Homographs are words that are spelled identically. This article has information on homographs, differentiating homographs, homophones, and homonyms, and how to identify homographs. Keep reading for more information on homographs.
If one is only using the distinctions homophones - which refers to words that sound alike - and homographs, one can stop there with the definition. But when one wants to use the term homonym as well, then we need to refine the definition to distinguish homographs and homonyms. Although definitions vary, both in dictionaries and in classrooms, the most useful approach seems to be this:
Homophone (literally “same sound”) refers to words that have the same sound, but different spellings and different meanings. Homograph (literally “same writing”) refers to words that have the same spelling, but different sounds and different meanings. And homonyms (literally “same name”) are a cross between homophones and homographs: words that are both spelled the same and sound the same, but do not have the same meaning. All three are different from multiple meaning words, which have the same spelling, sound, and etymology, so they are thought of single words with a breadth of denotations, while homophones, homographs, and homonyms are sets of separate words that share qualities or characteristics.
Homographs are not immediately recognizable upon sight because they look the same. You need either context or pronunciation to tell you which word is meant. For example, if I place a single word in the middle of a line with no context, like this:
you have no way of knowing (unless and until I tell you) whether I mean /LEED/, the present indicative of the verb to lead, meaning “to guide” or “to show a path to by preceding,” or whether I might in fact mean /LEHD/, the noun that names a type of metal.
Because not everyone has the same orthographical (spelling) rules, it is theoretically possible that people’s homographs may vary slightly, though this will have little effect because words with multiple spellings are often unique orthographies (like yoghurt/yogurt or charivari/shivaree).
Homograph Confusion in Speaking
Whereas homophones cause problems for writers, homographs don’t cause any spelling errors, but instead cause problems for speakers. In writing, mistaking homographs makes absolutely no difference, because they are not distinguishable in writing. But because they are pronounced differently, when you read them aloud or if you - as many, perhaps most, people do - subvocalize as you read, you need to know which of the pronunciations to choose.
Homographs and Multiple Meaning Words
You may be wondering how homographs are distinguished from multiple meaning words. In terms of how they are determined to be one or the other, the fundamental distinction is etymology. A single word my have related meanings, figurative and literal meanings, and different meanings in different areas of expertise. Conduct means something very different to a symphony orchestra than it does to a group of electricians, but both meanings are from the same core meaning of “leading together”, i.e., from the same word.
In the dictionary, you can clearly see the distinction indicated. Multiple meanings of a single word are listed under that entry word. For some words, these entries go on for quite a bit. But separate words, that is, homographs, are listed with separate entries and a small superscript number following the entry word, so you can tell if you’re talking about bear1 or bear2.
Nevertheless, there are a set of problematic multiple meaning words that some people count as homographs. These words pairs have the same etymology and spelling but have different pronunciations, depending on the word’s part of speech. Here are some notable examples:
address n. /uh DREHS/ location
address v. /AH drehs/ speak to
articulate adj. /ahr TIHK yuh liht/ well-spoken
articulate v. /ahr TIHK yuh late/ say clearly
conduct n. /CON duhkt/ behavior
conduct v. /cuhn DUHKT/ lead
record n. /REHK uhrd/ a written account
record v. /rih KORD/ to preserve
Here are some examples:
axes plural n. /ahk SEEZ/ singular - axis
axes sing. v. /AHK sihz/ to axe
bass n. /BAHS/ fish
bass n. /BASE/ low singing voice
close adj. /KLOSE/ nearby
close v. /KLOZ/ to move to a shut position
minute adj. /my NOOT/ or /my NYOOT/ very small
minute n. /MIHN iht/ 60 seconds
number adj. /NUHM er/ more numb
number v., n., /NUHM ber/ to count; a positive integer
Polish adj. /POE lish/ coming from Poland
polish v., n. /PAH lish/ to rub; substance for cleaning, coloring, and/or shining
recreation n. /rehk ree AY shuhn/ relaxation
recreation v. /REE kree ay shuhn/ to make again
separate adj. SEHP uhr iht/ or /SEHP riht/ not together
separate v. /SEHP uh rate/ to put or keep apart