Man wearing a suit and tie giving a Christmas present
Example of heteronym: I present (give) this present (gift) to you.

 Zohaib Hussain

The term heteronym has multiple definitions, depending on its usage referring to grammar, its use in linguistics, or its use in literature:

  1. In grammar, heteronyms are two or more words with the same spelling but different pronunciations and meanings. If using the term as an adjective, you would say the words are heteronymous
  2. In some fields of linguistics, the term heteronym refers to locally different words (or regionalisms) for certain more widely used words in the language. For example, in parts of the American South, a sidewalk (U.S.) or pavement (U.K.) is called a banquette.
  3. In literature, the term heteronym sometimes refers to a writer's creative alter ego or persona. This usage was introduced by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935).

Examples of Heteronyms (Definition No. 1)

What's better to learn a term by seeing examples? Check these out:

  • You can lead (bring) someone to lead (the metallic element).
  • So he plays everyone, the coach can alternate (switch) between the team's alternates (substitutes).
  • You won't see many bass (fish) playing bass (musical instrument).
  • The lawyer objected (raised a concern) to the object (item) in Exhibit A.
  • To you, I present (give) this present (gift).
  • The convict (person in jail) had been convicted (found guilty) of planning an escape.
  • The Polish (heritage) lady polishes (shines) the silver.
  • That permit (license) will permit (grant) you to build the addition onto your house.
  • "A clown moped around when the circus refused
    For him a new moped to buy.
    The incense he burned did incense him to go
    On a tear with a tear in his eye." (Richard Lederer, "A Hymn to Heteronyms." The Word Circus: A Letter-Perfect Book. Merriam-Webster, 1998)
  • "Though the invalid looked pallid,
    Said her lover:
    'Not to worry.
    Pessimism is invalid." (Felicia Lamport and George Cooper, "There's a Sewer in the Sewer: A Primer for Heteronymphiles." 2000)

When you're reading you just have to infer from the context of the text or the position of the word in the sentence (Is it being used as a verb or noun?) to understand which word is meant.

Compare and Contrast Grammar Types

Heteronyms are a type of homograph, which is a set of words that have the same spelling but differ in meaning and sometimes in pronunciation. 

Bruce M. Rowe and Diane P. Levin add, "Heteronyms are homographs that are not pronounced the same. The words tear (water in the eye) and tear (to rip) are heteronyms. Notice that the words homonym, homograph, homophone, and heteronym have overlapping meanings." ("A Concise Introduction to Linguistics," 4th ed. Routledge, 2016). Compare the above examples to the word dustDust would not be a heteronym. It functions as a verb and a noun, but it's pronounced the same way in both usages.

Heteronyms are not the same as homonyms, which have the same sound and spelling but different meanings. In contrast, homophones sound the same but are spelled differently. For additional examples, check out this list of " 200 Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs" and a useful list of word-related terms, "Name That -nym."

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Heteronyms." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/heteronyms-words-term-1690926. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Heteronyms. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/heteronyms-words-term-1690926 Nordquist, Richard. "Heteronyms." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/heteronyms-words-term-1690926 (accessed June 3, 2023).