A homonym and homophone are fairly similar concepts, but with some very important distinctions between the two. Both terms feature the root homo-, which is a Greek term that means "the same." This means a homonym and homophone will both deal with words that are in some way the same. The difference, however, is critical: a homonym is a collection of words that are spelled the same and are pronounced the same, but have different meanings; a homophone is a group of words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings, regardless of the differences in spelling.
A homonym can also be a homophone. A homonym and homophone can therefore be almost identical, but they are distinguished by spelling. Here are a few examples of homonyms:
Right — the opposite of left
Right — an entitlement
Right — to correct, as in to right a ship
Each of these words has a distinct meaning, though they are spelled exactly the same and are pronounced exactly the same. An easy way to remember the difference between homonym and homophone is to think of the suffix -nym, as name, and the suffix -phone as sound. A homonym is therefore the same in name or spelling, where as a homophone is the same in sound.
Some examples of homophones include:
Sea — a body of water
See — to visually inspect
Right — an entitlement
Write — mark letters on a paper or screen to create meaningful words
As is apparent, "sea" and "see" are pronounced the same and sound the same — hence the -phone suffix — but they are spelled differently and have different meanings. The same situation occurs with "right" and "write." This means these words are homophones rather than homonyms. Both a homonym and homophone will sound the same, but homophones will not be spelled the same, as homonyms will.
These terms become important when considering reading comprehension skills. Homonyms and homophones can both cause confusion for a reader when trying to decipher the meaning of a passage, especially if more than one homonym occurs in the same passage. For example, a reader may become confused when reading the following sentence:
"The captain had the right to right the ship on his right."
Three homonyms are present in this sentence: each occurrence of the word "right" has a different meaning, which means a reader will need to figure out what the meaning of each "right" is so he or she can figure out the overall meaning of the sentence.