A question that often arises in class, especially when we talk about errors in student writing, deals with students using the “wrong” word (e.g., using “their” when they mean “they are”). This usually inspires a discussion of homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently), which leads to questions about the differences between all the homo- prefixed words we use.
As a ready reference, I figure it can’t hurt to have the list below (borrowed from Wikipedia) at hand:
- Homographs (literally “same writing”) are usually defined as words that share the same spelling, regardless of how they are pronounced. If they are pronounced the same then they are also homophones (and homonyms) – for example, bark (the sound of a dog) and bark (the skin of a tree). If they are pronounced differently then they are also heteronyms – for example, bow (the front of a ship) and bow (a ranged weapon).
- Homophones (literally “same sound”) are usually defined as words that share the same pronunciation, regardless of how they are spelled. If they are spelled the same then they are also homographs (and homonyms); if they are spelled differently then they are also heterographs (literally “different writing”). Homographic examples include rose (flower) and rose (past tense of rise). Heterographic examples include to, too, two, and there, their, they’re.
- Heteronyms (literally “different name”) are the subset of homographs (words that share the same spelling) that have different pronunciations (and meanings). Such words include desert (to abandon) and desert (arid region); tear (to rip) and tear (a drop of moisture formed in the eye); row (to argue or an argument) and row (as in to row a boat or a row of seats – a pair of homophones). Heteronyms are also sometimes called heterophones (literally “different sound”).
- Polysemes are words with the same spelling and distinct but related meanings. The distinction between polysemy and homonymy is often subtle and subjective, and not all sources consider polysemous words to be homonyms. Words such as mouth, meaning either the orifice on one’s face, or the opening of a cave or river, are polysemous and may or may not be considered homonyms.
- Capitonyms are words that share the same spelling but have different meanings when capitalized (and may or may not have different pronunciations). Such words include polish (to make shiny) and Polish (from Poland); march (organized, uniformed, steady and rhythmic walking forward) and March (the third month of the year in the Gregorian Calendar). However, both polish and march at the beginning of sentences still need to be capitalized.