Monday, March 16, 2009

Editorial Tip of the Week: Homonyms

Ever come across homonyms? Those pesky words that look similar or sound similar or even mean something similar but are actually different words? These words can sometimes be the bane of an editor’s existence, so be sure to keep an eye out while writing to make sure you’re using the right word and not its brother of a homonym.

Homonyms are words that share the same spelling as well as the same pronunciation, but can have very different meanings depending on the context of the sentence. For example, “stalk” can be a noun referring to a part of a plant or it can be a verb when talking about following or harassing another person. Other examples are “bear” (an animal or to carry), “left” (opposite of right or past tense of leave) and “fluke” (a stroke of luck or the fins on a whale’s tail).

Some define homonyms as words that share the same spelling or pronunciation, but these can be defined as homographs as well. Homographs share the same spelling but have different pronouncements and meanings. If they have the same pronunciation but different spellings, these words are called homophones (think to, too, and two). There are also subclasses called heteronyms, polysemes, and capitonyms. Most of these have to do with related meanings or similar pronunciations.

It is all a little confusing, so be sure to check out a really helpful group of homonym charts on Wikipedia and Alan Cooper’s Homonym’s Page for a great list of the many homonyms in the English language!


  1. Kim Greenberg, you use "stalk" as an example of a homonym. Do you think it rhymes with "stock"? Alan Cooper probably would. He and most of Oregon have merged the Spanish "a" of taco with the "aw" sound in talk. No one would think of saying taco and talk-o with the same first vowel sound, but take another look at his homophone list. Mr. Cooper takes the Spanish "a" in not, odd, rot, and chock and declares it to be a homophone with the "aw" sounding "naught", "awed", "wrought" and "chalk". I checked the American Heritage dictionary, the Merriam Webster Dictionary, MSN Encarta, and the Wiktionary and they all agree that these words fall into two distinct vowel sound pronunciations. People in Colorado don't start their state's name with the sound of "call", but Mr. Cooper probably would.

    No offense to Ms. Greenberg, but I'm not sure comments get read by anyone. I enjoy the photoessays and the tips, but there isn't much chatter. That can change! People can start talking, making their points made. I think pronunciation is very important because I teach Spanish speakers how to speak English and they are very confused with the pronunciation in Oregon (they really notice that folks from Oregon don't use the Spanish "a") AND because my children go to public school and he's picking it up. (It reminds me of the accent from Ontario, Canada.) What do you think?

  2. Thanks for your comment, Cypress. About "stalk," I'd agree with you that "stock" has a subtly different pronunciation. They sound the same to the lay ear, but anyone who has studied linguistics would hear the difference. Kim's example is actually about the stalk of a plant versus the stalking one person can do to another person. Same pronunciation, same spelling, different meanings.

    I'm not sure what the official classification of Oregon's accent is. I'm from Idaho, and the way Oregonians talk is much more pleasant to my ear than the way Idahoans talk. I've also heard that news anchors study the way Oregonians talk because the accent is the least subtle of the country. It's certainly not what a linguist would call formal, though.

  3. Excuse me, *most* subtle, not least.

  4. I'd like to respond. When I put together a beginner dictionary for Spanish-speakers, I use simple words that are easy to pronounce. I use Spanish-vowel-sounds in all these starter words, spanish has many vowel sounds found in spoken English[a,i,o,u,ai,ei,oi,au,er,yu(these are written in the Spanish alphabet)]. If I cave in to the subtle Oregon merger, I'm losing most of the words that use the Spanish "a" (as it taco)e.g. hot, not, God, on, want, etc. My students and I loose these words because the Oregon accent pushes them into the vowel sound of "ball hog", a vowel sound that is outside of the Spanish phonetics. I'd rather keep as many English words with Spanish vowel sounds as I possibly can. To me, Oregon is like a part of Spain where everyone rolls there r's in twice as many words. Oregon English actually sounds harder to learn to a Spanish speaker. And, I stand in solidarity with my students, we don't want English to be any harder than it is!

  5. English can be so confusing. No wonder it's so tough for English language learners. Laugh a bit and sigh a bit as you check out English Can Be So Confusing.