What Are Homonyms?

Homonyms are words with the same pronunciation or the same spelling. For example:
  • Same pronunciation: "maid" and "made"
  • Same spelling: "lead" (as in a lead weight) and "lead" (as in to lead a team)
When homonyms have the same sound, they are called "homophones." When they have the same spelling, they are called "homographs." (Homographs with different sounds (e.g., "tear drop" and "to tear a hole") are called "heteronyms.")

Therefore, it is possible for a homonym to be a homophone (same sound) and a homograph (same spelling), e.g., "vampire bat" and "cricket bat".

Table of Contents

  • Examples of Homonyms
  • More about Homographs, Heteronyms, and Homophones
  • Homonyms in Jokes
  • Homophones in Business Names
  • Homophones That Cause Writing Mistakes
  • Why Homonyms Are Important
  • Test Time!
What are homonyms?

Examples of Homonyms

  • pike (the fish) and pike (the weapon)
  • (These homonyms are homographs - they have the same spelling.)
  • bear (the animal) and bare (no clothes)
  • (These homonyms are homophones - they have different spellings but the same sound.)
  • site (a location), sight (vision), and cite (to quote)
  • (These homonyms are homophones.)

More about Homographs, Heteronyms, and Homophones

Here are some more examples of homographs (including heteronyms and non-heteronyms) and homophones:

Homographs. These are words with the same spelling but different meanings. When homographs have different sounds, they are known as "heteronyms."
  • lead (the metal) and lead (which attaches to a dog's collar)
  • (These homographs are heteronyms.)
  • tear (water drop from the eye) and tear (a rip)
  • (These homographs are heteronyms.)
Homographs (Non-heteronyms). Not all homographs are heteronyms (i.e., some have the same spelling and sound).
  • pike (weapon) and pike (fish)
  • (These homographs are not heteronyms - they are pronounced the same.)
  • lie (an untruth) and lie (to lie down)
  • (These homographs are not heteronyms - they are pronounced the same.)
Homophones. These are words with the same sound but with different spellings and meanings:
  • place (location) and plaice (the fish)
  • pear (fruit) and pair (a couple)
  • see (to see) and sea (ocean)

Homonyms in Jokes

Homonyms, especially homographs, are common in jokes:
  • Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana. (Comedian Groucho Marx)
  • (flies = means to fly and then flying insects)
    (like = means as though and then to like)
  • "I am" is reportedly the shortest sentence in the English language. Could it be that "I do" is the longest sentence? (Comedian George Carlin)
  • (sentence = means grammatical sentence and then prison sentence)
  • The man whose whole left side was cut off is all right now.
  • (Often in jokes, only one of the homonyms is present. Read about the difference between alright and all right.)
Jokes that exploit homonyms are called puns.

Homophones in Business Names

Homophones are common in pun-style business names:
  • John's Plaice.
  • (Fish-and-chip shop)
  • Our Soles
  • (Supplier of non-slip work boots)
  • Curl Up and Dye
  • (Hair salon)

Homophones That Cause Writing Mistakes

Unfortunately, homophones (and words that are very nearly homophones) are often responsible for writing mistakes:
  • His idea is starting to bare fruit. wrong cross
  • (Should be "bear.")
  • The hat compliments your eyes. wrong cross
  • (Should be "complements.")
Remember that only homophones can cause writing mistakes. Homographs can't because their spellings are the same.

Why Homonyms Are Important

There are two good reasons to care about homonyms.

(Reason 1) Homonyms are a common cause of spelling mistakes.

Homonyms (like "course" and "coarse") and near homonyms (like "affect" and "effect") are often responsible for writing errors. Recognizing this will lower your threshold to reach for a dictionary or Google to check which of the homophones you should be using.

This list of easily confused words includes lessons and tests on over two hundred homonyms and near homonyms that routinely cause problems for writers.

(Reason 2) Puns can be memorable.

Using a homonym in a title can make it edgy and memorable.
  • Doggie styles
  • (Dog-grooming salon)

Key Points

author logo

This page was written by Craig Shrives.