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The finer points of homonyms - hmmm!

by: Marilyn Owen (05 September 2008)

English, being such a non phonetic language is blessed (or cursed, according to your viewpoint!) with a huge variety of homonyms. As a proofreader I regularly come across spelling errors which are homonym based – ie the writer, often otherwise a good speller, knows that there are several ways to spell a word that sound the same - but may not know which is which!

Thinking about this tendency to misspell words which sound like others but are spelt differently, I decided to look up a few terms like homonym. After all I wasn’t entirely clear myself as to what actually is the definition of a homonym especially when I found out – interestingly – that there are such things as homophones and homographs as well. So now there is the added problem of how to classify such words and I’ll start off with that.

What is a homonym?

If a word has the same sound or spelling as another, but has a different meaning, it is known as a homonym, meaning same name. Generally, a homonym is a word that sounds the same or has the same spelling as another word but means something different. But ah, did you know that there are two kinds of homonyms and these are Homophones and Homographs?

So what is a homophone?

If two words share the same pronunciation but different meaning or spelling they are called homophones. Here are common everyday examples of homophones that can cause problems in spellings.

a) To, Too and Two

To (preposition)
I sent a letter to my sister.
This summer we went to Spain for our annual holiday.

Too (adverb)
It costs far too much money!
It was, too little too late.

Two (the number 2)
I have two loaves of bread.

b) There, their and they’re

There (an adverb of place)

They all went there to see a friend.

Their (a possessive pronoun, plural of his, her and its)

Their house was just down the road.

They’re

For an explanation see my first blog on apostrophes! This is in fact a shortened form of they are. The a in are is replaced by an apostrophe and the two words are joined up to form they’re.
They’re my friend’s children.

I like these golden plums – they’re really juicy!

c) Your and you’re

Your (Pronoun denoting possession)

I like your new jumper.
Thank you for inviting me to your party.

You’re (Shortened form of you are, where the a in are has been replaced by an apostrophe and the two words are joined up. It’s a contraction like they’re: see above)

You’re my closest friend.
Thanks – you’re one in a million!

And a homograph?

Apparently a homograph is a word that shares an identical spelling with another word, but means something different. The most obvious example is:

Fair
That isn’t fair!

Fair
The fair comes to our town every bank holiday.

Another more abstract example is – abstract!
She is not keen on abstract art.
I have just proofread the abstract of a student’s thesis.

Interestingly, it seems, there are people who spend their time collecting homonyms, homophones and homographs. A very worthwhile occupation for those so inclined, no doubt!

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