01 February 2022

Make Sense of Heteronyms, Homonyms, Homographs and Homophones in English

child with bear

Learning English can be incredibly rewarding – it is the language of international business, a well-understood language in much of the Western world, and a desirable second language in many countries across the globe. But as you develop your skills – and your vocabulary – in English, you may start to notice that English has many words that look or sound exactly the same but mean something different, which can be pretty confusing. (This tricky quality of English trips up many native speakers too!)

In this article, we untangle these similar-seeming words so you can boost your English vocabulary with confidence, whether you are learning the language or want to polish your English language skills.


You may be familiar with the beginning of this word – hetero – meaning ‘different’. A heteronym is a word that is spelt the same as another but with a different pronunciation and meaning. One heteronym that presents a common puzzle for people learning English as a foreign language is read and read. What is the difference? Well, depending on the context, one is the present tense for perusing something that is written down – ‘Please read the sign’ – and the other is pronounced ‘red’ and is the past tense – ‘Thank you, I have read the sign.’ The only way to distinguish between them is through the clues given by their context.

Another common heteronym is close. One meaning is ‘to be near’ and is pronounced ‘clowse’: ‘My house is close to the post office.’ The other meaning is ‘to shut’ and pronounced ‘clohse’: ‘Unfortunately, they will close the post office.’

More examples include:

  • tear – the salty water that comes out of your eyes when you watch a weepy film (‘teeah’) or to rip something (‘tair’)
  • bow – to incline your body in respect (‘bow’), or a knot with two loops such as you might find around a gift (‘boh’)

Take a look at this article for some other fun examples of heteronyms.

A Homily to Homonyms

Again, you may be familiar with the first part of this word – homo – meaning ‘same’. Homonyms are words that sound the same as others but have a different meaning. If the word is also spelt the same, it is officially a homograph. If it is spelt differently, it is a homophone. Confused yet?! Consider some examples:

  • Hopping to homographs: If ‘homo’ means ‘same’ and ‘graph’ means ‘writing’, that may give you the clues you need to make sense of homographs. A homograph refers to a word with the same spelling and pronunciation as another, but with a different meaning. For example:
    • ‘bear’, meaning ‘to tolerate’ something or referring to the ‘big furry animal’: ‘I can bear a bear hug!’
    • ‘bark’ can refer to the ‘yap of a dog’ or the ‘covering of a tree’.
    • ‘fine’ can mean that something is ‘good/nice’ or refer to ‘a fee’ (which is not so good!).
  • Heading to homophones: If you are familiar with the Ancient Greek word ‘phone’ meaning ‘sound’, you can figure this one out too: a homophone is a word that sounds like another but is different in spelling and meaning, such as:
  • ‘bear’ – going back to the homograph ‘bear’, the word ‘bare’ sounds exactly the same but means ‘to be naked’.
  • ‘so’ is a shorter way of saying ‘therefore’, while ‘sew’ means ‘to stitch’ and ‘sow’ means ‘to plant’.
  • ‘flour’ is ‘ground wheat for baking bread’, while ‘flower’ refers to ‘a pretty bloom in the garden’.
  • ‘right’ means ‘to be correct’, while ‘write’ means ‘to form words with a pen’.

For an extensive list of commonly confused words, head here.

When you open a dictionary, you may discover that many words have several different definitions – and that is one of the joys (and trials) of learning English. If all this has got your head in a spin, please do get in contact with us! We are experts at providing clear and effective language training, and we are always happy to answer any questions as you navigate your language-learning journey.

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