Bare in mind that the differences between homonyms and homophones are bear minimum. You’ll have to

Or is it bear with me? Maybe bair with me?

Human relationships are complex, word relationships even more so. There are complex grammar rules, silent letters and words that are spelled the same way but may or may not mean the same thing. Or sound the same. So you see where this could get more than a little complicated for the average writer and reader.

Pray tell me how not to fall prey to the seemingly complex web of it all. Well, we’re here to help you out with just that.The problem with homonyms and homophones is something even the most hardcore of word geeks struggle with.

Why you ask? Let us first understand the clear distinctions between the three and get over our apparent ‘homonophobia’ before we delve into the why of it all.  


1) Homonyms

Pronunciation – Same

Spelling – Same

A homonym is, by the most stringent dictionary requirements, a word that is spelled and pronounced like another but has a different meaning. This basically means that it needs to be both a homophone as well as a homograph in order to be called a homonym.

However, some sources do say that it’s a homonym even as long as it’s just one of the two.

For the purpose of illustration, let us use the word lead.

Tom played the lead role in the school’s annual play.

“You’re the boss, lead the way!”

In the first sentence, lead has been used in its verb form, meaning to ‘go in first’. Whereas in the second sentence, lead is being used in the noun form to mean the chief role in a play/film.


2) Homophones

Pronunciation – Same

Spelling – Different

Homophones are words that sound the same but are often spelled differently. The ‘phone’ in the word should give you a clue to the fact that these are similar sounding words that mean completely different things.

All homophones are homonyms, but not all homonyms are homophones (obviously).

Again, let us take an example of the word lead.

There were reports of high lead content in those noodles.

He took her hand and led her into the woods.

Here, while the first sentence refers to the noun lead to mean the metal, the second sentence is the verb form of the word lead.


3) Homographs

Pronunciation – Different

Spelling – Same


Which finally brings us to homographs. They’re quite the exact opposite of homophones, so the distinction here is clear. While homophones are similar sounding words, homographs are words that have the same spelling.

Homographs have different pronunciations and meanings, and the fact that ‘lead’ has many irregular participle forms and meanings makes it confusing.

All roads lead to Rome.

Lead is heavier than graphite.

While the first lead refers to ‘guiding’, the second one is the noun usage of the metal lead.

Sounds good? It might take a while to get used to it and to be able to tell the difference correctly. But why is all of this important? Sometimes in the process of writing, one ends up using these similar words interchangeably, thereby risking the reader inferring a different meaning than the writer intended.

Lead (rhymes with dead) and led (rhymes with said) are homographs, but lead (rhymes with seed) and led aren’t. If your sentence doesn’t clearly indicate which form of lead you’re referring to, the reader could easily divulge a different meaning or just find it nonsensical. If a homonym retains all meanings and conflicting opinions, understanding the right meaning is tricky.

So what does the prudent writer do? Follow the strictest meaning of the word, and ensure the sentence has enough context for the reader to understand.

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