Homonyms are words pronounced the same as each other. When the homonyms have the same spelling, they are known as homographs. When they have different spellings, they are called homophones.

Easy Examples of Homonyms

  • pike (the fish) and pike (the weapon)
  • (These homonyms are homographs; i.e., they have the same spelling.)
  • bear (the animal) and bare (no clothes)
  • (These homonyms are homophones; i.e., they have different spellings.)
  • site (a location), sight (vision), and cite (to quote)
  • (These homonyms are homophones.)

Real-Life Examples of Homonyms

Homonyms, especially homographs, are common in jokes:
  • Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana. (Comedian Groucho Marx)
  • (flies = means to fly and then flying insects)
    (like = means as though and then to like)
  • "I am" is reportedly the shortest like in the English language. Could it be that "I do" is the longest sentence? (Comedian George Carlin)
  • (sentence = means grammatical sentence and then prison sentence)
  • The man whose whole left side was cut off is all right now.
  • (Often in jokes, only one of the homonyms is present.)
    (Incidentally, the one-word version alright is still considered non-standard English by many (unlike the fully acceptable altogether and already). I'm still looking for evidence of this being an outdated view, but it seems alright is still not fully accepted. For now, use all right in formal writing. Of interest, Microsoft's spellchecker will not highlight alright as a spelling error, but it will not recommend alright if you slightly misspell it. So, the English geeks at Microsoft are sitting on the fence too.)
Jokes that exploit homonyms are called puns.

Homophones are common in pun-style business names:
  • John's Plaice.
  • (Fish-and-chip shop)
  • Our Soles
  • (Supplier of non-slip work boots)
  • Curl Up and Dye
  • (Hair salon)
Unfortunately, homophones (and words that are very nearly homophones) are often responsible for writing mistakes:
  • His idea is starting to bare fruit.
  • (Should be bear.)
  • The hat compliments your eyes.
  • (Should be complements.)

Why Should I Care about Homonyms?

Homonyms (like course and coarse) and near homonyms (like affect and effect) are often responsible for writing errors. Recognising this will lower your threshold to reach for a dictionary or Google to check which of the homophones you should be using. (The list of easily confused words on page 100 contains dozens of homonyms and near homonyms that routinely cause problems for writers.) Also, using a homonym in a title can make it edgy and memorable.
  • Doggie styles
  • (Dog-grooming salon)
Be aware that some dictionaries record that homographs are words spelt the same but pronounced differently, e.g., sow (to plant seeds, rhymes with toe) and sow (female pig, rhymes with cow). So, you may encounter references declaring that a homograph is not a type of homonym. Grammarians are still feuding over this. It might be useful to think of it like this: In writing, homographs are homonyms but homophones aren't; in speech, homophones are homonyms but homographs aren't. In other words, if they're the same in the medium you're using, they're homonyms. That's why, I believe, it's safe to classify homographs and homophones as homonyms. Are you still awake? Sorry about that.

Key Points

  • If you know a word can be spelt different ways (e.g., their, there, they're), make sure you're using the right version before moving on.
  • A clever pun in a title can make the title memorable.
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