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Homonyms and Homophones: Explained

(This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of Paper Jam)

There are many tricky parts of the English language. A part of this are homonyms and homophones. These two types of words play around with word sounds, spellings, and definitions. Keeping track of which is which can be tricky, but we can easily figure it out by taking a closer look at the words themselves.

The origins of the word homonym clue towards its meaning. The prefix, homo-means “same,” while the second part -onym means “name,” and so homonym literally means “same name” or “same word”. Homonyms are words that are spelled and/or sound the same but have different meanings.

For example, “lead” can mean two different things. It can be used as a noun to refer to a type of metal and as a verb meaning to guide or lead someone. Both usages of the word have different pronunciations.

Like before, we can break down the word homophone to know what it means. The prefix, Homo-once again means “same” and the root -phone means “sound.”

Homophones are words that have the same sound as another word but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Some of the most commonly confused homophones are the words there, their, and they're. Saying these three words aloud, we can hear how they’re all pronounced the same, but the three are spelled differently and mean different things.

Looking back at these rules, we can observe how the definitions for homonym and homophone can blend a bit. Homophones are a type of homonym, so all homophones are homonyms but not all homonyms are homophones. It's a situation relatable to how a thumb is a finger, but a finger is not a thumb. Both homophones and homonyms have similar pronunciations, but homonyms are different in that they are spelled alike.

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