
    – the rubber material on the wheel of an automobile or bicycle.
  3. Dove – past tense of dive
    – a bird
  4. Wound – past tense of wind
    – an injury.
  5. Mean – stingy
    – average
  6. Act – a dramatic performance
    – doing something
  7. Arms – upper limbs
    – weapons
  8. Block – a building
    – obstruct
  9. Box – a carton
    – fight with gloves
  10. Bank – edge of a river
    – a money depository

Exercise 2

  1. in –inn                   6. knight – night
  2. heard – herd          7. knows – nose
  3. horse – hoarse       8. tick – tic
  4. key – quay            9. rung – wrung
  5. need – knead       10. sees – seize

Exercise 3

  1. start – begin               6. collect – gather
  2. come – arrive             7. assist – help
  3. lengthy – long            8. build – construct
  4. shattered – broken     9. reply – answer
  5. fix – repair               10. purchase – buy


Exercise 4

  1. easy – hard              6. sweet – sour
  2. whisper – yell          7. stationary – mobile
  3. triumph – fail          8. strength – weaken
  4. dull – interesting     9. precious – worthless
  5. dangerous – safe    10. naked – clothed

Exercise 5

  1. at sea – confused
  2. has his hands full – is busy
  3. have a bone to pick with me – have a quarrel
  4. make heads or tails – make sense
  5. as easy as pie – very easy
  6. sick and tired – can’t stand, hate
  7. broke – to have no money
  8. dropped me a line yesterday – sent me a letter or email
  9. filled in for her – did her work while she was away
  10. in the red – losing money, not profitable
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