I’ve said many times that English is a fantabulous language.  It is beautiful when used well, encases some of the most heart-wrenching literature as well as some of the most inventive insults, and from the outside, seems very proper and buttoned up in its pinstripes.  It has rules, but immediately breaks lots of them, and doesn’t even do that consistently.  This really appeals to the anarchist in me –  what’s underneath that properness?

English’s failure to follow its own rules can result in traps for the unwary traveller, and you need to be careful not to make a fool of yourself. One way people do this is when they get words confused, particularly when they trust their spell checkers too much – as the poem at the end of this post demonstrates!

This week, let’s look at homographs, homonyms,and homophones.


Homograph means “same writing” in Greek, and these are words that are spelled the same, but have different meanings when pronounced differently. For example, bass pronounced with an ‘a’ (a flat sound as in cat) means either a spiny-finned fish from the perch family, or the fibrous inner bark of a lime tree. Pronounced with an ‘A’ (and sounding like base), it means a deep sound, as in bass guitar.

Other homographs you are likely to encounter include:

Reject  Pronounced with a flat ‘e’ and the emphasis on the second syllable, it means to send back or put aside. With the emphasis on the ‘E’ (reeject), it becomes a noun, the thing that is sent back.

Bow  Pronounced to rhyme with “go”, it’s a curve, or a weapon, a loop, part of a musical instrument, and so on.  Rhyming with “ow”, it means to bend your head in submission, or the front part of a boat.

Minute  Pronounced “minnit” it’s a unit of time, or the official note of a meeting. Pronounced as “my newt” it means very small.

There are so many more: wind, sow, read, content, tear, produces, does, lead, etc. I could go on for ages.


Meaning “same name” in Greek, these words are spelled the same, prounounced the same, but still have different meanings! For example, pupil is either the centre part of the eye, or a school child.  Here are some more:

Can, roll, fair, bank, jam, bat, mouse, plane, switch, plain, wave, mean, lean, pad, pen, cup, mug, milk, back, bill, crane . . . And the Daddy of them all: set.  There are more than 400 different definitions for set, which can be a noun, verb, or adjective.  You don’t believe me? Well, here are just a few to get you started: There’s a theatre set, to set the table, a set of golf clubs, the setting of a jelly, to set a test, to set a precedent, to set your alarm, to set a bone, the setting sun, to set forth, to set your heart on, to set sail, to set back, to set apart, to set to, to set up.


Finally, a word meaning “same sound”.  Homophones are words that are spelled differently, and have different meanings, but sound the same.  Take pear, pare, and pair for example. The first means a fruit, the second means to trim, and the third means two of something.  But they all sound the same.

How about:

read/reed/rede, to/too/two, Wales/wails/whales, die/dye, for/fore/four, incite/insight, which/witch, dear/deer, jam/jamb, by/bye/buy, I’ll/isle/aisle, waste/waist, there/they’re/their (ARRRRRGH!) and (just for my talented friend, dress designer Wednesday March) Djinn/gin?

What other examples of the wrong words in the right place, or the right words in the wrong place, can you think of?

 homophone poem

Joanna writes for businesses. Whatever you want to put into words, she’ll do it.  She loves lattes, apples, crosswords, and thick novels. She doesn’t like aspic jelly – not even to be polite.  She can rarely resist having the last word.