Hidden Clues in Homophones, Homonyms, and Homographs

2 min read

Even if you don't know the definition of a word, sometimes there are clues to help you figure it out. Prefixes and suffixes are critical hints to a word's meaning. In the case of "homophone," "homonym," and "homograph," for example, the Greek prefix “homo” refers to something that is the same. All three grammatical terms have that in common, but each has a distinct meaning — here, it comes down to the suffix. We have a few handy tricks to help you keep these terms straight.

Homonyms

"Homonym" is the parent category of words with similarities. Homonyms are words that sound and are spelled alike, but have different meanings. There are hundreds of homonyms in the English language, such as the word "key," which can refer to an object designed to open a lock, a guide providing the correct answers to a test, or the symbols on a map. Homonyms can also cut across word types. For example, the word "cake" can be a noun referring to a sweet treat that you make for someone's birthday, as well as a verb describing 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

Homophones are a subclass of homonyms where two words sound alike but have different meanings and 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

"Homograph" refers to words that are spelled the same, but have different meanings. "Band" is a homograph with three different definitions: a musical group, a tie, and a synonym for striped. "Band" is a homograph that is also a homonym (pronounced and spelled the same).

Sometimes a homograph may also be a heteronym, if it is pronounced differently depending on the meaning. You may be "close" (with an "s" sound) to finishing your homework, but you can't "close" (with a "z" sound) your book until you're done.

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

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

Photo credit: Anas Alshanti/ Unsplash

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