Basics of writingConfusing words

English is hard–PART 1: Homonyms and their homo-cousins

subtitled with the quote by Dr. Smith in the original TV series Lost in Space: “Oh, the pain, the pain.”

From Rick:

In the past, we’ve done several posts on the topic of confusing words, and I frequently see other blog posts cover these problems because they’re so prevalent among writers, even among some experienced ones.

We’re going to do a series of posts on common mistakes that writers make as well as a series on decisions that writers may need to make when writing a novel or short story, such as verb tense and the POV.

Recently, Kellee Kranendonk sent me a post on the topic of homonyms, homographs, and homophones. It was a very good article, but I felt it could be expanded. What follows is part Kellee, part me.


From Kellee and Rick:

Homo—what? Most of us probably learned about homonyms in school, but what exactly is a homonym?

A synonym is a word that means the same as another such as prison/jail (from the Greek roots “syn” meaning “with/together” and “onoma” meaning “name”). An antonym is a word that means the opposite such as heaven/hell (from the Greek root “anti” meaning “opposite/opposed to”). But a homonym?

In school the words that were usually called homonyms were technically homophones. Many dictionaries and other reliable sources say that a homonym can be a homograph or a homophone. Strictly speaking, a homonym is both a homograph and a homophone. Okay, let’s look at what these mean.

NOTE: The Greek root “homo” means “same” and “hetero” means “different.” Do not confuse this with the Latin root “homo” which means “man/human.”

HOMOGRAPH: The Greek root “graph” means “drawn/written.” Homographs are words that have the same spelling but different meanings. They may or may not have different pronunciations. LEAD (when pronounced “leed”) is a verb that means to go in front of, but when pronounced “led” it’s a heavy, soft metal often used to make bullets, among other things.

HOMOPHONE: The Greek “phone” means “sound” or “voice.” Homophones are pronounced the same but have different spellings and meanings: TO TOO, TWO are homophones. We also have LEAD (the metal) and LED (past tense of the verb LEAD: I led the horses with their saddlebags filled with lead.

[Rick begs writers: Please do not make mistakes with the following word pairs:

knock—what you do on a door
nock—what you do to an arrow to prepare to shoot it

phase—She’s going through a phase in her life. The moon has phases.
faze—Not much fazes him.

Now, here’s where it gets confusing when we call something a “homonym.” The most common and complete online list of homonyms was compiled by Alan Cooper. Here’s the link:


But this is strictly a list of homophones. It excludes homographs. Here’s a list of English homographs:


Okay? That takes care of homophones and homographs. So what exactly are homonyms?

HOMONYM: According to Merriam-Webster, homonyms are words that are spelled AND pronounced the same but have different meanings. Here are examples of some common true homonyms.

a spruce tree; to spruce up
a grizzly bear; to bear fruit or to bear gifts
to weigh yourself on a scale; to scale a cliff; fish scales
a fair price; to go to a fair

And if you look up the origins of such words, you find that they may come from completely different word roots from or even from different languages.

Here’s an excellent reference that adds even more fun to the mix.


And yet another reference that we quote from below:


“So does a homonym have to be both a homograph and a homophone, or can it be just one or the other? As with most things in life, it depends on whom you ask.

In the strictest sense, a homonym must be both a homograph and a homophone. So say many dictionaries. However, other dictionaries allow that a homonym can be a homograph or a homophone.”

Unfortunately, it depends on who you ask, but we’re finding more and more that the old usage of “homonym” is slowly giving way to the more precise terms and definitions of homophone and homograph.

The following are HOMOGRAPHS:

Wound (woond)—an injury
Wound (wownd)—the past tense of “to wind” (not to be confused with the past tense of the homonym verb “to wind” meaning to be out of breath. He was winded because he ran up the hill. Argh!

[NOTE FROM RICK: I’ve recently seen several misspellings of the past tense verb “wind” (as in to wind a clock) where the writer said something like “He winded up the clock” instead of “He wound up the clock.” don’t make this mistake.]

Polish (poh-lish)—someone from Poland (a capitonym in Reference #1)
Polish (pah-lish)—to shine something up

Dove (duv)—a bird
Dove (dohv)—the past tense of dive (although “dived” is also acceptable)

Row (roh)—a line
Row (rouw)—an argument

Close (clohs)—nearby
Close (cloz)—to shut

Does (duz)—to do an action
Does (dohs)—more than one female deer

Sewer (soh-er)—a seamstress, someone who sews
Sewer (soo-er)—a system to pipe away sewage

Number (num-ber)—a digit
Number (num-mer)—becoming more numb

Tears (teers)—crying
Tears (tares)—rips

These words, although spelled the same, are pronounced differently and have different meanings. When used in a sentence, it becomes clear which pronunciation to use without providing a meaning.

If you don’t close the bedroom door, the cat will get too close to the birds.

Rosie had many tears when she found out there were several tears in her favourite shirt.

Does Manny know how many does were in the herd?

The following words, also homographs, but they are a bit different from the homographs we just mentioned. These, while still spelled the same, but are pronounced differently based on where we place the emphasis or accent in the word rather than on different vowel sounds. They are technically not homophones, but they could also be considered as homonyms because of the same spelling yet different meaning.

However, to make your life more miserable, these are more often called HETEROPHONES or HETERONYMS in order to differentiate them from the homophones, homographs, and homonyms.

Produce (PROH-duce)—fresh fruits and veggies

Produce (Pro-DUCE)—to create something, or sometimes to show something (as to produce your ID)

Farms produce fresh produce.

Object (OB-ject)—an item
Object (ob-JECT)—an objection, or disagreement

Subject (SUB-ject)—main focus or a course of study
Subject (sub-JECT)—controlled or influenced by

Refuse (re-FYOOZ)—to say no or decline
Refuse (REF-yuz)—garbage (although with this one the “e” in the first syllable is short, while it’s long in the previous sense)

Again, their use in a sentence allows us to figure out which pronunciation we need to give them:

The object in question didn’t produce the desired results.

Her main subject was subject to dispute.

The following words (some of which we already discussed above) include both words that sound the same but are spelled differently, and words that are spelled differently but are pronounced the same:

Lead (led)—metal
Led (led)—past tense of lead
Lead (leed)—to be at the start of something

Sow (so)—to plant seeds
Sew (so)—fix a rip, or create something from fabric
Sow (s-ow)—a female pig

Wind (win-d)—a breeze
Wind (weye-nd)—to roll something up
Wined (weye-nd)—gave wine to (as in wined and dined)
Whined (weye-nd)—past tense of “whine” (a nasal, complaining voice)

Desert (de-ZERT)—abandon someone or something
Dessert (de-ZERT)—a meal course
Desert (DEZ-ert)—hot, sandy plain

Present (PREH-zent)—a gift
Present (PREH-zent)—a time frame (currently) or meaning being here
Present (pree-ZENT)—to offer or introduce

Base (bay-s)—a foundation
Bass (bay-s)—a drum
Bass (bahs, “a” as in “cat”)—a fish

The following two sentences are easy to figure out the meanings:

It’s too hot in the desert to eat dessert.

My chores for the day are to sew up my dress, and bathe the sow.

But when the spelling is the same, sometimes even a sentence won’t explain which word you want. This is where the writer must be careful to ensure that the meaning is clear.

It was the present that concerned him.

Joey couldn’t stop talking about the bass.

In these two sentences, a bit more detail needs to be added in order to figure things out. In the first sentence are talking about a gift or a time period? In the second are we talking about fishing or music?

There was something hidden behind the desk, so I went over to check it out. It was the present. (Unless you’ve figured out how to conceal time, this clearly refers to a gift).

The boys had been fishing all afternoon. Joey couldn’t stop talking about the bass. It was the one that got away. (Joey still might be talking about a musical instrument here, but since the previous sentence is about fish, it can be presumed that Joey is talking about the same).

And there you have it: homonyms/homophones/homographs. Hopefully you’re able to take something away from this, something to use to make your writing even stronger.

We trust that we’ve provided you with some insights and amusement about the difficulties and eccentricities of English and that this post will make you more aware of things you need to watch out for in your writing.

In closing, so you don’t think that English is the only language beset with homo-words, we know that Spanish, French, German, and Hebrew all contain them, and we’d be surprised to find any language completely devoid of them. It’s just that English, being the richest language word-wise, and having borrowed so many words from other languages, contains more of them to confuse us.

–Kellee and Rick

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