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What Is a Homograph? Definition and Examples

Updated on December 15, 2023Writing Tips

The English language is riddled with homographs—words that are spelled the same way but differ in meaning and/or pronunciation or origin. As a matter of fact, riddle is one of them: There’s the transitive verb, meaning “to poke holes into something,” and the noun, which refers to an enigma or a puzzle.

Fortunately, telling these tricksters apart is easier than you might expect—the words surrounding a homograph usually provide context clues, making it clear which meaning the writer intends to communicate. But there are still things to watch out for: The word homograph is awfully similar to homophone and homonym, the names for two related—but different—ambiguities in the language. We’ll get into the distinctions below.

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What is a homograph?

A homograph (pronounced HAH-muh-graf) is a pair or group of words that have the same spelling but differ in meaning and sometimes pronunciation or origin. The prefix homo- comes from the Greek word for “same,” and graph comes from the Greek word for “writing”; homographs are written—spelled—the same way.

Sometimes, these words sound different when spoken:

bass: a type of fish

bass: a musical instrument

Sometimes, they sound the same:

ring: jewelry worn on a finger

ring: call someone on the phone

Sometimes they look and sound identical but are derived from completely different roots. The two senses of riddle that we identified at the beginning of this post are just such a case. The verb that means “to pierce something with many holes” or “completely pervade something” comes to us from a Proto-Indo-European root word for sifting something with a tool like a sieve, while the noun referring to an enigma or a puzzle comes via an Old English word that means “to interpret or decode”—and is also the source of the word read.

Homographs versus homonyms and homophones

Not only do the terms homograph, homophone, and homonym begin with the same prefix, their meanings also overlap and are sometimes contested.

We’ve already seen that a homograph is a word that is spelled the same as another word but has a different meaning and may have a different pronunciation. A homophone (meaning “same sound”) is a word that is pronounced identically to another word but has a different meaning and may have a different spelling.

The words bow (a bending of the body to show respect) and bow (the front of a boat) are both homophones and homographs because they are spelled and pronounced identically. The word bow (the weapon that shoots an arrow) is a homograph of the other two words but not a homophone because it is pronounced differently.

In the broadest definition, homonym (“same name”) is an umbrella term for words with the same spelling or sound but different meanings, which means homographs and homophones are types of homonyms. In the common set of homonyms their/they’re/there, all three words are homophones in addition to being homonyms; none of them are homographs.

Homograph examples

Common homographs that are also homophones

  • band (group of people) / band (strap)
  • bat (flying mammal) / bat (sports equipment)
  • bear (large mammal) / bear (to carry)
  • can (to be able) / can (metal food container)
  • class (instructional course) / class (sophistication)
  • crane (wading bird) / crane (lifting machine)
  • fair (equitable) / fair (carnival)
  • fan (air-blowing appliance) / fan (admirer)
  • kind (sympathetic, helpful) / kind (type)
  • lean (having little fat) / lean (to rest against something)
  • novel (new, unique) / novel (fictional book)
  • park (outdoor recreational space) / park (to bring a vehicle to a stop)
  • part (component) / part (to separate)
  • pen (writing implement) / pen (small enclosure)
  • watch (time-telling jewelry) / watch (to observe)

Common homographs with different pronunciations

  • attribute (characteristic) / attribute (to give credit)
  • close (nearby) / close (to shut)
  • console (cabinet) / console (to comfort)
  • content (satisfied) / content (material contained)
  • entrance (way to enter) / entrance (to enchant)
  • lead (soft, heavy metal) / lead (to head up)
  • minute (sixty seconds) / minute (very small)
  • object (item) / object (to protest)
  • Polish (from Poland) / polish (to make smooth and shiny)
  • present (gift) / present (to show)
  • produce (fruit and vegetables) / produce (to bring into existence)
  • subject (topic) / subject (to bring under control of something)
  • tear (drop of fluid from the eye) / tear (to rip)
  • wind (movement of air) / wind (to turn something around something else)
  • wound (injury that breaks the skin) / wound (past tense of wind)

Homograph FAQs

What is a homograph?

A homograph is one of two or more words that are spelled the same but differ in meaning and may also differ in pronunciation or origin.

How are homographs different from homonyms?

In the loosest definition of homonym, a homonym is a word with the same spelling or sound but a different meaning from another word. A homograph is a type of homonym that has the same spelling as the other word but a different meaning.

How are homographs different from homophones?

Homophones are a type of homonym that is pronounced the same as another word but has a different meaning, whereas homographs are spelled the same as another word, have a different meaning, and may have a different pronunciation. Some words are both homographs and homophones.

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