Homonym, heteronym, homophone, what-in-ym? A dive into English language classifications

Same same, but different.

“English is sooo simple”, said no student ever! This is what you get when a language begs, borrows and steals from other languages. So you end up with a jumbled mess that has words that sound the same but are spelt differently or words that are spelt the same but sound different and have meanings that differ or are the same. We are talking about homonyms, homophones, homographs and heteronyms – huh?!

Let’s break it down. These words are all Greek in origin, so if we look it this way:

onym = name 

homo = same 

phone = sound

graph = written

hetero = different 

Homonyms

Homonyms are two or more words that have the same spelling or the same pronunciation (or both) but have different meanings. Homonyms are like the overarching category for these words. They are further subdivided into three main categories:

  1. Homophones – words that sound the same but are different in meaning or spelling.
  2. Homograph – words that are spelt the same but may or may not have the same pronunciation or meaning. 
  3. Heteronyms – words that are spelt the same but have different pronunciation and different meanings. Heteronyms are homographs but not homophones

Dailywritingtips.com has this great chart to help clarify:

Here are some common homophones:

  • Buy/bye/by
  • To/Two/Too
  • Hear/Here
  • There/their/they’re
  • Weather/whether

Here are some common homographs:

  • Sign-
    • As in to give a signature
    • Traffic sign
  • Watch-
    • As in “to look”
    • A wristwatch
  • Bat
    • The animal
    • Sport equipment or weapon
    • To hit
  • Back
    • Part of the body
    • To return
  • Bow*
    • As a way to greet someone
    • A part of a ship
    • *A weapon that shoots arrows
  • Present*
    • Now in time
    • A gift
    • *To make one’s self available or known
* Depicts words that are also heteronyms

Here are some more examples of heteronyms:

  • Object
    • As a noun: a thing
    • As a verb: to go against, to oppose
  • Rebel
    • As a noun: a person against the law or a system
    • As a verb: to go against the law or system
  • Project
    • As a noun: a presentation, a task
    • As a verb: to put or set forth
  • Desert 
    • As a noun: a dry, arid land
    • As a verb: to vacate or leave

A good rule of thumb to help remember the pronunciation is that if the word is a noun the stress falls on the first syllable if the word is a verb the stress is on the second syllable. Lessonplansdigger.com has a fantastic pronunciation lesson/activity when dealing with heteronyms.

John goes in-depth here with some of the most commonly confused homophones that even trip us native speakers up:

Word Clash: Affect versus Effect

Knowing when to use affect versus effect in writing challenges all English speakers — even native ones! Let’s break down these commonly confused words.

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