Homonyms vs. Homophones vs. Homographs

The words homonym, homophone, and homograph are grammatical terms that are easy to confuse with one another because their meanings are all closely related, so let’s go through each one of them and see what the differences are.

What is a Homonym?

homonyms-and-homophonesThe term homonym is a somewhat ambiguous term if you are looking to contrast it with homographs and homophones. The prefix of the word homo is Greek and means “same,” and the root of the word onym means “name.” The literal translation would be “same name” or “same word.”

The next logical question to ask then is when talking about words, what should be used to define their names? Should it be their spelling or their pronunciation? The answer, of course, is that both should be taken into consideration.

Homonyms, therefore, are defined as two or more words that share the same spelling, or the same pronunciation, or both, but have different meanings. In this sense, homonyms are sort of an overarching umbrella that homographs and homophones both fall under. If you are speaking about homonyms, you are speaking broadly about words with different meanings but similar spellings or sounds. If you are talking about homographs or homophones, you are talking about a more specific word set underneath the homonym label.

What is a Homograph?

A homograph is one of two or more words that are spelled alike but not necessarily pronounced alike and have different meanings. This usually arises from two words having different origins.

You can see many homographs when you compare a word’s noun and verb meanings to each other. For instance, take the words “bear” and “bear.” Bear, when acting as a noun, stands for a large, heavy mammal. When used as a verb, bear can to carry, convey, and endure, among other things.

Homographs are not limited to noun-verb differences, however. A homograph can be any two or more words with the same spelling but different meanings.

Take the noun “bank.” In one instance, “bank” can mean a place where money is kept, but, in another instance, “bank” can also mean a pile of dirt or rocks designs to hold back water (embankment, river bank, etc.).

Or take the adjective “biweekly.” In one instance, “biweekly” means every two weeks. In another instance, it means twice a week.

Another good set of homographs are the two nouns “bow” and “bow.” One refers to the front of a ship, and one refers to a weapon. Or perhaps you had the know that is tied in mind. These words have different meanings and different pronunciations, but they are spelled exactly the same.

What is a Homophone?

A homophone is one of two or more words that are pronounced the same but differ in their meaning, origin, or spelling. The difference between homographs and homophones is that homophones must be pronounced alike. They don’t need to be spelled alike; in fact, many of them are not. But they need to be pronounced the same.

There are many many examples of homophones. Some are new and knew, carat and caret, complement and compliment, to, too, and two, there, their, and they’re, etc.

To sum up,

  • Homonyms can refer to both homographs and homophones.
  • Homographs are words that are spelled alike but not always pronounced the same.
  • Homophones are words that are pronounced alike but not always spelled the same.


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