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Word Fact: What’s the Difference Between a Homograph, Homonym, and Homophone?

homograph venn diagram

These words are often tossed around by teachers and linguists. What do they really mean? The prefix homo- comes from the Greek word homós which meant “one and the same.” So all of these words describe some types of sameness.

Homographs are words that are spelled alike, but have different meanings and sometimes different pronunciations. The root graph comes from the Greek word meaning “drawn or written,” thus these terms are written the same. For example, stalk is both a plant stem and a verb meaning to pursue stealthily. Homographs also have different etymologies.

Not all words that are spelled the same are pronounced identically, so they may be homographs without being homophones, e.g., lead as a metal and as the verb “to show the way.” Homophones are words that are pronounced the same but are different in spelling and meaning. In this case the combining from phone comes from the Greek word phōnḗ meaning “voice.” One commonly confused trio of homophones is to, two, and too.

Homonyms are words spelled or pronounced alike but different in meaning. Since homonym is used to (ambiguously) describe either a homograph or homophone, it can cause confusion, though it is often heard in classrooms in early grades. The root -nym simply means “word” or “name,” so it applies more broadly than its counterparts.

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23 Comments

  1. J. Eichmann -  March 5, 2015 - 1:13 pm

    According to my understanding, homophones are words that are pronounced the same regardless of how they are spelled ( they may be spelled the same or they may be spelled differently). Homographs are words that are spelled the same regardless of pronunciation (they may be pronounced the same or differently). Homonyms are words that are both spelled and pronounced the same. Therefore a homonym is both a type of homograph and a type of homophone. To be correct I believe the Venn diagram should have one circle labeled homograph and the other labeled homophone. The intersection should be labeled homonym. The area within the homograph circle, but outside the intersection should be labeled heteronym (words that have the same spelling but are pronounced differntly, the other type of homograph). Some would label the area within the homophone circle, but outside the intersection heterograph ( a term that some use for words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently, the other type of homophone). Although I haven’t been able to find where the term heterograph originated.

    Reply
    • Ipso Facto -  July 9, 2015 - 8:07 am

      From my perspective the source of the error is the insertion of the Venn Diagram. I am hard pressed to come up with a word that is “both” a homophone and a homograph.

      Who is able to proffer a word that is “pronounced the same but is different in spelling and meaning” while simultaneously having the quality of being “spelled alike.” In short, such an unlikely word would be spelled differently and alike.

      Such an aforementioned use is logically invalid.

      Else, you are led into a Möbius loop a la Gödel. A “homonym” would be rendered heterological.

      Reply
      • Bill Gates -  January 5, 2016 - 6:43 pm

        tire (for a cars’ wheel) vs tire (to wear out, as in “you tire me”)

        Reply
  2. eissa -  January 22, 2015 - 5:00 pm

    Homographs are words that are similar in spelling and pronunciation, but different in meaning. However, homophones are words that are similar in pronunciation, but different in meaning and spelling.

    Reply
  3. Godfrey mokoatle -  October 26, 2014 - 10:35 pm

    I have been doing the research about this words,so today i consider my self as lucky to possess this pricious knowledge

    Reply
  4. david -  October 8, 2014 - 6:53 am

    hahaha its interesting to know the difference

    Reply
    • hytre -  September 8, 2015 - 7:21 am

      same

      Reply
  5. skdfjh -  October 7, 2014 - 2:11 pm

    A homephone is actually the oposite of a mobile or cell phone. its the one you keep at home.
    why does nobody know that?

    Reply
    • course. -  October 7, 2014 - 2:13 pm

      yeah – everyone has such obsession about grammar and spelling and stuff. fairenough, i like to find spelling mistakes in other ppls stuff but petty arguments over ‘here an s there an s’ who really gives…its old greek prefixed – years past their sell-by-date.

      Reply
    • john -  October 13, 2014 - 7:26 am

      Here’s a fact for you; a cellular phone is a mobile phone, but a mobile phone may or may not be a cellular phone. I’ll let you work on that one. Also, the word is spelled “opposite”.

      Reply
  6. Adam -  October 6, 2014 - 6:26 am

    OK, Dictionary.com… time for your grammar lesson. Concerning the following passage above: “The prefix homo- comes from the Greek word homós which meant “one and the same.” So all of these words describe some types of sameness.”

    First, the Greek word homós MEANS “one and the same.” Present tense. The word still means that.

    Second, because the meanings of the words are different, the second sentence should read, “So each of these words describes some type of sameness.” The way you have it worded implies that all three of the words describe the same types – plural – of sameness, which is incorrect. While it is possible for a word to be all three – homograph, homonym, and homophone – each of those terms describes a different type – singular – of sameness.

    Reply
  7. ahmada -  October 5, 2014 - 7:25 pm

    mada

    Reply
  8. Rosemarie Davisl -  October 5, 2014 - 1:13 pm

    This a question not a comment. Is there a word that identifies two unrelated persons who share the same name? I work in a medical practice where we have several Mary Smiths’ and we write a notation on their file such as 5 Mary Smiths to alert staff. Is there such a word as a synonoun?.

    Reply
    • Noah -  October 7, 2014 - 4:55 am

      Namesake. Its meaning is close to what you want.

      Namefellow is a word not used anymore, but it means exactly as you describe.

      Namealike, Nametwin, Homoname are all vernacular that also mean the same.

      Reply
  9. Komakech David -  October 5, 2014 - 8:26 am

    Thanks for educating me infact many words confuse me alot due to your surport i understand i will improve my English.

    Reply
  10. amadi -  October 5, 2014 - 7:17 am

    word fact

    Reply
  11. Bill -  October 4, 2014 - 3:41 pm

    This diagram is confusing.

    1. To clarify the diagram, “homograph” and “homophone” should be repositioned above their respective circles (or moved closer to the center so each overlaps the intersection).

    2. The clear interpretation of the resulting Venn diagram would then state that homonyms are _only_ those words that are _both _ spelled and pronounced alike (the intersection of Homograph and Homophone ): “Homonyms are words spelled AND pronounced alike but different in meaning.”

    3. Perhaps the intersection label should be “Homonym (strictly)” with yet another label for the union, either “Homonym (broadly)” or “Homonym (loosely)” or”Homonym (ambigously).

    4. My favored solution would be to put the “Homonym (loosely)” label above the circles; move the “Homograph” and “Homophone” labels toward the center to overlap the intersect; and revise the intersection label.

    5. The intersection also needs an appropriate example.

    Consider:
    Homonym (strict) – Bow (of ship) / Bow (at waist) [I haven't researched derivatin]
    Homophone: Bow (at waist) / Bough
    Homograph: Bow(at waist) / Bow(weapon)

    6. Perhaps there should be yet another set (circle) within the intersection labeled “Homonym (true)” to distinguish between homonyms with shared or distinct derivations. Wikipedia provides the following examples:
    true – skate (fish or worm) / skate (on ice)
    shared – mouth (of animal) / mouth (of river)

    Reply
  12. William Nairatre -  October 3, 2014 - 1:16 pm

    Your Venn diagram doesn’t match your description of homonym, homophone and homograph.

    Reply
  13. M Tiller -  October 3, 2014 - 12:46 pm

    Correction: A homonym is the union of a homophone and a homograph according to your text, but not according to strict usage of the word. See
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homonym

    Reply
    • course. -  October 7, 2014 - 2:14 pm

      blah blah blah – go fly a kite grumpy.

      Reply
    • Shellheart -  October 8, 2014 - 12:09 pm

      Correction: A homophone is the union of a homonym and a homograph according to your text, but not according to strict usage of the word. See
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homophone

      Reply
  14. M Tiller -  October 3, 2014 - 9:33 am

    Your Venn diagram shows “homonym” as the intersection of “homophone” and “homograph”, meaning a homonym would have to be both a homophone *and* a homograph, whereas, in fact, a homonym is the union of homophone and homograph. That is, as you stated in the text, a homonym can be a homophone *or* a homograph.

    Reply

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