What are homonyms?

The English language has hundreds of homonyms. These homonyms can be confusing if you don’t know about them!

So, what does homonym mean?
Homonym means different words that have the same sound, but they have different spellings and different meanings. (Technically these are actually homophones – but the word homonym is commonly used, and the word that most people are familiar with.)

The words in each of these homonym groups have the same pronunciation!

aisle / I’ll / isle
allowed / aloud
ate / eight
billed / build
board / bored
brake / break
buy / by / bye
capital / capitol
carrot / karat / caret
ceiling / sealing
cent / scent / sent
cereal / serial
chews / choose
cite / sight / site
currant /current
dew / do / due
find / fined
finish / Finnish
fir / fur
flour / flower
for / fore / four
gene / jean
gorilla / guerrilla
groan / grown
he’ll / heal / heel
heard / herd
hour / our
knows / nose
meat / meet / mete
morning / mourning
one / won
pair / pare / pear
peace / piece
plain / plane
principle /principal
rain / reign / rein
recede / reseed
right / rite / write
road / rode / rowed
sea / see
sew / so / sow
side / sighed
son / sun
stair / stare
teas /tease / tees
their / there / they’re
to / too / two
wait / weight
war / wore
way / weigh / whey
weather / whether
who’s / whose

This is only a very short list of examples. There are hundreds of homonym sets in English.

So, does that mean that English speakers often get confused by homonyms? Not at all! Homonyms do not usually cause communication problems between native speakers of English, because they instinctively hear the word that fits with the topic of the conversation. In fact, most of the time, native speakers of English are not even aware of the homonyms that they use.

Every now and then, there may be a moment of misunderstanding caused by a homonym. For example, if someone says “I would like a pair” (2 of something), but the other person thinks they said “I would like a pear” (the fruit). However, this is generally clarified quickly and easily, by saying something like “Oh, I mean I want 2, not a fruit!”

For students of English, the most important thing to realize is that homonyms DO sound the same and should be pronounced the same. You should not try to make them sound different. That could actually cause misunderstandings.

By the way, sometimes homonyms are used for making jokes. Here’s a joke that uses the homonyms red/read:

Question: “What’s black and white and red all over?”
Answer: “The newspaper”

The newspaper is something that people everywhere read, so the question is actually asking “What’s black and white and read all over?” The words “black and white” make you think of the color red rather than the verb to read, which is why the answer comes as a surprise.


-ate Part 3: Watch out for hidden -ate

If you have already read Part 1 & Part 2 about –ate, then you already know that you should not put stress on the –ate ending. The tricky part is that sometimes the –ate is not at the end of a word — it may be hidden by a suffix added after it. But even when it is hidden, you still need to follow the rule of not stressing it.

In the following examples, the –ate is not at the end of the new words, but the stress is still controlled by the –ate, which means that the stress falls 2 syllables before it.

elevate + or = elevator (don’t say: eleVAtor)
complicate + ed = complicated (not: compliCAted)
evaporate + ing = evaporating
accurate + ness = accurateness
deliberate + ly = deliberately

But watch out! There are other suffixes which do control stress, and overrule the –ate rule. The most common is –tion. This suffix moves the stress to the syllable just before itself. So, the word educate + tion = education, and evaporate + tion = evaporation. This -tion pattern makes it seem like the -ate is taking the stress.

-ate Part 2: How does it sound?

Graduate, or, graduate… Which is the correct pronunciation? Actually, both are right!

The other important thing to know about words with –ate is that the “A” uses two different sounds. The good news is that this is a clear and predictable pattern.

The letter “A” sounds like Long-A (or the name of the letter “A”) in Verbs, but it sounds like the reduced vowel or “schwa” in Nouns and Adjectives.

Here are some examples:
Verbs: calculate / originate / pollinate / refrigerate /
Nouns & Adjectives: certificate / electorate / proportionate / vertebrate /

However, there are quite a few –ate words that can be used as both a Verb AND as a Noun or Adjective. For example:
alternate (Adj & N) / alternate (V)
associate (Adj & N) / associate (V)
coordinate (N) / coordinate (V)
duplicate (N) / duplicate (V)
estimate (N) / estimate (V)
graduate (Adj & N) / graduate (V)
moderate (Adj) / moderate (V)
separate (Adj) / separate (V)

But don’t forget, whether the word is a Noun, Adjective or Verb, the stress always goes two syllables before the –ate ending, not on it.

Finally, as usual, there is always a word or two that doesn’t follow the rule. In this case, I have found a few: concentrate / primate / mandate / inmate / rebate. In these nouns, the “A” sounds like Long-A rather than a schwa sound.

-ate Part 1: Don’t Stress It!

A very common problem for learners of English is incorrect word stress in words that end with –ate. In fact, almost every student I have worked with has had difficulty with this. Almost everybody makes the mistake of putting the stress on the –ate ending.

HERE’S THE RULE: Do not put stress on –ate. Put it two syllables before that ending.

So, the 3-Syllable word “celebrate” has stress on the 1st syllable (not the last): CElebrate, not celeBRATE. And the 4-Syllable word “eliminate” has stress on the 2nd syllable: eLIminate, not elimiNATE

Here are some more examples:

3-Syllable words
accurate / delicate / demonstrate / fabricate / fluctuate / isolate / moderate / populate / separate / tolerate / vertebrate / violate /

4-Syllable words
approximate / certificate / communicate / deliberate / elaborate / evaporate / incorporate / infuriate / investigate / negotiate / refrigerate / subordinate /

There are hundreds of 3 & 4-Syllable words that end with –ate, but only just a few do not follow the rule, for example: elongate / interrelate / oxygenate / reinstate / relocate /

5 & 6-Syllable words
There are a few 5 & 6-Syllable words with -ate, and they also follow the same rule:
decontaminate / differentiate / hyperventilate / intermediate / rehabilitate / intercommunicate /

So, with only just a small number of words that do not follow the rule, it means that virtually every time you see a new word with –ate, you can confidently predict the stress.

What about 2-Syllable words?
Most 2-Syllable words that end with –ate have stress on the 1st syllable. Here are just a few (of many) examples: agate / climate / dictate / donate / frustrate / hydrate / inmate / locate / magnate / mandate / migrate / narrate / notate / primate / private / rebate / rotate / senate / translate / vibrate /

However, some 2-Syllable words do have stress on the –ate, such as: create / debate / deflate / elate / equate / estate / inflate / innate / irate / negate / ornate / relate / sedate. Some of these words are used fairly frequently, and perhaps this pattern influences learners of English to follow a similar stress pattern for all other words with –ate.

Now that you know the stress pattern, did you notice something else about –ate endings? Sometimes the “A” sounds like “A” and sometimes it sounds like the reduced vowel sound known as “schwa”. This difference is explained in –ate Part 2.