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What is a homonym? This article will help define what a homonym is, give you tips on identifying homonyms, and describe the difference between homonyms, homophones, and homographs. Keep reading for more on homonyms.

What homonyms are is a matter of some debate: neither dictionaries nor teachers agree. Some say that homonyms are pronounced alike, but have different meanings and different spellings. Some say that homonyms are pronounced alike, but have different meanings and may or may not have the same spelling.

Often, when one is using the term homonym along with homophone (words that sound the same, but differ in spelling and meaning) and homograph (words that look the same, but differ in pronunciation and meaning, it is useful to consider homonyms as having the combined characteristics of both homophones and homographs. That is, we will talk here about homonyms being words that sound the same and are spelled the same, but have separate meanings. By separate meanings, we mean here that they are separate words, which - unlike multiple meanings of the same word - have separate dictionary entries, marked by superscript numbers, like this:

bear1  bear2

Identifying Homonyms

Homonyms are not easy to recognize on sight because they look the same. And they are not easy to recognize in speech, because they sound the same. Only context can reveal to you which word is meant. For example, if I place a single word in the middle of a line with no context, like this:


even if I say the word aloud, you cannot possibly know until I let you know whether I mean:

1) an insect of the Gryllidae family, with long legs and antennae and a distinctive chirp

2) a sport played on an outdoor pitch with two teams, each having eleven players who wield a ball and bat

3) a small footstool made of wood

Each has a different origin, and they are all pronounced /KRIHK it/, so only context or a hint can send you in the proper direction for interpreting the meaning.

Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs

Just because words are homonyms doesn’t mean that they mayn’t also have other homophones or homographs. For example, by meaning “close to” is a homonym of by, a variant spelling of bye. Both by and by are homophones of buy. Or, take baste. The three homonyms of baste are:

1) v. to take loose stitches as a temporary seam

2) v. to moisten by periodically applying a liquid during cooking

3) v. to beat someone

And these are all homophones with based, the past tense and past participle of the verb base.

Finally, lets look at bow. First, we have two homonyms:

bow n. /BOU/ the front of a ship

bow v. /BOU/ to incline the body or head in greeting or honoring someone

We need to add to that a homograph that is not a homonym, that is, a word that is spelled the same but not pronounced the same:

bow n. /BOE/ a curved weapon used with arrows (there are a number of multiple meanings)

And we also have two homophones to add to the group: one for /BOU/ and one for /BOE/.

bough n. /BOU/ the limb of a tree

beau n. /BOE/ boyfriend

Here are some more examples of homonyms:

bare adj /BEHR/ not covered

bare v. /BEHR/ archaic past tense of bear, to carry

bear n. /BEHR/ mammal of the Ursidae family

bear v. /BEHR/ to carry

(Notice that the homonym sets bare/bare and bear/bear are homophones of each other.)

fair adj. /FEHR/ pleasant-looking

fair n. /FEHR/ a gathering for a market, exhibition, and entertainment

fluke n.  /FLOOK/ flatfish

fluke v. /FLOOK/ section of a whale’s tail

fluke n. /FLOOK/ a coincidence

stalk n.  /STAWK/ stem of a plant

stalk v. /STAWK/ track prey

stem n. /STEHM/ stalk of a plant

stem v. /STEHM/ to stop or staunch

wind n. /WIHND/ moving air

wind v. /WINED/ to wrap

wind v. /WIHND/ or /WINED/ to blow a wind instrument

(Notice that the first two examples of wind are homographs, and the third example is a homonym with one and a homograph with the other, depending on pronunciation.)

With this group, we can begin to see some patterns in the type of words that are homonyms. Did you happen to observe that - with the exception of cricket - all of our homonym examples are one-syllable words? Of course, with only one syllable, there may inherently be more chance of finding homonyms. Another interesting pattern is that very often at least one member of the group is a verb, and the homonyms are usually different parts of speech. These clues should assist you in identifying homonyms on your own.

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