Learn About Homonyms and See Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Bass fisher / Bass player
I enjoy bass fishing and playing the bass guitar. Left: Sean Murphy / Getty Images; Right: RapidEye / Getty Images

Homonyms are two or more words that have the same sound or spelling but differ in meaning. Adjectives: homonymic and homonymous.

Generally, the term homonym refers both to homophones (words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings, such as pair and pear) and to homographs (words that are spelled the same but have different meanings, such as "bow your head" and "tied in a bow").

Note that some dictionaries and textbooks define and distinguish these three terms in different ways.

Some equate homonyms only with homophones (words that sound the same). Others equate homonymns only with homographs (words that look the same). See the observations below by Tom McArthur and David Rothwell. Also see Homophones and Homographs: An American Dictionary, 4th ed., by James B. Hobbs (McFarland & Company, 2006).




From the Greek, "same name"

Examples and Observations

  • "'Mine is a long and sad tale!' said the Mouse, turning to Alice, and sighing.

    "'It is a long tail, certainly,' said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse's tail; 'but why do you call it sad?'"

    (Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland)

  • "Your children need your presence more than your presents."

    (Jesse Jackson)

  • I enjoy bass fishing and playing the bass guitar.
  • The group's lead singer carried a lead pipe for protection.
  • "His death, which happen'd in his berth,

    At forty-odd befell:

    They went and told the sexton, and

    The sexton toll'd the bell."

    (Thomas Hood, "Faithless Sally Brown")

  • "'Attend your Church,' the parson cries:

    To church each fair one goes;

    The old go there to close their eyes,

    The young to eye their clothes."

  • Mae "Maebe" Funke: Do you guys know where I could get one of those gold T-shaped pendants?

    Michael: That's a cross.

    Mae "Maebe" Funke: Across from where?

    (Alia Shawkat and Jason Bateman in Arrested Development)


    "A case of homonymy is one of an ambiguous word whose different senses are far apart from each other and not obviously related to each other in any way with respect to a native speaker's intuition. Cases of homonymy seem very definitely to be matters of mere accident or coincidence."

    (James R. Hurford, Brendan Heasley, and Michael B. Smith, Semantics: A Coursebook, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2007)

    Three Kinds of Homonyms

    "There are three kinds [of homonyms]: those that sound and look alike (bank a slope, bank a place for money, and bank a bench or row of switches); homophones, that sound alike but do not look alike (coarse, course); and homographs, that look alike but do not sound alike (the verb lead, the metal lead). . . . There are over 3,000 homographs in the Concise Oxford Dictionary (8th edition, 1990)."

    (Tom McArthur, Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 1992)

    Homographs and Homophones

    "The reason that there is confusion and a lack of clarity over homonym is that it is closely related to two other words, homograph and homophone. I shall, therefore, define these words first.

    It is possible for a word to be a homograph or a homophone. However, whatever the word may be, it is also, by definition, a homonym.

    In other words, homonym is a conceptual word that embraces both homographs and homophones. . . . [H]omonym is just the collective noun for homograph and homophone."

    (David Rothwell, Dictionary of Homonyms. Wordsworth, 2007)

    A homograph is a word that is spelled 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 spelled 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.

    A homophone is a word that sounds exactly like another word but has a different meaning and a different spelling. If you stand on the stair and stare at the picture, you have a good example of a couple of homophones. . . .

    The Lighter Side of Homonyms

    "Secret-keeping is a complicated endeavor. One has to be concerned not only about what one says, but about facial expressions, autonomic reflexes. When I try to deceive, I myself have more nervous tics than a Lyme disease research facility. [pause] It's a joke. It relies on the homonymic relationship between tick, the blood-sucking arachnid, and tic, the involuntary muscular contraction. I made it up myself."

    (Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper in "The Bad Fish Paradigm." The Big Bang Theory, 2008)

    Test your knowledge by taking this Commonly Confused Words Quiz

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    Nordquist, Richard. "Learn About Homonyms and See Examples." ThoughtCo, Feb. 1, 2018, thoughtco.com/what-are-homonyms-1690934. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, February 1). Learn About Homonyms and See Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-homonyms-1690934 Nordquist, Richard. "Learn About Homonyms and See Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-homonyms-1690934 (accessed March 17, 2018).