Air, Ere, and Heir: How to Choose the Right Word

These Terms Sound the Same But Have Completely Different Meanings

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"Air," "ere," and "heir" are homophones, words that sound the same but have different meanings. The noun "air" refers to the invisible mixture of gases that make up the atmosphere enveloping Earth; the preposition and conjunction "ere" is a somewhat old-fashioned word meaning "before"; and the noun "heir" refers to a person who has the legal right to inherit property or claim a title when another person dies.

How to Use "Air"

"Air," a noun, refers to that odorless, tasteless, gaseous mixture, composed mainly of 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen that all humans and animals breathe. A sentence using "air" might read:

  • All humans breathe the same "air."

"Air" can also refer to white space, particularly in terms of the layout of a page in a newspaper or magazine, as in:

  • The page just had too much "air." There was too much white space.

How to Use "Ere"

Ere, usually used as a preposition, means previous to or before, but its use is archaic. J.R.R. Tolkien used the term in The Lord of the Rings:

"'The wind is north from the snows,' said Aragorn. 'And ere morning it will be in the East,' said Legolas," (Tolkien 1954).

Unless you're writing an epic fantasy story or novel, you would not likely use "ere," except to distinguish it from "air" or "heir."

How to Use "Heir"

"Heir," a noun, generally means a person who receives property from an ancestor or someone who is entitled to inherit property. A sentence using "heir" might read:

  • He was the "heir" to a great fortune.

"Heir" also has a more specific meaning related to royalty, as in:

  • Prince Charles is "heir" to the British throne.

This means that Prince Charles is next in line to take over the British throne.

Examples

To distinguish between these three terms, it can be helpful to view them in context. "Air," for example—probably the most versatile of the three—often takes on a more figurative tone, as this example sentence shows:

  • After the contentious meeting, the tension hung in the "air."

"Air" can also be used as a verb, meaning to voice your concerns or grievances, for example:

  • If you feel that way, feel free to "air" your grievances.

You can even use both "air," meaning the stuff we breathe, and "ere," meaning before, in the same sentence:

  • The diver had to replenish her supply of "air" "ere" descending again.

As noted, "heir" is generally used to mean a person who inherits property or a title from an ancestor:

  • Don't mock him; he is "heir" to the throne of England.

How to Remember the Differences

There are a few simple memory tricks to help you distinguish between "air," "ere," and "heir." Remember that the "air" we breathe is in the atmosphere; both terms begin with "a." And, "e" before "e"—as in "ere"—means "before." An "heir" might receive an "heirloom," something with special value handed down from one generation to another.

Exceptions

"Ere" can also be a conjunction, though you are only likely to see it used as such in a classic novel or story. Robert Louis Stevenson used "ere" as a conjunction in Treasure Island:

"I was scarcely in position ere my enemies began to arrive. …" (Stevenson 1882).

In this instance, "ere" is a conjunction because it connects two parts of a sentence, which is one of the definitions of a conjunction.

"Heirloom" can also refer to a variety of plant. Specifically, an "heirloom," when the term is used in this way, is any type of plant seed that has been saved and grown for a period of years and is passed down by the gardener who originally preserved it.

Finally, "air" has a specific, scientific meaning. "Air" is matter, a substance of which all physical objects are composed. Anything and everything you can touch, taste, or smell consists of matter: air is matter that has mass and takes up space.

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