The Grammarphobia Blog

Same difference

Q I know there’s a word for this, but I just can’t find it. I’m thinking of a category for words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently and have different meanings. For example, a “bow” as in a fancy ribbon rosette vs. a “bow” as in a reverential bending from the waist. Do you know what words like these are called?

A: Words that have the same spellings, but different meanings and sometimes different pronunciations, are homographs. Example: to “sow” (plant seeds) and a “sow” (female pig). The Greek roots of “homograph” mean same writing.

Words that have the same pronunciations and often the same spellings, but different meanings, are homonyms. Examples: a “bank” (embankment) and a “bank” (depository). “Homonym” means same name.

Words that have the same pronunciations, but different meanings and often different spellings, are homophones. Examples: “night” and “knight.” “Homophone” means same sound.

As you can see, the definitions (those above are from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed.), leave some latitude as far as interpretation, so there may be a little overlapping.

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