Same difference: What separates a homonym, homophone, and homograph?

2 min read

Prefixes are critical clues as to what a word's meaning is. In this case, the Greek prefix “homo” refers to something that is the same. However, the three grammatical terms homonym, homophone, and homograph aren’t really the same at all — apart from sharing a prefix. Here's how to tell these seemingly similar words apart.

Homonyms

A homonym is the parent category of words with similarities. A homonym refers to words that sound or are spelled alike, but have different meanings. There are hundreds of homonyms in the English language like the word key, which can refer to an object designed to open a door or lock, a guide providing the correct answers to a test, or the symbols on a map. Homonyms can cut across word types as well. For example, the word cake can refer to a noun (as in a sweet treat that you make for someone's birthday) as well as a verb (when a substance dries out and hardens).

Memory tip: "Nym" is similar to "name" and homonyms are alike in name (sound and spelling), but different in meaning.

Homophones

These are a subclass of homonyms where two words sound alike and have different meanings, but have different spellings. The words cent, scent, and sent all have identical pronunciation, but refer to coins, aromas, and sending an item, respectively.

Memory tip: When you're on the phone, you're listening to the pronunciation of words. Homophones have the same pronunciation, but different spellings (which you can't see on the phone).

Homographs

A homograph refers to words that are spelled the same, but have a different meaning and often a different sound, given the context. Band is a homograph with three different definitions: a musical group, a tie, and a synonym for striped.

Memory tip: If you're looking at a graph, you're examining its shape. Homographs share the same shape (spelling), but they have different meanings.

Conclusion

A final spinoff of a homonym is a heteronym, which is a homograph that isn’t a homonym. For example, a sewer is a place where waste is deposited. Alternatively, it’s also an occupation involving sewing. It’s worth noting that some words cross multiple terms. For example, the word bank is both a homonym and a homograph because it’s both pronounced and spelled the same, but has multiple meanings.

Are you still worried about muddling these terms up? Here’s a handy cheat sheet to steer you in the right direction:

Photo credit: Anas Alshanti/ Unsplash

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