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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.
I know plenty of adults who still get confused by homophones. Homonyms are easy to grasp, but when people are just not that great at spelling to begin with, it is easy to screw up homophones.
I can't tell you how many emails and texts I have received from people who write “their” when they mean “they're.” That is a pet peeve of mine, but it is also a common problem for some people.
Some people write “site” when they mean “sight.” If the person is really young, I blame the abbreviation craze associated with texting. If they are older, I just know that they never learned to distinguish between homophones very well.
I think it is fun to use homophones in poetry to make it rhyme. When I'm bored, I mess around with writing poetry, and sometimes, I like to make a list of homophones and work from it.
I find ways to incorporate words like “where” and “wear,” and I challenge my brain by thinking of how to end one line with one homophone and the next with the other.
It's really a challenge to try to create an entire poem with nothing but homophones on the end of each line. I like a good challenge, though, even if I am the one initiating it.
@feasting – I suppose it would be easier when writing to mix up homophones instead of homonyms. Actually, wouldn't it be impossible to misuse a homonym, since they are all spelled the same?
I guess that's just one thing that makes homonyms so great. If you meant to say that something is on the “right,” there would be no way to misspell that if you had another meaning of “right” in your head that was spelled the same way.
I have accidentally substituted homophones for the word I intended to use before. I did that once in a college essay, and the teacher docked my grade for it. I really kicked myself for that one.
It's easier for me to mess up with homophones than with homonyms. Sometimes, when I'm writing, I tend to type rather quickly, and I have been known to get the spelling of words that sound just alike mixed up.
That's why I always read back over my work before submitting it to my publisher. I get so caught up in the story that I do things like writing “hear” when I mean “here” and “their” when I mean “there.”
I don't know why I do this. I know that they sound the same, but their meanings are so ingrained in my head that I don't understand why my brain can't distinguish between the two.
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