Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms - Definition and Examples

Examples of heteronyms in English.


The term heteronym has multiple definitions.

(1) Heteronyms are commonly defined as two or more words with the same spelling but different pronunciations and meanings. Adjective: heteronymous. Also known as heterophones.

In Examples and Observations (below), note David Rothwell's observation that heteronym "would seem to be an exact synonym for 'homonym.' As such, it is completely unnecessary, and you should forget about its existence immediately."

(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 (US) or pavement (UK) 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).

See Examples and Observations below. Also, see:


From the Greek, "other name"

Examples and Observations (Definition #1)

  • The noun sewer (a conduit for water or sewage) and the noun sewer (one who sews). The first noun (pronounced SOO-er) is derived from Latin, "related to water"; the second (pronounced SO-er) from the Sanskrit, "thread, string."
  • "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)
  • "Heteronyms must incense foreign learners! I can't imagine a number feeling than if they spent hours learning a common English word, a minute little word, then found a second meaning and pronunciation! Surely agape could not be a foreigner's emotion as he or she becomes frustrated with our supply textured English words, which, we must admit, can be garbage and refuse to be defined." (David Bergeron, "Heteronyms." English Today, October 1990)

Different Definitions of Heteronym

  • "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." (Bruce M. Rowe and Diane P. Levine, A Concise Introduction to Linguistics, 4th ed. Routledge, 2016). 
  • "The Oxford Dictionary of English gives three definitions of heteronym ... My edition of the Shorter Oxford then confuses things even more. It begins with the less than helpful definition 'One or other of two heteronymous terms,' but then continues:
- A word spelt like another but having a different sound and meaning;
- A name of a thing in one language which is a translation of the same in another language.
  • Insofar as one can make any sense of the varied Oxford definitions of 'heteronym,' it would seem to be an exact synonym for 'homonym.' As such, it is completely unnecessary, and you should forget about its existence immediately." (David Rothwell, Dictionary of Homonyms. Wordsworth, 2007)