Homophones, homographs & homonyms

by IELTS Australasia — November 30th, 2018

Have you come across words that are spelled the same, but have different meanings? Or words that are spelled differently, but sound the same? We call these words homophones, homographs or homonyms. Let’s have a look at the difference.

In written English (for example your IELTS Writing test), it is important to know the correct spelling of a word you want to use. You don’t want to write “weak” when you mean “week” even though they sound the same. In spoken English, (your IELTS Speaking test for example), spelling is less important, but pronunciation is. Think about the word “lead” which can be pronounced as “led” or “leed.” Because these words cause a lot of confusion, it’s well worth to spend a few minutes to know the difference: homophones vs homographs vs homonyms. So how does this work out in practice?

Homonym vs homophone vs homograph

Homonyms are words which sound alike or are spelled alike. In a strict sense, a homonym is a word that both sounds and is spelled the same as another word. Think of the word “lie” which can mean “not true” or “horizontal or resting position.” It’s written and pronounced the same. Likewise, “train” is a mode of transport or could mean physical/mental exercise.

In loose terms, both homographs and homophones are a kind of homonym because they either sounds the same (homophone) or are spelled the same (homograph).

Homophones

What is a homophone?

The word homophone comes from the Greek word homos (=same) and phone (=voice). Homonyms can be words that sound the same but have different meanings.

List of homophones

Try to read the following words aloud when you look at their meaning. They should sound identical.

  • ad (advertisement) / add (increase)
  • ate (past tense of eat) / eight (number 8)
  • be (verb) / bee (the yellow/black flying animal)
  • blew (past tense of blow) / blue (the colour)
  • buy (purchasing) / by (proposition or adverb) / bye (farewell)
  • cell (small room where a prisoner is kept) / sell (hand over in exchange for money)
  • hear (listening to something) / here (in, at, or to this place or position)
  • hour (time) / our (something that belongs to you and others)
  • its (belonging to or associated with a thing) / it’s (contraction of “it is”)
  • know (knowing something) / no (opposite of yes)
  • meet (getting together with someone) / meat (animal product as food)
  • one (number 1) / won (past tense of win)
  • their (belonging to or associated with people) / there (here or nearby) / they’re (contraction of they are)
  • theirs (belonging to or associated with people) / there’s (contraction of there is)
  • to (motion or direction) / too (as well or in addition) / two (number 2)
  • who’s (contraction of who is or who has) / whose (belonging to or associated with which person)
  • your (belonging to or associated with which person) / you’re (contraction of you are)
Examples of homophones in a sentence

Let’s take a couple of words from the list provided above and put them in a sentence. As an exercise, you could try to put the other words in a sentence.

  • The appointment at the dentist will take about one hour.
  • Our house was built 20 years ago.
  • “Are you leaving already?” … “Yes, I need to catch the train. Bye!
  • You need to be in class by 1pm at the latest.
  • I will buy my friend a watch for his birthday.
  • We won our game of football by just one
How to avoid mistakes in your IELTS test?

When you are preparing for your IELTS test, it is important to understand how a word is spelled, especially for your IELTS Listening and Writing tests.

For your IELTS Listening test, you need to make sure you write (or type if you do the computer-delivered IELTS test) the correct word and the correct spelling. Take this example: You hear a recording about a lady who is enquiring about a job she saw in an online ad.  As you listen you question asks you to write down where the lady saw found the job. If you write/type “add” you may not receive points, because this word means to join (something) to something else to increase the size, number, or amount. If you write “ad” you’d receive your points!

For your IELTS writing test, it is less important how a word is pronounced, but spelling of a word is important. If your IELTS Writing test asks you to argue the benefits of vegetarian food, and you write meet (which means getting together with someone) instead of meat (the animal product as food), you would lose marks for your lexical resource. This is why it is important to understand the IELTS marking criteria.

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Homographs

What is a homograph

The word homograph comes from the Greek word homos (=same) and grapho (=write). So, homographs are words that are written/spelled the same but have different meanings. sometimes pronounced (how we say words) differently. The pronunciation is often just a shift in the accented syllable.

List of homographs

Try to read the following words aloud when you look at their meaning. Even though they are spelled the same, the sound different.

  •  compound
    • COM-pound = to mix or combine
    • Com-POUND = an enclosed area with a building or group of buildings inside
  • Content
    • Con-TENT = happy or satisfied
    • CON-tent = all that is contained inside something
  • Desert
    • DE-sert = a hot, arid region
    • DEE-sert = to leave
  • Does
    • DOSE = female deer (plural)/present
    • Does = third person singular form of the verb “do”
  • Evening
    • Eaf-ning = late afternoon
    • Even-ing = making more even
  • Minute
    • Min-ut = 60 seconds
    • My-nute = extremely small
  • Read
    • Red = past tense of reading
    • Reed = present tense of reading
  • Present
    • PRE-sent = at this moment or right now
    • Pre-SENT = a gift
  • Permit
    • Per-MIT = Give permission
    • PER-mit = Official document
Examples of homographs in a sentence

Let’s take a couple of homographs and put them in a sentence. As an exercise, you could try to put the other from the list above words in a sentence.

  • I drove down the windy (wine-dy) road on a windy (win-dy) day.
  • She will read (reed) the book that her older sister read (red) last year.
  • I’d like to present (pre-SENT) you with a birthday present (PRE-sent).
How to avoid mistakes in your IELTS test?

When you are preparing for your IELTS Speaking test, it is important to understand how a word is pronounced because this is part of the marking criteria.

For your IELTS Speaking test, you need to make sure you pronounce (say) to word correctly. Let’s take a look at this example: If you are asked during your Speaking test to tell the examiner a little bit about a time that made you happy, it is always good to use a variety of words. Instead of happy, you can say “joyous,” “cheerful,” or “content.” However, you should be careful to pronounce the words correctly. You don’t want to say CON-tent (which means “all that is contained inside something”) instead of con-TENT (which means “happy” or “satisfied”).

If you want to practise your Speaking test with an official IELTS Expert, you could consider IELTS Assist. You will do a mock Speaking test and receive feedback on your performance.

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