A Word, Please

Dealing with homonyms

Here’s a word I avoid: homonym. It’s not that I have a problem with this word. It’s marvelously useful. It’s even fun to say. My problem is I’m just never that confident I’m using it correctly.

The insecurity began right around the time I learned about homophones and homographs. They’re similar concepts. So similar, in fact, that I have trouble keeping them straight. Hence my insecurity.

So, in the hopes this is as useful for you as it is for me, here’s a look at homonyms, homophones and homographs, as well as synonyms, antonyms and lesser-known players polysemes and homomorphs.

You put your money in a bank. You cast your fishing line from a river bank. This is a classic example of homonyms.

The word homonym means, roughly, “same name.” According to the Oxford English Grammar, homonyms are “distinct words that happen to have the same form.” And they’re pronounced the same, too.

So when you see a duck and when you duck your head, those are homonyms. When you talk about current events or talk about the current in the water, those are homonyms. When your cats hide from the vacuum cleaner and when you talk about the hide of an animal, those are homonyms.

But what about “dove” and “dove” in “I saw a dove flying in the sky” and “Emma dove into the pool”? What about “You can lead a horse to water” and “The house has lead pipes”? Sixty seconds is a minute but a tiny thing is minute. These aren’t homonyms. They’re pronounced differently. Yet they’re written the same. They’re visually identical. These are homographs, with the “graph” part a nod to the visual – they look the same.

So how about “ate” and “eight”? What about “hair” and “hare”? How about “bare” and “bear,” “compliment” and “complement,” and “staff” and “staph”?

I’ll give you a hint: These pairs don’t mean the same or look the same, but they sound the same. That’s you’re clue that these are homophones.

So homonyms are named the same, homophones sound the same, and homographs look the same. Of course language is never that easy. There’s some gray area as to whether homonyms are a subgroup of homographs and whether words spelled the same but pronounced differently should be called heteronyms or heterophones instead of homographs. But the simpler guidelines are more useful.

And while we’re in the neighborhood, here are two other terms worth noting: homomorph and polyseme.

Look at both uses of “paint” in the sentence: “When you paint the house, use high-quality paint.” They’re pretty much the same thing: colored stuff you brush on to the house. But one is a verb and the other is a noun. These are called homomorphs, words basically the same in meaning but distinct grammatically.

Even nearly identical words like the adjective “fast” in “My car is fast” and the adverb “fast” in “My car runs fast” count as homomorphs: same basic meaning, different parts of speech.

“Polysemes” are like homonyms just more closely related. The hands on your body and the hands of a clock are much more similar to each other than the river bank and the money bank we mentioned earlier. So these two meanings of “hand” are polysemes because the meanings are so similar. “Grasp” is another example: You can grasp something physically, or you can grasp it mentally. The meanings are very close, one clearly an offshoot of the other. So these are polysemes, too.

“Synonym” and “antonym” you already know. Synonyms have the same or similar meanings: walk and stroll, yell and holler, pants and trousers. Antonyms are opposites or approximate opposites: tall and short, fast and slow, weak and strong.

You can see why I have trouble keeping them all straight.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.