Homophones, Homographs, and Homonyms: How do they differ?

Sep 13, 2021 | Posted by Jennifer

In the very first lesson of the very first level of Fix It! Grammar: Level 1 Nose Tree, students are asked to select the correct word from among three homophones: there, their, and they’re. Thus begins the student’s introduction to homophones: words that sound alike but are spelled differently and have different meanings.

There are two other words that look similar to homophone, however. They are homograph and homonym. So how do the three differ? The differences are subtle, but a little etymological knowledge will carry you a long way. Let’s take a look at how these words are constructed and examine their Greek origins.

As a Greek prefix, homo means same or equal. This same prefix begins all three words, which should make us think that all three words express sameness in some way. Let’s take a look at the word homophone. In the Greek language, phone refers to sound. It makes sense when we consider other words that include that root: telephone, phonics, and megaphone, for example. All three words refer to sound in some way. So take the word in whole. Homophone literally means “same sound.” Using the example there, their, and they’re, it makes sense because all three words are pronounced the same.

Let’s next consider the word homograph. Graph comes from the Greek language. (You can tell because the /f/ sound is spelled <ph>.) It means “to draw or write.” English words that include graph all refer to writing in some capacity, including telegraph, graphic artist, and autograph. Putting homo and graph together, we can deduce that a homograph would refer to something that has the same writing, and this is true. Homographs are spelled the same but have different derivations, leading to different meanings, and are often pronounced differently. An example would be bow, as in take a bow from the stage, and bow, as in a red bow tie.

So far so good? Let’s take a look at the next word: homonym. This word is slightly more tricky because it means different things depending upon who you ask. Let’s take a look at the second part of the word: nym. This is also clearly from the Greek language because it has a medial y (middle y). Nym refers to name. Combining the two forms together, we arrive at the word homonym meaning “same name.”

But what does that actually mean? According to some, it literally means a word that is both spelled and pronounced the same but has different meanings. As an example, consider the word lie. In this case the word can mean telling a falsehood, or it can mean reclining. Others would claim that homonyms are words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently. In either of these cases, the only way you would know for sure which meaning is correct would be to read the word within the context of a sentence. Still others, however, insist that a homonym is simply a broader term that encompasses both homophones and homographs.

Regardless, hopefully you now have a better understanding of these three words and how they have similar yet slightly different definitions. Taking some time to investigate the etymology of a word will help you gain a deeper understanding of how rich the English language is. If you learn just a few Greek or Latin roots, you open the door to learning and understanding many more words that share those common roots.

Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

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