Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

bear waving
The word "bear" is an example of a homograph. Alan Vernon/Moment/Getty Images


Homographs are words that have the same spelling but differ in origin, meaning, and sometimes pronunciation, such as the verb bear (to carry or endure) and the noun bear (the animal with a shaggy coat). Adjective: homographic.

Some homographs are also heteronyms: words with the same spelling but different pronunciations and meanings, such as the verb moped (past tense of mope) and the noun moped (a motorbike).

A homograph is generally considered a type of homonym. See the observation by David Rothwell, below.

From the Latin, "to write the same"

Examples and Observations

  • The adjective fair (just, or pleasing in appearance) and the noun fair (an exhibition or event). The adjective is derived from the Old English word for "lovely, pleasant"; the noun comes from the Latin word for "holiday."
  • 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 homograph is a word that is spelt identically to another word but none the less has a different meaning and probably a different origin. You will doubtless be annoyed if you tear your trousers while climbing over a fence. Indeed, you may be so upset that you shed a tear. As you can see, 'tear' and 'tear' are spelt identically, but they are pronounced differently and have entirely different meanings. They are good examples of a homograph. Many homographs are not even pronounced differently. Thus the word 'hide' sounds exactly the same whether you are talking about the skin of an animal, a measure of land or the verb meaning to conceal or keep out of sight. . . .
    "[H]omonym is just the collective noun for homograph and homophone."
    (David Rothwell, Dictionary of Homonyms. Wordsworth, 2007)
  • "Another illustration of the extreme inconsistencies of English spelling and pronunciation comes in homographs. These are words that can be pronounced in two separate ways without changing the spelling. So, for example, wind can mean either moving air or to twist or wrap, and the pronunciation is different depending on the meaning. Similarly, the past tense of wind is wound, but with a different pronunciation the latter can mean an injury. A tear as a rip or eye water has two pronunciations, as does resume depending on whether it means continue or curriculum vitae (in the latter case it should strictly be written résumé, but the accents are generally dropped)."
    (Richard Watson Todd, Much Ado About English: Up and Down the Bizarre Byways of a Fascinating Language. Nicholas Brealey, 2006)
  • "Etymology is not an intuitive basis for homograph distinction for the contemporary user; but it is a more certain basis for the lexicographer than its more slippery alternative, perceived difference in meaning."
    (Howard Jackson and Etienne Zé Amvela, Words, Meaning and Vocabulary: An Introduction to Modern English Lexicology, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000)
  • Homographic riddles:
    • Why is a polka like beer?
      Because there are so many hops in it.
    • What's a frank frank?
      A hot dog who gives his honest opinion.
    • How do pigs write?
      With a pigpen.
    • Why was the picture sent to jail?
      Because it was framed.
    • Why would a pelican make a good lawyer?
      Because he knows how to stretch his bill.

Pronunciation: HOM-uh-graf