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What is a Homograph?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 September 2016
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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.

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.

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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.

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