From time to time, I write about pairs of words that happen to be homonyms. But there are different kinds, so here’s a quick review.
Homonyms are great examples of the little traps the English language has for us. Homophones and homographs are examples of different types of homonyms.
When you understand what each is and how they can throw you, you can potentially avoid some of those pitfalls. So I decided to write up a quick review of each.
The prefix homo- means “same.” The word homonym literally means “same name” based on homos and onoma from Greek.
Homonyms are words that have strong similarities but also have differences that make for easy mistakes.
For now, let’s go with this definition: Homophones and homographs are both types of homonyms.
I’ll have more on the debate over the definition of a homonym in a moment.
This is the type of homonym I write about most often, because the homophone can cause a great deal of confusion.
Homophones are pairs of words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings.
The suffix -phone refers to sound. So when you combine homo (same) with phone (sound), you get a word that refers to words that have the same sound.
Homographs are the opposite of homophones. Homographs are pairs of words that have the same spelling but have different pronunciations and meanings.
Here are some examples:
- Bass, which can refer to a low pitch (pronounced like base) or a fish (when pronounced as it looks with a short A).
- Discount, which means to reduce the value (when pronounced with a stressed first syllable) or to dismiss (when pronounced with a stressed second syllable).
- Lead, which means to control (when pronounced with a long E) or a type of metal (when pronounced with a short E).
The suffix -graph refers to something written or drawn. Combined with homo, it refers to words that are written the same way. In each case above, the words are spelled the same. But their pronunciation serves as to the cue for their meaning.
Here’s one more bit of confusion.
Some sources insist that homonyms are words that are homophones and homographs at the same time.
Wiktionary gives the example of fluke. It refers a type of flatworm and a portion of a whale’s tail. It’s pronounced and spelled the same way, but has different meanings. In the strictest sense, fluke qualifies as a true homonym.
Other sources say that a homonym can be either a homophone or a homograph, but doesn’t have to be both at the same time.
You can argue that one out to your heart’s content. To me, that debate isn’t as important.
What I think is more important is understanding the meanings of homophones and homographs. (It’s also important to understand that these potential potholes exist in our language.)