Learning Grammar through Reading: What Harry Potter Can Teach Us about English Grammar Rules (Week 1)

Homophones and the Philosopher’s Stone

Hermione taught you the importance of paying attention in class.Harry and Ron taught you about the bumpy roads that even the strongest of friendships sometimes must travel—even if you happen to be driving a flying car. Dumbledore taught you that you must be foolish to become wise, Voldemort taught you the meaning of the phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy,” and Hermione taught you the importance of paying attention in Herbology class if you ever plan to escape from a tangle with Devil’s Snare. I could go on for days about the valuable life lessons I’m sure you learned from reading Harry Potter, but instead, I think I’ll teach you yet another lesson.

Learning grammar through reading is a great way to pick up on the nuances of the English language while also learning about the culture of English literature. The Harry Potter series was originally written with a young adult audience in mind, which means that it is easy to read but still contains mature themes and a fantastic story arc. With that in mind, this seven-week-long series will use quotes from all seven Harry Potter books to unpack some common English grammar and punctuation rules. After all, what better way is there to learn grammar than with a little bit of magic?

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the Harry Potter series, bookmark this page and come back after you’ve done so. I’m serious. Read it. Go. Now. Then come back. I’ll miss you.

Introduction to Homophones

We start our grammar quest at the beginning, with the first book in the series: Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, or—if you’re in the US—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Today we will use the story of Harry’s first year at Hogwarts to learn more about homophones. Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings. Some homophones are spelled the same, while others aren’t. An example of a pair of homophones is the words witch and which. Hermione Granger is a witch. Hermione must decide which is more important: following the rules or helping her friend defeat the Dark Lord. Homophones with different spellings are often mixed up by people who have trouble with spelling and grammar. In particular, there are three groups of commonly confused homophones.

Group 1: Their/There/They’re"There are some things you can't share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them."

 He couldn’t know that at this very moment, people meeting up in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: “To Harry Potter—the boy who lived!”

Their indicates possession. It means that something belongs to someone. In the above quote, wizards all over the country are holding up the glasses from which they are about to drink—their glasses—in honor of Harry.

There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.

There is a somewhat tricky word to define, as it has several meanings. It can act as an adverb that indicates a place or a manner, or it can be used as a pronoun to introduce sentences in which the verb comes first, as in the above quote that begins with There are and explains just exactly how Hermione becomes friends with Harry and Ron. If it does not indicate possession and is not a contraction of they are, there is the correct spelling.

“Don’t worry, the Weasleys are more than a match for the Bludgers—I mean, they’re like a pair of human Bludgers themselves.”

They’re is a contraction: it is a combination of the words they and are. In the above quote, Gryffindor’s Quidditch captain, Oliver Wood, is talking to Harry about both Fred and George Weasley and how they are akin to Bludgers.

Group 2: Your/You’re

“Miss Granger, you foolish girl, how could you think of tackling a mountain troll on your own?”

There is nothing more embarrassing than getting in trouble with Professor McGonagall—except, perhaps, using the wrong your. Like their, your is a pronoun that indicates possession. In the above example, Hermione has told Professor McGonagall that she tried to take on the troll alone—that is, all on her own.

“I hope you’re pleased with yourselves. We could all have been killed—or worse, expelled. Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to bed.”

Just like they’re is a combination of the words they and are, you’re is a contraction of the words you and are. If you’re ever in doubt about which spelling of your/you’re to use, simply replace it with you are to determine if the sentence still makes sense. In the above quote, Hermione hopes that both Harry and Ron are pleased about their encounter with Fluffy, the three-headed dog. She’s a very smart girl, but I think her priorities are a bit off sometimes.

Group 3: To/Too/TwoWords of wisdom from Albus Dumbledore.

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.”

Like there, to is a difficult word to concisely define, as it has many definitions. It can act either as a preposition or an adverb. In the above quotation, Professor Albus Dumbledore imparts some of his famous wisdom, advising Harry to leave the Mirror of Erised behind. A word to the wise: if Albus Dumbledore gives you advice, you listen. If Albus Dumbledore tells you to hop around on one foot wearing a tutu, you do it. He’s Dumbledore, guys. He’s Dumbledore.

“There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”

Too is an adverb with two possible meanings: it either means additionally or as well, or it refers to an excess of something, as in the above quotation from Professor Quirrell. Quirrell is paraphrasing Lord Voldemort here when he explains that an excess of weakness—or too much weakness—is the only thing stopping some people from pursuing and acquiring power. Remember what I just said about listening to Dumbledore? Yeah, the opposite rule applies to Voldemort. He’s Voldemort, guys. Voldemort.

“Oh, honestly, dont you two read?”

The definition of two is simple. This spelling refers to the number 2. In the above quotation, Hermione is questioning Harry and Ron for not knowing what the philosopher’s stone is. She is asking whether the two boys read, hence the spelling of two. This is something I often ask pairs of people who say they’ve never read Harry Potter.

Conclusion

This concludes our look at Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Don’t forget to check out next week’s post, where we’ll take a look at commas using Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. If you have any thoughts or questions about today’s article, please don’t hesitate to reach out by commenting on this post on Facebook or Twitter. If you liked what you read today, please consider sharing it with your friends. Friends don’t let other friends remain uneducated about homophones, nor do they ever back down from a game of wizard’s chess. These things are what friendship is all about.

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