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Heteronyms are sets of words that have the same spelling, but different pronunciations. Heteronyms are related to homonyms and homographs. Read this article to learn more about heteronyms.

Heteronym is a “back-formation” from heteronymous. Heteronymous literally means “different denominators” and is used of terms that are different but related. A back-formation is a word that was created by removing the suffix from another word - an unusual situation because most new words are created by adding, rather than subtracting, affixes. To understand more about what a heteronym is, keep reading.

What Is a Heteronym?

Since heteronym is a little known term it may be easier to grasp by comparing it with homonym. Homonym, a more familiar term than heteronym to most people, is the name for one of a set of words that have the same spelling and the same pronunciation but different meanings.

An example of a pair of homonyms is bear, the animal, and bear, the verb meaning to carry. These words have different etymologies and are completely unrelated: they just happen to look and sound the same. The first is from the Middle English word bere and the second is from the Middle English word beren.

A heteronym, by contrast, is the name for one of a set of words that have the same spelling, different pronunciations, and different meanings. An example of a pair of heteronyms is row pronounced /roh/ and row pronounced /rauw/. The first is a verb and refers to the action of moving oars through water to propel a boat. The second is a noun and means a fight. The first comes from the Latin word remus meaning “oar.” The second has an unknown etymology. There are other words spelled r-o-w as well.

Another way of defining a heteronym is to say that it’s a specific type of homograph. The definition of a homograph only specifies that it is one of a set of words that are spelled the same and differ in meaning. It does not require different pronunciation, though it is often used that way.

Some Common Heteronyms

There are many common heteronyms. Some are verb/noun pairs:

  • address /AH drehs/ noun, a location given in a standard form
  • address /uh DREHS/ verb, to speak to formally
  • bow /BOH/ noun, a knot used in shoe laces, gift wrapping, hair ties, etc.
  • bow /BAU/ verb, to bend the body in greeting or parting
  • desert /DEHZ uhrt/ noun, a place with very little rainfall
  • desert /dih ZUHRT/ verb, to leave or abando
  • lead /LEHD/ noun, a soft, malleable metal
  • lead /LEED/ verb, to go before others to guide the way
  • present /PREHZ uhnt/ noun, a gift
  • present /prih ZEHNT/ to offer to someone
  • produce /PROH doose/ noun, fresh fruit and vegetables
  • produce /proh DOOSE/ verb, to create or bring about
  • record /REHK uhrd/ noun, a verbal account or information set down
  • record /rih KOHRD/ verb, to create an account or
  • tear /TIHR/ noun, a drop that falls from the eye when a person weeps.
  • tear /TEHR/ verb, to rend or separate by force
  • wind /WIHND/ noun, blowing air
  • wind /WHYND/ verb, to wrap something around a center or an object
  • wound /WOOND/ noun, an injury, especially one that breaks through the skin
  • wound /WAUND/ verb, wrapped about a central core

Others occur by happenstance of the development of English with many source languages, or for other reasons.

  • close /CLOHS/ adjective, nearby
  • close /CLOHZ verb, to shut or put a lid on
  • read /REED/ verb, take process and take in written material (present tense)
  • read /REHD/ verb, to have processed and taken in written material (past tense)
  • sewer /SOO uhr/ noun, a conduit for sewage
  • sewer /SOH uhr/ noun, a person who sews
Related Articles
Homonyms Synonyms Antonyms