“What’s all the rowing about?”

Homonyms, homographs and homophones

The English language can be tricky sometimes.  The title of this blog post, for example, has more than one possible meaning.  What does a reader need to ensure that they have understood the meaning of the sentence?

I could be about to talk about having  an  argument or about using oars to move a boat across the water.  But I  am going to do neither; instead I would like to discuss homonymy.

Just the other day, somebody was asking me the difference between homophones, homonyms and homographs and it seemed an ideal post!  It’s always good, I think, to brush up on semantics!


Definition:  words that have the same spelling and pronunciation but a different meaning:

eg:  The chairs were placed in a row.

The boat was heavy and hard to row.

Homonymy means that words are identical in both spelling and sound.  In partial homonymy or heteronymy, words can be homophones or homographs. 



Definition:  Words that are spelled the same but which have a different meaning and sometimes different pronunciation.

eg:  The dog was about to bark.

The tree had silver bark.

We had an angry row late into the night.

Once I got going, the boat was easy to row.


Definition:  Words which have different spellings and meanings but are pronounced the same.

eg:  I wanted to go over there.

They’re the best shop in town.

They bought their own lunch.


To return to the question from earlier, context is very important in order to avoid ambiguity.  Even as a title in a newspaper or magazine, a well placed photo would leave readers in no doubt of the meaning/pronunciation of the word ‘rowing’.

Below, I leave you with a quick table to summarise the differences between the terms.

Term Meaning Spelling Pronunciation
Homonym Different Same Same
Homograph Different Same Same or different
Homophone Different Same or different Same

adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homonym


Crystal, D.  2000.  The Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language.  CUP.  Cambridge

Wales, K. 2001.  A Dictionary of Stylistics.  Pearson Education. London.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homonym accessed 1/12/14


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