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Watt is a homonym?
Diane Nicholls

Next in a series of articles on Language Interference

What is Homonymy?

Two or more words which are spelt differently but pronounced the same are generally referred to as Homophones. Hence, bare and bear, sea and see, pray and prey, and site, cite and sight, are all homophones.

Two or more words that are spelt exactly the same but have different origins and meanings are referred to as Homographs. Hence, row (the argument), row (the group of objects arranged in a line) and row (the boating activity) are homographs. Homographs do not have to have the same pronunciation.

Two or more words which are either spelt the same or pronounced the same or both are referred to as Homonyms. So, any word pair or group that are homophones or homographs are also homonyms. It’s an umbrella term for the two. Hence, watt is, indeed, a homonym, but it is first and foremost a homophone, and row is a homonym but first and foremost a homograph.


The trouble with homophones

Homonyms are everywhere, homophones being the most conspicuous of the two types. Shop names are a very good case in point. A quick leaf through the Yellow Pages revealed a vast number of fish and chip shops with the word Plaice above the door (‘Nice Plaice’, ‘The Frying Plaice’, ‘Fish Plaice’, etc). The same punning tendency is found in sewing shops (‘Sew Fantastic’, ‘Sew and Sew’, ‘Sew Amazing’), furniture shops (‘Home Suite Home’, ‘The Suite Shop’, ‘Suite Dreams’), and butcher shops (‘Meat at the Corner’). My personal favourite is the hairdresser’s called ‘Curl up and Dye’, with ‘Lunatic Fringe’ coming a close second, while I have to question the wisdom of naming a record shop ‘Vinyl Solution’.

The fact that words with completely different meanings can be pronounced the same is also commonly exploited in literature, and poetry in particular. John Donne, in A Hymn to God the Father uses homophony to pun on the word pair son and sun and on the word done and his own surname:

But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, thou has done;
I fear no more.

(For a complete version of the poem, go to

Similarly, though far less readably, in Sonnet 135, William Shakespeare puns on the noun and verb senses of will and the shortening of his own name, Will, no fewer than 13 times. (To read this sonnet, go to

Homophones also turn up frequently in children’s rhymes: ‘A sailor went to sea, sea, sea, to see what he could see, see, see’, or ‘How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?’ and, more excruciatingly, in children’s jokes: ‘Why are there no pills in the jungle? Because the parrots eat ’em all’. It is perhaps a mercy that these jokes do not translate into written form. Actually, such rhymes and jokes perform an important function in helping children to get to grips with bewildering similarities between words. This is the more serious side to homophones. While they can be, and often are, used creatively, they can lead to ambiguity and confusion in spoken language. I was bemused for years by the title of the Moody Blues song ‘Nights in White Satin’ because, whenever I heard it, I heard it as ‘Knights in White Satin’. A friend confided to me that she had for a long time thought the title of the popular French song ‘La Vie en Rose’ was ‘L’Avion Rose’ (The Pink Aeroplane).


Homophones cause problems when it comes to writing them down that, mercifully, never arise in speech. They are a very common cause of spelling errors. The following confusable pairs often cause us to falter even once we are aware of the risk they pose:

stationary stationery
discreet discrete
elicit illicit
canvas canvass
breech breach
compliment complement
dessert  desert

(Check the meaning of these words here.) 

A little absent-mindedness can even lead to mistakes with more everyday word pairs such as affect and effect, course and coarse, die and dye, break and brake. And an electronic spellchecker will not be able to help. Neither can we be entirely confident that a proofreader will spot these errors should they slip through, as research has shown that homophones are among the most likely errors to be missed, particularly the most common of all such as their, there and they’re or too and to. Other computer software has to struggle with homophones too. They are the bugbear of speech- and voice-recognition software developers since none but the most sophisticated systems can fall back on context, as humans do, to work out the most likely word intended. And the problems are even greater when the homophones have the same part of speech – these are the most confusable of all.


The trouble with homographs

Since homographs are identical in written form they present a different set of problems for the language user, whether a learner or a native speaker. At least their spelling can never be confused. But like homophones, they too are used in puns which play on the ambiguity of the words. These are usually more sophisticated puns and they work on paper as well as in speech. For example, ‘Time flies like a bird. Fruit flies like bananas’. This capitalises on two homograph pairs: flies (the verb) and flies (the insects), and like (the preposition expressing similarity) and like (the verb).

Homographs also create ambiguity. An everyday example is in newspaper headlines. The following three, which were taken from one of many lists collected by enthusiasts on the Internet, demonstrate particularly well the ambiguity-creating power of homographs:

Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case
Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
Red Tape Holds up New Bridge

This is often taken to be a negative side-effect of the necessarily concise style required of journalists, but a look at some Internet sites giving guidelines on writing eye-catching newspaper headlines and advertising copy revealed that it is often a deliberate ploy to catch the readers’ attention, and is, rather, an example of the deliberate exploitation of homographs for creative purposes.

Cryptic crossword puzzles are another example of ways in which words which are identical in appearance but entirely different in meaning crop up in daily life. An acute awareness of the multitude of homographs in the language is a major advantage when solving crossword puzzles. A common formula is to present a two-part clue for which a homograph pair are the answer. So, in today’s crossword, I find the clue Motionless, even now. Sensitivity to homonyms, conscious or unconscious, gives us the solution Still. Even more tricky are one-word clues where one has to think laterally away from the most obvious homograph. The clue Flower will prompt only the most homographically aware to think of the solution: River. Crossword puzzles make a very effective language-teaching tool, for native-speakers and foreign learners alike.

The potential for misunderstanding inherent in homographs is familiar to us all. If I write, for example, I can’t bear children, how can you possibly know from that information alone, what I mean? At least if we were face to face there might be some extra-linguistic clue. But we are still often tripped up by homographs in everyday communication.

Homographs are a problem in computational linguistics (Natural Language Processing) too. The field of Word-Sense Disambiguation is dedicated to developing software tools which will help computers to identify the intended sense of a word. When a human being is faced with the sentence ‘They couldn’t play cricket because they didn’t have a bat’, it is never the small, nocturnal winged mammal that first springs to mind because we naturally associate playing cricket with the other type of bat. But how can a computer access this information? This is a particular stumbling block for scientists developing machine translation software because it is almost guaranteed that homographs in one language will not be mirrored by homographs in another language. A translator translating the sentence above into French, for example, must choose between chauve-souris and batte.


How many homonyms are there in the English language?

Rogers Reference, in their working dictionary of homonyms described at, claim to have documented 6,139 homonyms in the English language. But it is important to bear in mind that perceptions of similarity between words are essentially subjective and will often differ from person to person. And of course, in the case of homophones, regional accents will both create and negate homophony. To make matters worse, definitions of homonymy, homophony and homography seem to differ in themselves from dictionary to dictionary and, it seems, between British and American English.

Homonyms across language boundaries

Homonyms are not a linguistic feature peculiar to English. Consider the homophones in the French nonsense sentence: Le ver vert va vers le verre (The green worm goes towards the glass), for example. Speakers of other languages than English encounter exactly the same delights and problems as those outlined above in their own mother tongues.

But what is truly troublesome is that homonyms exist between languages too. So once we have got to grips, consciously or unconsciously, with the homonyms in our own mother tongues and we begin to learn foreign languages, we have a whole new set of word similarities to deal with. And this is, of course, greater the more closely related two languages are. Anybody who studied German at school will remember tittering at the fact that Father in German was Vater (pronounced Farter). Less amusingly, while Hand in German meant pretty much the same as Hand in English, Mutter meant Mother, Gift meant Poison and, perhaps even more confusing, Mann did sometimes mean Man but on other occasions meant Husband. These are homonyms between languages and they are most commonly referred to as False Friends. They are a feature of language no language learner can ever afford to be complacent about because they crop up everywhere and they will never go away. Even the most veteran professional translator must guard against absent-mindedly translating the French word Actuel (current, present or topical) as Actual in English.


False Friends

Like the homophones and homographs within a language, False Friends between languages come in many different guises and present a variety of potential pitfalls. Not least of these is that there are homonyms between languages that actually reliably overlap in meaning – true friends, perhaps. Similarities between lexicons can therefore be a handy shortcut to vocabulary expansion, or a siren luring the learner onto the rocks of misunderstanding.

Any learner of English wishing to get to grips with the English lexicon must cope with homonyms on two levels; with the multitude of homonyms within the English language on the one hand, and with the homonyms which exist between English and their own mother tongue on the other. Learner English, or the English produced by non-native speakers of English, provides frequent evidence of what can go wrong along the way.

Further reading

For a mother-tongue-specific look at Learner English, see:
Learner English, A teacher’s guide to interference and other problems, Eds. Michael Swan and Bernard Smith (CUP, 2001)

For an entertaining and informative general overview of language and communication, see:
The Language Instinct
, Steven Pinker (The Penguin Press, 1994)
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, David Crystal (CUP, 1995)

For more amusing ambiguous newspaper headlines, see:

Next in the series

In the next issue I will examine the different kinds of false friends that exist between languages and will take a look at how they come about.