What Are Homonyms? (with Examples)

Homonyms

Homonyms are words that are pronounced the same as each other (e.g., maid/made) or have the same spelling (e.g., lead weight/to lead).

When homonyms have the same sound, they are called homophones. When they have the same spelling, they are known as homographs. (Homographs with different sounds (e.g., tear drop/to tear a hole) are called heteronyms.) It is possible for a homonym to be a homophone (same sound) and a homograph (same spelling), e.g., vampire bat/cricket bat.

Easy 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.)

Infographic

Here is an infographic summarizing the different types of homonym:
homonyms homophones homographs

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)

Real-Life Examples of Homonyms

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 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)
Unfortunately, homophones (and words that are very nearly homophones) are often responsible for writing mistakes:
  • His idea is starting to bare fruit.
  • (Should be bear.)
  • The hat compliments your eyes.
  • (Should be complements.)

Why Should I Care about Homonyms?

There are two good reasons to care about homonyms:

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

Homonyms (like course and coarse) and near homonyms (like affect and effect) are often responsible for writing errors. Recognising this will lower your threshold to reach for a dictionary or Google to check which of the homophones you should be using. (The list of easily confused words includes 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)
Interactive Test
 
 

See Also

See a list of easily confused words What are palindromes? What are anagrams? Glossary of grammatical terms