English Language Blog

Homonyms: The Scourge of the English Language Posted by on Sep 9, 2016 in English Grammar, English Language, English Vocabulary

Words, especially English words, can drive you crazy. Let me explain…

Words, especially English words, can drive you crazy. Let me explain…

In spite of technological advances, which have made the life of the modern writer so much easier, sometimes even the most sophisticated software program is of no help whatsoever. Writers can format, layout, and review their work almost instantaneously. Spell check is like having an extra pair of eyes on the page at all times. Yet, even the best writer can fall victim to a homonym.

“The rancher bread several breeds of cattle.”

That sentence is wrong, but no software will correct it because each word is a perfectly good English word. It should read, “The rancher bred several breeds of cattle.” By adding the extra vowel, the sentence loses its meaning. The words bread and bred are homonyms.

For those of us who toil over writing in English every day, the presence of homonyms in our native language is, at best, an annoyance. For those of you who studiously labor to learn English, the homonym can be a nightmare.

“I want to go to the store!”

“I want to go to the store, too!”

“If the two of you want to go to the store, then I do, too!”

See what I mean?

Strictly speaking, a homonym is a word which is pronounced and spelled like another word, but has a different meaning. There are thousands of them in English! Unfortunately, many English dictionaries make matters more confusing by blurring the definition of a homonym to encompass two different types of homonyms. Each one can make your life miserable.

  • Homophone – Words which sound alike, but have a very different meaning and spelling

 “If you aren’t going to wear clothes, then close the drapes.”

  • Homograph – Words which are spelled alike, but have different sounds and meanings

“The man in the lead carried a lead pipe.”

So now, a homonym is often defined as being a homophone or a homograph, rather than a separate entity all its own. To remember the difference, look at the word ending: –graph which means writing, so the spelling is the same. Alternately, –phone means sound, or spoken, so the words sound alike, but aren’t spelled alike.

If it is any comfort to you, native English speakers get confused by homonyms all the time. Every day I see posts on social media which confuse the common homophonic trio of there, their, and they’re.

  • There is either an adverb of place (the opposite of here), or a pronoun leading a clause (There once was a child named Emma…)
  • They’re is the conjunction of the words they and are. “They’re visiting from Belgium.”
  • Their is the possessive case of the pronoun they. “Their trip is almost over.”

They’re over there waiting for their flight back home.

I hope that the content of this post will leave you content. But, I understand if it doesn’t.

Photo by Trevor

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About the Author: Gary Locke

Gary is a semi-professional hyphenate.


  1. Em Chitty:

    Great post, thank you. I am writing a spelling book for adults, and homonyms are a particular issue for that effort.

  2. Farzad:

    I like it. thx

  3. Foobar:

    “Clothes” and “close” aren’t even homophones…