About Homonyms, Heteronyms and More – Similarly Sounding/Spelled Words with Different Meanings

English is a living, breathing being. It is something that is constantly being reinvented by its various users the world over. As such, English is an utterly fascinating language. Its various aspects lend it the sort of complexity and possibility for precise articulation that some other languages may not be able to match. Today, we look at some remarkably interesting concepts like homophones, homographs, heteronyms and others.


Simply put, homonyms are words that sound or spell similar but have different meanings (Greek for having the same name).

  • Example: isle/aisle, bear/bare, horse/hoarse, mail/male, etc.

However all homonyms may not be spelled differently; some may have the same sound and the same spelling but different meanings. So this issue is made rather complex by other concepts such as homophones and homographs.


Homophones (Greek for same sound or voice) are types of homonyms that refer to words that sound the same but may have different spellings and/or meanings. These are word devices that can create entertaining play upon words (puns) or may create ambiguity (as in puzzles).

  • Example: principle/principal, pair/pear, etc.


These are words that are written or spelled the same way, but have different meanings. So ‘row’ can mean an altercation or a lineup depending upon the context it is used in. Similarly, ‘bow’ may mean to bow down or the archer’s weapon for shooting arrows. So, to tell apart homograph words, one will have to refer to the entire syntax of words in the sentence.

Heteronyms or Heterophones

Heteronyms or heterophones (meaning different name) are types of homographs that are not, however homonyms. So, heteronyms may share the same spelling but they have different pronunciation and different meanings. For example, note the way ‘read’ is pronounced in these two sentences:

  • I read this book every day.
  • I read it yesterday as well.


They are rather like homonyms but there is a subtle difference. They are words with the same spelling but with different meanings which are however related. An example is ‘wood’ – the word that means a piece of a tree as well as a thicket or forest of trees. Other examples can be man (human; male), bank (financial institution; to rely upon), etc. However, note that bank (financial institution) and bank (river bank) are NOT polysemes; they will fall under homonyms since they have altogether unrelated meanings.


These are words that are spelled the same way but which change meaning (and sometimes, even pronunciation) when capitalized. So the word ‘march’ may mean one thing when the m is in lower case, but it means a month of the year when the m is capitalized. Similarly, ‘cancer’ refers to a disease, but ‘Cancer’ refers to the star sign, or the tropical demarcation.

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