How to Distinguish between Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs

Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs

If you speak English (and if you’re reading this, you presumably do), you’ve probably confused two words that are pronounced or spelled the same but have different meanings. This is extremely easy to do, because English contains many homonyms, homophones, and homographs.

Hold on a minute—more words that are similar-looking and easy to confuse? I’m supposed to be helping you, not making this more complicated! While homonyms, homophones, and homographs make English much more difficult, that complexity also makes the language very interesting, and occasionally, very funny.

Understanding the difference between homonyms, homophones, and homographs is vital for communicating properly, so let’s dive in!

Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs


Homonyms (homo meaning same and nym meaning name) are words that sound alike but are different in meaning. They can be spelled the same or differently. It’s important not to misuse homonyms, though, because the meaning of what you want to say can change drastically if you confuse the word’s meaning.

For example, if your friend tells you that he saw a murder on the way home from work, you’ll probably want to clarify whether he means that he witnessed a violent crime or whether he saw a group of crows. This is because it will be difficult to tell which he means over the phone or in a text message, as the words are spelled the same and pronounced the same. (However, it will probably be easy to tell which he means in person, as you’ll be able to see what kind of facial expression he’s making!)


There, their, and they’re are probably the most misused words in the English language. They’ve been misused on restaurant signs, in Internet comments, and across bumper stickers. What is it about these words that makes their usage so tricky? The answer: they’re homophones.

Homophones (homo meaning same and phone meaning sound) are words that are pronounced the same but are different in meaning. They differ from homonyms because they are not spelled the same, as you can see in the example of there (indicating a place or idea), their (indicating possession), and they’re (indicating a contraction of they are).


Homographs (homo meaning same and graph meaning writing) differ from homonyms and homophones in that homographs are not pronounced the same. They are spelled the same, however, and are different in meaning. They are not so easily confused in spoken English, but they can be tricky to spot in written English.

Consider the word bow. Did you picture a tied-up ribbon? The front of a boat? The device used to play a string instrument? An actor lowering his upper body? The word bow is a homograph with different pronunciations and many different meanings. So you’ll have to consider the sentence’s context to determine the intended meaning.


By considering the differences between the words themselves—nym, phone, and graph—it’s easier to grasp and remember their definitions. Looking at common examples of homonyms, homophones, and homographs helps to display their differences.

While the English language doesn’t make it easy, understanding the differences between words that look or sound the same is important for getting your point across and for understanding others, both of which are key to successful communication.

Image sources: karolyn83/, TheDalleyLama/