In phonology and grammar, a heteronym (also called a heterophone) is a word spelled/written exactly like another word, but which has a different meaning and pronunciation. That is to say, the two words are homographs, but not homophones. For example, “row” (to use oars) and “row” (to argue) are heteronyms, but the words “mean” (to intend) and the word “mean” (as in an average) are not because they are pronounced alike.
Here are some fun examples:
Do you know what a deer does to does?
I love to read so much that I actually read five books last week.
After reading the 500-number list repeatedly, her brain became number.
Most heteronyms are known to come in pairs. There are cases where heteronyms come in threes, but they are quite rare. “Heterophone,” literally translated, means “a difference in sound.” This expression sometimes refers to words that are simply pronounced differently, regardless of their spelling.
To reiterate, heteronyms are specific homographs; in these, there are varied pronunciations connected to different definitions or meanings.
A substantial number of heteronyms are pronounced differently as a result of one being a noun and the other a verb. The following fun list is a brief selection, and is limited to words most frequently used in our English language. Some of the heteronym pairs have entirely different definitions while other pairs have meanings that are somewhat related.
Affect – a person’s emotions / Affect – to change
Alternate – choice / Alternate – to switch back and forth
Attribute – to assign a cause to a result / Attribute – someone’s characteristic
Axes – more than one axe / Axes – the plural of axis
Bass – a stringed instrument / Bass – a fish
Bow – to lower your head (verb); ship’s front (noun) / Bow – used to shoot arrows
Bowed – to bend over (past form) / Bowed – bent in a curve
Buffet – to pound / Buffet – a self-service eatery
Close – nearby / Close – to shut something
Conduct – how one behaves / Conduct – to lead an orchestra
Conflict – to go against / Conflict – a dispute (related to first meaning)
Console – piece of furniture / Console – to provide comfort
Desert – to leave something or someone / Desert – open and dry territory
Digest – published material collection / Digest – to absorb nutritional from food
Does – to do, to act (third person present) / Does – a plurality of female deer
Dove – a beautiful bird / Dove – past tense of dive
House – a dwelling / House – to provide a living space
Incense – aromatic product to burn / Incense – to make someone very angry
Intern – a doctor in training / Intern – to confine in a facility
Lead – guide / Lead – a metal element
Moderate – average in amount or degree / Moderate – to preside over something
Number – numerals as in 1, 2, 3 / Number – having less feeling
Object – to complain / Object – an item or thing
Perfect – exactly right and correct / Perfect – to make exact and correct
Permit – allow / Permit – a document giving permission as in a driving permit
Polish – pertaining to Poland / Polish – to make shiny
Record – a list of something / Record – to write down
Refuse – to decline to do something / Refuse – trash or garbage
Separate – to divide / Separate – not together
Sewer – some who sews / Sewer – holds human waste
Subject – the theme of something / Subject – to impose upon someone
Tear – to rip cloth or paper / Tear – a drop of water from the eye
Wind – to coil or wind up / Wind – air that blows by
Heteronyms can be both fun and comical. One must use caution, however, when writing sentences containing heteronyms as these may cause some confusion. For example:
I subject my friends to pain every time I talk about the subject of my surgery.
When the forest fire got very close, the fire department had to close the road.
Farmers produce produce abundantly.
By now, you get the idea, right? A fun game of heteronyms would be great to play with your children. Play to see who can identify the greatest number of heteronyms! This will help them learn the words, their different pronunciations, their spelling, and, most importantly, the words’ meanings and definitions.
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