Homophones, homographs, synonyms and other spelling challenges

I would imagine that all languages contain synonyms - different words that have the same or very similar meanings. But English probably has more than its fair share of homophones (words that sound the same but have different spellings and different meanings) and homographs (those which are spelt the same but have different pronunciation and different meanings).

I have tried to simplify the differences between words with the same spelling and/or the same pronunciation and/or the same meaning here:

This diagram is inspired and adapted from one here.

You can see that we have three elements to consider: meaning, pronunciation and spelling. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes they don't. If we have two words that are exactly the same in meaning, pronunciation and spelling, then they are just two identical words. If the three elements are all different, then of course they are completely separate words. But you will see from the diagram that there are six other alternatives.

When spelling we have to watch out for:
  • homophones: make sure you have the right spelling for the meaning you want to convey. These are probably the trickiest types of words and spell checkers can't help you with these;
  • alternative spellings - there are a few words that have two possible spellings- I guess that's good news really - if you don't know how to spell one, spell the other! And some of these differences are between US and UK English, eg colour and color;
  • homographs: remember sometimes one spelling can have two different pronunciations and meanings - try not to get confused by this;
  • alternative pronunciations - again don't be misled by the differences in pronunciation, the spelling of these doesn't change.
In the next few postings we'll look at some homophones and some of those alternative spellings.

Meanwhile a challenge for you:

How many words that are homophones can you find in this posting (NOT including the diagram)? For example, I (eye).

Write them in the comments below.

1 comment:

  1. Part of the trouble is that the difference between homonyms and merely polysemous words isn't very clear. Dictionaries usually discriminate on part-of-speech or historical grounds.

    Consider sound. The OED lists three homonymous nouns, one adjective, and two verbs in current standard use, respectively "arm of the sea", "noise", "act of determining depth of water", "undamaged", "make a noise", "determine depth". However, the meaning "swim bladder of certain fish" is classified with the first, because they both derive from the obsolete meaning "act of swimming".