Did you hear about the man who left town by turning left at the stop light? He realized he forgot to use his arm to arm his house alarm. So he turned right at the light, because it was the right thing to do.
Words can be funny, can’t they? Did you notice that several words in the sentences above are spelled the same and pronounced the same, yet they have different meanings? We call those words homonyms. The word “homonym” comes from a Greek word that means “having the same name.”
When you begin to think about words, you’ll realize that there are a lot of words that are spelled the same, but have different meanings. There are also a lot of words that are pronounced the same, but have different spellings.
There are special terms for all of these types of words, and we’ll explain more about them here. It may seem confusing at first, but the important thing to remember is that just because two or more words sound the same or are spelled the same doesn’t mean they mean the same thing.
Words that are spelled the same but have different meanings are called homographs. Homographs can be further broken down into two groups depending upon if they’re pronounced the same.
Homographs that are pronounced the same are also homophones (and also homonyms, which are words that are spelled and pronounced the same, yet have different meanings). Examples of these words were seen above: right (direction) and right (correct). Homographs that are pronounced differently are called heteronyms. Examples of heteronyms include bow (to bend over) and bow (the hunting weapon).
Homophones are words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings. As already mentioned, homophones that are spelled the same are also homographs (and homonyms). If they’re spelled differently, they’re called heterographs. Examples of heterographs include to, too and two. You have to be careful with heterographs. Modern technology, such as spelling and grammar checkers, will not always catch when you use a heteronym incorrectly, since you probably spelled the wrong word right!
And just to make things even more fun, did you realize that there are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings when capitalized? We call these words capitonyms. Examples of capitonyms include march (a way of walking) and March (the month).
You may notice that people get these different terms confused very easily. People often call pairs of words homonyms when they’re really just homographs or homophones. Remember: homonyms are both homographs (spelled the same) and homophones (pronounced the same).