Buy, By, and Bye: How to Choose the Right Word

Homophones That Are Sometimes Confused

buy by bye
The children stood by the window and waved bye.

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The words "buy," "by," and "bye" are homophones: words that have the same sound when spoken aloud, but which have different meanings. They're not as likely to be confused as some other homophone sets, such as "they're," "their," and "there," but as is the case with all homophones, confusion is possible. What makes this trio of words even trickier is the fact that all can be used in idiomatic phrases whose meanings may be completely different from the words themselves.

How to Use "Buy"

The word "buy," of course, is a verb which means the same thing as purchase ("I'll buy a pound of sugar"). It also, however, has other related meanings, both used in colloquial English. The first colloquial meaning of "buy" is to believe something, even when it seems unlikely ("If you buy that story, I have a bridge I'd like to sell you"). The second colloquial meaning is a noun, and refers to a reasonable or low price: "That dress was a good buy."

How to Use "By"

"By" is generally (but not always) used as a preposition in one of two ways: either as a way to identify an agent performing an action or as a way to suggest the means of achieving something. For example, "The book was written by my cousin," or "Bacterial infections can sometimes be cured by taking antibiotics." "By" is also used as an adverb to mean past, on, or alongside: "The car drove by."

How to Use "Bye"

"Bye" is a shortened version of the word "goodbye;" babies are taught to wave "bye-bye" meaning the same thing as goodbye. In addition, the term "bye" is sometimes used in sports. In tennis, for example, a bye is the undisputed advancement of a top-seeded player without having to compete. In golf, a bye means that one or more holes are left unplayed after it is clear that a game has been won by a particular player.

Examples

The first sentence below uses the word "buy" as it is most commonly used: to mean the same thing as "purchase." In the second sentence, "buy" is used to mean "believe" or "accept." The third sentence uses the word to mean the same thing as "reasonably priced" or "inexpensive."

  1. When you buy a candy bar, you expect it to contain sugar.
  2. You tell me your boyfriend is an astronaut, but I don't buy that.
  3. This store is usually expensive, but those shoes were a great buy.

In the first sentence below, the preposition "by" is used to indicate agency: It was the coconut that hit George. In the second sentence, "by" is used to indicate the means of achieving a goal. In the third sentence, "by" becomes an adverb modifying the verb "posing."

  1. George was hit in the head by a falling coconut.
  2. Ellen was able to reach the top shelf by standing on a chair.
  3. Quite by chance, I found an old photograph of my grandfather, posing by the old mill pond.

In the first sentence below, "bye" is used in its most common way, as a shortened form of "goodbye." In the second sentence, it is used as a noun meaning a skipped round of tennis.

  1. "Bye," said Frank as he headed out the door.
  2. The tennis player received a first-round bye, so he sat and calmly watched the competition.

How to Remember the Differences

Unless you are in a sports setting, "bye" will always mean the same thing as "goodbye." "Buy" is most frequently used to mean the same thing as "purchase," unless it is used colloquially. "By" has many different meanings that are usually obvious from the context in which it is used. It may be helpful to remember the following sentence: "Bye," called Arthur as he walked by our house on the way to buy a newspaper.

Idioms Using "Buy," "By," and "Bye"

The words "buy," "by," and "bye" are very commonly used, and are part of many idiomatic phrases with surprising meaning. Here are just a few of the most frequently heard:

  • To "buy into (something)" means to express support for a plan or to believe something that someone says. For example, "Customers buy into the idea of clipping coupons to save money."
  • The expression "by and by" means after a certain period of time: "Ronald told his mother he would take out the trash by and by."
  • The expression "by the by" (also "by the bye") means incidentally or beside the point: "By the by, I may be home late if I stop off to have a drink with friends."

Sources

  • “Buy, by or Bye.” Grammarist, grammarist.com/homophones/buy-by-or-bye/.
  • By, Bye, or Buy. Study.com, study.com/academy/lesson/when-to-use-by-bye-or-buy.html.