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What is a Homograph?

A homograph is a word that shares the same written form as another but has a different meaning, and sometimes a different pronunciation. For example, "lead" can mean to guide or a type of metal. These linguistic twins enrich language, offering layers of nuance. How do homographs shape our communication? Join us as we unravel their impact on our daily conversations.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Homograph means “written the same,” and homographs are words with the same spelling, but either a different meaning or a different pronunciation, or both. Bear the noun referring to an animal and bear meaning “to carry” are examples of a set of homographs that have the same spelling but a different meaning. Read, which serves as both the present tense of a verb when it is pronounced /REED/ and the past tense form when it is pronounced /RED/, is an example of a homograph with a different meaning and a different pronunciation in each instance.

Don’t confuse homograph with homophone, which means “sounds the same.” Even though some homographs — those in the first group above — are also homophones, not all homographs are. The special name for a word that is both a homograph and a homophone is homonym.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

It’s also important to distinguish homographs, which are separate and distinct words with different origins, from words with multiple meanings all rooted in the same origin. For example, peer meaning “look intently” comes from the Middle English piren and peren, short for aperen, and it is related to appear. Peer meaning “a person of equal standing,” comes from through Middle English from the Old French per meaning “equal,” and the Latin par. Yes, they look the same; no, they’re not related. So these words are homographs, not multiple meaning words.

An example of a multiple meaning word is say. Say is a

• transitive verb, for example, “They say hi.”
• a noun, for example, “I want to have my say.”
• an adverb, for example, “Take a piece of fruit, say an orange.”
• an interjection, for example, “Say! What’s that?”

All of these forms and meanings are related, so these are manifestations of one word, not homographs.

There is another, more complicated case, because a homograph can also have homophones. For example, air meaning “odorless gasses we breathe” is a homograph of air meaning “to broadcast,” but also has the homophones: are, Ayr, e’er, ere, err, and heir.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to LanguageHumanities about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Learn more...
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to LanguageHumanities about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Learn more...

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books