Homonymy in English

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rates homophones with board/bored, clearly two different words though pronounced alike, and his example of homographs (the verb desert/the noun desert) again shows, by their pronunciation, that they are different words. Even his example of a homonym -- words having both the same sound and spelling, as illustrated by "to quail and a quail" -- clearly shows they are different words. Lexicographers underline this point by writing separate entries for different words, whether or not they have the same spelling and pronunciation.

One could stipulate a phrase, like uniquely different words to represent category D, but this expedient is cumbersome and not transparent. A simpler solution, I believe, can be found by means of a neologism. It is not difficult to think of a suitable term.

An allonym is a word that differs in spelling and pronunciation from all other words, whereas both homonyms and heteronyms identify words that are the same, in some ways, as other words.

No doubt in ordinary usage, we will have little need for this term, although it would simplify lexical explanation if one could start by making the claim that the most words in English are allonyms. The clear exceptions are other groups.


Different words that are spelled and pronounced the same way are classed in cell A and are correctly called homonyms proper but some writers, confusingly, call them heteronyms.


When different words are spelled the same way but pronounced differently, they belong to category B. It is precise to call them homographs and they are sometimes misleadingly called heteronyms. By contrast, when different words are pronounced the same way but spelled differently, we may properly call them homophones rarely, they have also been called heteronyms.



Homonyms proper



Homonyms proper are words, as I have already mentioned, identical in pronunciation and spelling, like fast and liver above. Other examples are: back n part of the body back adv away from the front back v go back; ball n a gathering of people for dancing ball n round object used in games; bark n the noise made by dog bark v to utter sharp explosive cries bark n the skin of a tree bark n

a sailing ship; base n bottom base v build or place upon base a mean; bay n part of the sea or lake filling wide-mouth opening of land bay n recess in a house or room bay v bark bay n the European laurel.

The important point is that homonyms are distinct words: not different meanings within one word.






Homophones are words of the same sound but of different spelling and meaning:

air hair; arms alms; buy by; him hymn; knight night; not knot; or oar; piece peace; rain reign; scent cent; steel steal; storey story; write right and many others.

In the sentence The play-wright on my right thinks it right that some conventional rite should symbolize the right of every man to write as he pleases the sound complex [rait] is a noun, an adjective, an adverb and a verb, has four different spellings and six different meanings. The difference may be confined to the use of a capital letter as in bill and Bill, in the following example:


“How much is my milk bill?”

“Excuse me, Madam, but my name is John.”


On the other hand, whole sentences may be homophonic: The sons raise meat The suns rays meet. To understand these one needs a wider context. If you hear the second in the course of a lecture in optics, you will understand it without thinking of the possibility of the first.






Homographs are words different in sound and in meaning but accidentally identical in spelling: bow [bou] bow [bau]; lead [li:d] lead [led]; row [rou] row [rau]; sewer [soue] sewer [sjue]; tear [tie] tear [te]; wind [wind] wind [waind] and many more.


It has been often argued that homographs constitute a phenomenon that should be kept apart from homonymy, as the object of linguistics is sound language. This viewpoint can hardly be accepted. Because of the effects of education and culture written English is a generalized national form of expression. An average speaker does not separate the written and oral form. On the contrary he is more likely to analyze the words in terms of letters than in terms of phonemes with which he is less familiar. That is why a linguist must take into consideration both the spelling and the pronunciation of words when analyzing cases of identity of form and diversity of content.



B. Classification given by A.I. Smirnitsky



The classification, which I have mentioned above, is certainly not precise enough and does not reflect certain important features of these words, and, most important of all, their status as parts of speech. The examples given their show those homonyms may belong to both to the same and to different categories of parts of speech. Obviously, the classification of homonyms should reflect this distinctive feather. Also, the paradigm of each word should be considered, because it has been observed that the paradigms of some homonyms coincide completely, and of others only partially.


Accordingly, Professor A.I. Smirnitsky classifieds homonyms into two large classes:

  1. full homonyms
  2. partial homonyms



Full homonyms



Full lexical homonyms are words, which represent the same category of parts of speech and have the same paradigm.


Match n a game, a contest

Match n a short piece of wood used for producing fire


Wren n a member of the Womens Royal Naval Service

Wren n a bird







Partial homonyms



Partial homonyms are subdivided into three subgroups:

A. Simple lexico-grammatical partial homonyms are words, which belong to the same category of parts of speech. Their paradigms have only one identical form, but it is never the same form, as will be soon from the examples:


(to) found v

found v (past indef., past part. of to find)


(to) lay v

lay v (past indef. of to lie)


(to) bound v

bound v (past indef., past part. of to bind)


B. Complex lexico-grammatical partial homonyms are words of different categories of parts of speech, which have identical form in their paradigms.



Rose n

Rose v (past indef. of to rise)


Maid n

Made v (past indef., past part. of to make)


Left adj

Left v (past indef., past part. of to leave)


Bean n

Been v (past part. of to be)


One num

Won v (past indef., past part. of to win)


C. Partial lexical homonyms are words of the same category of parts of speech which are identical only in their corresponding forms.


to lie (lay, lain) v

to lie (lied, lied) v



to hang (hung, hung) v

to hang (hanged, hanged) v



to can (canned, canned)

(I) can (could)



C. Other aspects of classification



Various types of classification for homonyms have been suggested.

A comprehensive system may be worked out if we are guided by the theory of oppositions and in classifying the homonyms take into consideration the difference or sameness in their lexical and grammatical meaning, paradigm and basic form.


As both form and meaning can be further subdivided, the combination of distinctive features by which two words are compared becomes more complicated there are four features: the form may be phonetical and graphical, the meaning lexical and grammatical, a word may also have a paradigm of grammatical forms different from the basic form.

The distinctive features shown in the table below are lexical meaning (different denoted by A, or nearly the same denoted by A1), grammatical meaning (different denoted by B, or same by B1), paradigm (different denoted by C, or same denoted by C1), and basic form (different denoted by D, and same denoted by D1).


The term “nearly same lexical meaning” must not be taken too literally. It means only that the corresponding members of the opposition have some important invariant semantic components in common. “Same grammatical meaning” implies that both members belong to the same part of speech.