Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs - How to Make a Difference?

by Robert Morris

Homonyms, homophones, and homographs - these are confusing terms that sound similar, but have obvious differences that are easy to realize. If you are trying to figure out which category certain words belong to, then the definitions and explanations provided below will be of great use for you.

Homonyms are words that have the same pronunciation and spelling. When two or more words have the same pronunciation, but different spelling, they are called homophones. When two or more words are spelled the same, but pronounced differently, they are called homographs.

For instance, the word bark is a homonym, since it may represent different things. Bark is the outer covering of trees, but it's also the sound made by dogs. These are two words that have different origins, but they spelled and pronounced in the same way.

Although homonyms can be confusing for a non-native English speaker, they shouldn't be that confusing to natives. There is one important thing to remember: they are separate words.

1. Homonyms

Let's take a look at some examples to clearly explain the concept of homonyms (words that have same pronunciation and spelling).

Light

We have more different words in this case, and they all come from the same root. First of all, light is a noun that represents the opposite concept of darkness. The word is uncountable in this sense, but it's countable when we use it in a phrase similar to "turn on the lights". Light is also a verb (light the lanterns, light cigarettes) that involves fire.

Evening

The categorization of this word as a homonym isn't as obvious as the previous one. Evening is the period of the day that comes after the afternoon and before the night. However, evening is also a verb that means "making something even".

Other examples of homonyms include: hail, dust, fire, key, iron, seal, and rose.

2. Homophones

As we already said, homophones are words that sound the same, but we spell them differently. Let's elaborate the concept further by providing some examples:

Their, there, and they're

Although these three words are clearly different when you see them in written form, they have the same pronunciation in rapid, conversational speech. These words are not homographs, but are homophones. Since they are spelled differently, it's easy to recognize them as separate words in written form.

3. Homographs

The concept of homographs is probably the most confusing concept one out of these three, since they are pronounced differently, but have the same spelling. These examples will make homographs easier to understand:

Desert

This word can be a verb that means abandoning, or a noun that represents that dry place with cactuses and camels. As an addition, the word dessert (the course you eat after a meal) is a homophone of the verb desert.

The pronunciation of these words is different. When you're pronouncing the verb desert, you stress the final syllable, and the stress on the noun desert is on the first syllable. You can use this pattern as a universal rule (although there are exceptions from it): the stress on the verb is word-final, and the noun is stressed on the first syllable.

Here are other words that follow the same rule:

  • Convert (verb), which means turning one value into another; and convert (noun), which represents a person who has accepted a new religion.
  • Combine - a verb that represents an action opposite of separating, and combine - a noun used to name a farm machine.
  • Reject - a verb that's opposite of the word accept, and reject - a person who was rejected (noun).

It's easy to understand the subtle difference when you know the rules!

Definitions are not difficult to understand if you pay attention to them. The characteristics of homonyms, homophones, and homographs are similar, but there are obvious differences that will help you prevent any confusion in written or verbal communication.

About the writer

Robert Morris is a writer, linguist, and cultural critic. He works at the essay writing service NinjaEssays as a professional dissertation writer. He focuses on the college and career selection.

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