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.

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