11. Reading Obstacles 6: Homonyms & Homographs




Spellings that hide two different words can confuse readers who are unfamiliar with one of the words



An earlier post on reading (7. Metaphorical Meanings) is about the difficulty English words can give if they have two connected meanings, one derived from the other. Here I want to consider the similar problem of pairs of English words that have totally unconnected meanings but identical spellings.

In some cases the pronunciations will be the same too, so that it is easy to think there is only a single word instead of two. Examples are flatter (= either a verb meaning “please with untrue praise” or an adjective meaning “greater in flatness”) and colon (= either “punctuation comprising two dots in a vertical line” or “part of the intestine”). In other cases the pronunciations will be different, as in row (rhyming with flow), which means “a horizontal line”, and row (rhyming with now), which means “argue angrily”.

The technical name for word pairs of identical spelling and pronunciation is “homonyms”, while that for pairs with only identical spelling is “homographs”. Homographs are an unfortunate result of the well-known chaos that English spelling is afflicted with (see 29. Illogical Vowel Spellings).



Like words with metaphorical meaning, homonyms and homographs can cause reading difficulty when one of the two meanings is unknown to the reader. If that unknown meaning is the one present in a text, the reader is likely to think of the known meaning instead, with the result that they will either misunderstand the text or simply become confused. In the former case, an error will have occurred without the reader being aware of it, while in the latter, the confusion and distress will be made worse by the fact that the cause of the difficulty is not easy to recognise.

To illustrate the problem, consider the following extract, which was reported as difficult by a student from Hong Kong (see the technical article What can learners tell us about their reading difficulties?). Can you identify the troublesome homonym?

While concern in that first environmental crisis was with global collapse, the appropriate focus for social action and political pressure was nonetheless seen to be the individual state.

The problem is the word state. Does it mean “condition” (as in a state of excitement) or “country” (as in Head of State)? In fact, there are some clues that the intended meaning is the second. The words while and nonetheless, which are often used when two opposing ideas are expressed, both suggest that state is an opposite of global. Since global means “world”, the “country” meaning of state is the one that makes the best sense as the opposite of it.



One type of homograph that is particularly worth being aware of is that where the different pronunciations represent different word classes, usually verbs versus nouns. The pronunciation difference nearly always involves a change of stress – i.e. of how strongly the different syllables of the word are said (see 125. Stress & Emphasis) – and sometimes also a change of vowels. Words that change only in stress are illustrated by upSET (verb) versus UPset (noun) and INcrease (noun) versus inCREASE (verb).

When homographs have different vowel sounds as well as different stress, the variation usually reflects the tendency of unstressed English vowels to be pronounced as either /∂/ or /ı/ regardless of their spelling (see 41. Unexpected Vowels in Derived Words and 91. Pronunciation in Reading Aloud). Examples of homographs whose vowels change with their stress are analyses, convert, defect, estimate, invalid, object, perfect, permit, present, progress, record, refuse, reject, research, subject and survey.

The underlined words in this list are especially likely to cause pronunciation problems. Analyses can have its stress on either the first “a” or the second, the other one in each case needing to be pronounced /∂/. When the first “a” is stressed, the “y” is pronounced /aı/and “-ses” is /zız/, the whole word being a verb. When the second “a” is stressed, the “y” is pronounced /∂/ and “-ses” is /si:z/, like seize, the whole word being a noun. Estimate is always stressed at the beginning, but “-mate” can be either /meıt/ (verb) or /m∂t/ (noun). Invalid can stress “in-“, causing “va” to be /væ/ and “lid” to be /li:d/ (noun meaning “a person suffering long-term illness”), or it can stress “va”, causing “lid” to be /lıd/ (adjective meaning “not valid”). In present, the “e”s can be /e/ + /∂/ (noun/adjective) or /ı/ + /e/ (verb).



Homonyms are quite common in English. Many English coursebooks and vocabulary practice books provide examples. Here are a few that I have presented to my own students. Readers are invited to identify both meanings, using a dictionary where necessary.


Examples of Homonyms



Practice Exercise (Homonyms in Use)

Here are some more sentences containing the more unusual of two homonyms. Try first to identify the homonym (answers are given afterwards) and then, if you do not know its intended meaning, to make a guess.


1. Wood infested with boring insects will show tiny telltale holes all over its surface.

2. The Bible portrays the Jewish and Christian God as an all-powerful “lord of hosts” in the “heavenly kingdom” of which he is the ruler.

3. When mothers saw their children being snatched away they rent their clothes in despair.

4. As a general scapegoat for the world’s troubles, population growth provides an excellent excuse for policy-makers to duck hard but related questions on international terms of trade, governance, monetary policy and the myriad other causal factors in the poverty cycle.

5. Current forces can present a major danger when tiredness begins to sap the strength and affect the movements of the long-distance swimmer. 


Identification of the Homonyms

1 = boring; 2 = hosts; 3 = rent; 4 = duck; 5 = current, sap.


2 thoughts on “11. Reading Obstacles 6: Homonyms & Homographs

  1. One needs a great mastery of the English language in order to fully understand what each word would mean in every particular sentence. This is always difficult especially during examination as a student may be in a hurry to catch up with time.Every word in a statement is very important for understanding everything in an essay-its true to state that no one can know everything perfectly well. To this i say that the current education aims at making student dictionaries or encyclopedias in that they must contain every thing. Thanks for coming up with such a programme. Let me give you an example in my mother tongue-Dhopadhola from Tororo: “tworo” has three different meaning 1)snoring; 2)sisal; 3)fungi. One has to be focused and attentive in order that the correct message be understood.


    • Thanks for your mother-tongue examples: every language probably has homonyms in the way English does. In our mother tongue we easily choose the right meaning in a particular context, because we usually know all of the possible meanings of the word. So if we can do it in the mother tongue, doing it in English should not be too difficult , provided we know about the possibility of unconnected meanings and look for them in new English words that we meet.

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