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What Is the Difference between a Homophone and Homograph?

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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 05 September 2016
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The difference between homophone and homograph words is that homophones are two or more words that sound the same, and homographs are two or more words that are spelled the same. Both of these labels are useful in pointing out coincidences in various languages that may create confusion for language learners. For example, with homophones, language learners, or even native language speakers, may have difficulties in choosing the correct spelling for each of the words.

In addition to spelling issues with homophones, there is the potential problem with a lack of context. When the word is spoken without sufficient reference, listeners may find it impossible to tell which meaning the speaker is referring to. For example, if a speaker says either “It was read” or “It was red,” listeners may be unable to tell whether that person is saying something had been read, using the past simple tense for the verb “read,” or whether the speaker is describing something as red in color. Here, the context of the word defines it, since the pronunciation accommodates multiple meanings.

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For homographs, a different but related problem can occur. With the above example, someone can see the word “read” on a page, and be unsure whether it refers to a simple present tense verb “read,” as in, “I read a lot,” or a past simple verb “read,” as in, “I read that yesterday.” Here, the fact that these two homographs are pronounced differently distinguishes them in speech, but not in text, where with homophones, it’s the other way around.

One extension of the difficulty with homophones relates to the average person’s concept of multiple pronoun forms that constitute homophone sets. One of the most commons areas of error for English speakers in spelling relates to two of these sets. The first is the set of homophones “your,” which is a possessive form, and “you’re” which is a contraction for “you are.” A staggering number of native English speakers frequently mix up the spellings for these words when writing. Another commonly misspelled set is the words “their,” a possessive form, “they’re,” a contraction for “they are,” and “there,” a directional word.

The above issues are prevalent in efforts to educate either native speakers or foreign language learners on the ideosyncracies of the English language using homophone and homograph examples. Other similar problems apply to other languages, where the identical pronunciation or written forms of homophone and homograph words can create confusion. Explaining these homophone and homograph examples is often part of most introductory language courses.

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