Homonyms and their Ilk

rogersgeorge on December 13th, 2016

Homonyms are words that are pronounced the same, but have different meanings. From days of yore, the danger with homonyms is that your spell checker won’t warn you about them; you have to know what you’re writing about. (You saw the three homonyms in that last sentence, didn’t you?)

I suppose the real danger is that you appear to be a doofus if you use the wrong word. Technically, if they are spelled differently but pronounced the same, they’re homophones. Here are a few I have seen in the wild:

  • he—third person singular masculine pronoun
    hee—a type of laugh, often with tee or another hee
  • peek—to look at something surreptitiously
    peak—the top of a mountain
  • they’re, their, there—I don’t need to define these, do I?
  • discrete—separate
    discreet—showing good sense

True homonyms are both spelled and pronounced the same, but they are different words, not just different meanings of the same word, though they’re often treated that way.

  • bark—what a dog says, from Old English word for break. When your drill sergeant barks an order, it’s this word.
    bark—outside of a tree, from Old Norse for tree skin. When you bark your shin, it’s the verb form of this word.
  • fold—where you put sheep, from Old English falaed
    fold—what you’re supposed to do to a shirt, map, or egg whites, also from Old English, folden
  • Google “homonym” for more examples than you’ll ever need.

Then we have the occasional words that are spelled alike but pronounced differently and have different meanings. These are homographs. Well, also called heteronyms, depending on whether you care about the spelling or the pronunciation. In English you can change a lot of words from noun to verb by changing the accent.

  • contest—a competition
    contest—to dispute an outcome
  • row—in a nice line
    row—(pronounced raow)—a disorderly fight
  • use—(pronounced uze) to employ something such as a tool
    use—(pronounced usse) why you employ something
  • used—(pronounced yusst) an auxiliary verb; “we used to go camping”
    used—(pronounced uzed) past tense of use; “we used a tent whenever we went”

Do you have any favorites that people get wrong? Feel free to share in the comments.

PS—I ran into this Buckles after I wrote this post, but since it has one of today’s words in it…

Buckles - 12/09/2016

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Beware of those homophones!

rogersgeorge on July 8th, 2010

I just read a review of a new BMW motorcycle, to be revealed this fall. The article was articulate and clear, and the writer was obviously familiar with motorcycles. But he gave us a good lesson on homophones by illustrating how not to use two of them. (He also got “comprise” wrong every time he used that word, but that’s another lesson.)

A homophone is a word that sounds exactly like another word, but is spelled differently and has a different meaning. Such as blue, the color, and blew, past tense of blow. Another famous example is there, their, and they’re. Puhleeze—get those right! Because the spelling is different, a wrong homonym is easy to spot, so it’s a really good way to betray your lack of grasp of English.

Here’s one from the article:

“So, without further adieu…”

He meant “without further ado.”  Adieu means farewell, and ado means, well, commotion. “Adieu” is even harder to spell than “ado.” And he had the title of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to guide him. I’m not sure why he went to all that work just to get it wrong.

Here’s the other:

“We have to make due for the moment with concept and design sketches seen here…” (BMW wouldn’t let him photograph the motorcycle.)

It’s “make do.” Both due and do have many meanings, but the correct word here is “do.”

I will say that it is an impressive motorcycle.

Bonus: If the words are spelled the same but have different origins, they are homographs (row a boat, lined up in a row), and if they are spelled the same but pronounced differently, they are heteronyms. (—a tear in some fabric, and a tear running down your cheek). Yes, you can have overlap. Depends on which dictionary you use, and who your English teacher was.