Ware, Wear, and Where: How to Choose the Right Word

An Argentine woman at the market

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The commonly confused words "ware," "wear," and "where" are homophones, although some people pronounce "where" with a slight puff of air at the beginning. The three are (mostly( different parts of speech (noun, verb, and adverb, respectively) and have three very different meanings.

How to Use "Ware"

The noun "ware" has a couple of obscure meanings in English ("seaweed" and "object of care"), but the most common definition in American English usage is a noun meaning "merchandise."

"Ware" is a collective noun and used both in the singular ("ware") and plural ("wares") forms to mean the goods or commodities that a merchant or shop has to sell. The Old English form was waru and it meant the same thing: a collective term for merchandise or manufacture.

How to Use "Wear"

The verb "wear," pronounced the same as "ware," has two common meanings. The first is the action of wearing or carrying clothing or accessories. One "wears" a coat, a tie, a watch, a skirt, shoes. The second common meaning is to erode or deteriorate in bulk or quality by continued or continuing use. One could "wear" a hole in a pocket by carrying a watch instead of "wearing" it; the winter weather can "wear" potholes in the street. The Old English form of the word was spelled were.

How to Use "Where"

The adverb and conjunction "where" refers to a place, position, or situation. As an adverb, "where" can be used as a question, meaning in or at what place, position or circumstance. It can be rhetorical: "Where has the time gone?" has no reasonable answer. As a conjunction, "where" means a physical place, as in "I shall stay right where I am."

According to linguist Donka Minkova, today only about 10–12 percent of English speakers in the United States pronounce "where" with the initial puff of air which linguists know as /hw/, the "voiceless bilabial." Pronunciation in any language is a long slow evolutionary process that never ceases: Minkova believes that the change in pronunciation from /wh-/ > /w-/ in "where" began in Old English. Interestingly, she also reports that beginning in the 16th and 17th century, /hw/ was reintroduced into words like "wheeze," "whiff," and "whisk," which were once pronounced without it. 

However, you choose to pronounce it, "where" shares some of the Old English word history with "there" and "here," all of which mean "place." The Old English form was hwaer, meaning "place."

Examples

"Ware" is a collective noun meaning manufactured or other goods.

  • Ernie's magic shop was full of ware I needed for my act: wands, witching balls, wizard's hats, and wabbits, er rabbits.
  • "Says Simple Simon to the pieman, let me taste your ware," and in this case, the ware refers to pies.

As a verb, "wear" can mean to carry or bear something on your body:

  • She wears the most interesting earrings.
  • What are you wearing to the prom?

The verb "wear" can also mean erode:

  • Exposure to the weather wears away the sharp edges of brick in older buildings.
  • The constant barrage of bad news wears on my morale.

And as a noun, it can mean eroded or damaged:

  • That old smock of yours shows quite a bit of wear.
  • The wear on the book is substantial: its pages are dog-eared.

Where always refers to a location:

  • Where does your family come from?
  • Did you see where Janis went?

How to Remember the Differences

These three words are tricky to remember while you're writing. Connect "wares" to merchandise by thinking of the rabbits (hares) that might be sold in a magic shop. If you want to "wear" something, make it earrings, and if you want to ask about the location of something, remember that it is neither here nor there, so where is it?

Sources

  • Minkova, Donka. "Philology, Linguistics, and the History of [Hw]~[W]." Studies in the History of the English Language Ii: Unfolding Conversations. Eds. Curzan, Anne and Kimberley Emmons. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2004. 7-46. Print.
  • Vandermay, Randall, et al. "Ware, Wear, Where." The College Writer: A Guide to Thinking, Writing, and Researching. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2008. 618.5. Print.
  • "wear." Oxford Living Dictionaries. Web. en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/wear
  • "ware." Oxford Living Dictionaries. Web. en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/ware
  • "where." Oxford Living Dictionaries. Web. en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/where
  • "where." Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Web. www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/where