Homonyms, Homographs, Homophones: The Naughty Grammarian Explains
Mistakes with homonyms are distressingly common. Even the term “homonym” is almost always used incorrectly.
Understanding all the terminology surrounding homonyms can be tricky. Avoiding the misuse of homonyms is simple. Pay attention!
Homonyms are Like Twins
What are the different kinds of homonyms?
The word “homonym” came into the English language from two Greek words:homos which means “same” and onuma which means name.
Do you think that you know the meaning of the word homonym? It is Miss Grammers sad duty to inform you that you have probably been misusing this word. Miss Grammers will set the record straight, but it will probably be to no avail. The misuse of the word is too firmly ingrained.
Homonym describes two or more words that are BOTH homographs and homophones. Miss Grammers wishes to emphasize “both.”
Homograph describes words that are spelled the same, but have different meanings. They may or may not have different pronunciations.
If a homograph does have a different pronunciation, it is called a heteronym.
Homophone describes two or more words that are pronounced the same, but have different meanings. They may or may not have different spellings.
If a homophone does have different a spelling, it is referred to as a heterograph.
Miss Grammers knows this is all very confusing. There are even more variations on this theme, but Miss Grammers will not torment you by including them.
Miss Grammers hopes that the chart below will help you understand the nuances of these terms. Remember each of these terms refer to words with different meanings, but which are spelled and/or pronounced the same.
What are examples of homographs—spelled-alike words?
Homographs are words with different meanings that are spelled the same. If they are also pronounced the same, they are also homophones and homonyms. It is possible for a word to be all three.
For example, the word “bark” can mean the sound a dog makes or the outing layer of a tree.
“Don’t worry,” Melanie said with a smile. "My bark is worse than my bite.”
When Melanie got angry, her fiery eyes could burn the bark off a tree.
Heteronyms are a type of homograph—they are words with different meanings that are spelled the same, but are pronounced differently.
For example, the word “lead” can mean to move ahead of followers or it can mean the metal that is shown on the periodic table of elements with the symbol "Pb"— different meanings, same spelling, different pronunciations.
Melanie decided to take the lead in her relationship with Doug.
Melanie was so shocked, her skin took on the ash-grey color of lead.
Another example of a homograph that is also a homonym and a heteronym is “desert”— it means to leave one’s post or, if pronounced differently, an arid, sandy location.
Melanie said, “I won’t desert you in your time of need.”
Melanie wept. “Without Doug’s love, I feel like I’m in an emotional desert.”
Note: Don't confuse "desert" with its homophone, "dessert." (Remember that "dessert" has a double "s", by associating it with "sweet sugar."
What are examples of homophones—sound-alike words?
Homophones are words with different meanings that sound the same.
For instance, lead and led can be pronounced the same. When these words are spoken, we must determine the meaning and spelling from the context.
For example, the word “lead” can mean the metal or is can mean “led” --the past tense of the verb “to lead.”
Melanie was so shocked, her skin took on the ash-grey color of lead.
Melanie led Doug on a merry chase.
“Bow” is a homophone with the spelling unchanged. “Bow” means a knot with two loops or it can also mean the archer’s weapon as in “bow and arrow” or the rod drawn across the strings of a violin. In each case, it is spelled the same, pronounced the same, but has different meanings. Because “bow“ is spelled the same, it is also a homograph.
Melanie decorated her Christmas gift to Doug with a big red bow.
Her gift was a statue of Cupid holding a bow and arrow.
“Bow” is a homophone when it means to bend at the waist or it refers to the front end of the ship, and it is pronounced with a long "o" (as in bough) “Bough,” which means the branch of a tree, is also a homophone and a heterograph because the words are pronounced the same,but are spelled differently.
“Your wish is my command,” Doug said with a deep bow.
“There is no mistletoe, but will this bough of holly do?”
What are the most commonly misused homophones?
Miss Grammers will begin this section with a little joke; What do you say to a grammarian who is upset. Answer: There, Their, They’re.
it is the hertographs that cause problems for writers. They sound the same, but are spelled differently. “There,” “their,” and” they’re” are commonly used in error. They are homophones and herterographs because they are pronounced the same, but spelled differently. The error is not usually due to a misunderstanding of the meanings of these words. The error is usually due to carelessness.
Other homophones/heterographs commonly used in error are your/you’re, to/two/too, and for/four/fore.
And for reasons that are beyond Miss Grammers’ comprehension, the words, “cite”, “site”, and “sight” are often misused. Please remember that “cite” is related to citation, “site” is related to a location, and “sight” is related to the word “see.”
Melanie could cite many occasions when Linda had betrayed her.
Melanie chose the site for her honeymoon. She posted it to her wedding website.
At the end of the camping trip, Melanie looked a sight.
This book is unbearably cute.
One last pet peeve: “I seen it.”
Since Miss Grammers is already feeling very cranky after her bout with homonyms, she might as well get this one off her chest. The following rant has nothing to do with homonyms, unless you coutn the fact that "see" and "sea" are homophones and heterographs.
Who are these people who are going around saying “I seen it” and will they please stop? “’Seen” always requires the use of the word “have” or “had.” The conjugation is “I see,” I saw, I have seen, I had seen.”
“I seen” is never correct and Miss Grammers never wants to hear it again.
There! Miss Grammers has said it and she feels better for it.
CLICK HERE to see the complete conjugation of "to see."
Who is Miss Grammers?
Miss Grammers regularly posts to her website to cite violations of grammatical rules found in plain sight. There are times Miss Grammers would like to to take the offenders and wring their necks. They’re a disgrace.
But you’re safe from Miss Grammers’ wrath today, and all your careless mistakes are forgiven. Miss Grammers is in too good a mood to chastise you for a careless error or two.
Miss Grammers wants you to know that she is much more than just the grammar police. She’s a woman who can enjoy a night off from her duties to kick back and have fun. She is going to do that right now because her work is finally done for today.
.Tell the truth, now.
How often do you use the wrong heterograph in your writing?
© 2014 Catherine Giordano