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Heteronyms

What is a heteronym? A pair (or group) of heteronyms are words that have the same spelling (they are homographs) but different pronunciation (they are heterophones) and also different meanings.

It's much easier to grasp this idea with a few examples:

  • Excuse; Please excuse me while I think of an excuse.
  • Polish; Tell the Polish cleaners to polish the floor.
  • Minute; The button was so minute that it was a minute before I found it.
  • Wind; Hopefully the wind will be strong enough to wind the windmill.
  • Record; It's the referee's job to record the new world record.

There are hundreds of heteronyms in the English language, and they fall into several categories. On this page we will investigate true heteronyms, grammatical function heteronyms, capitonyms, accent heteronyms, and three-way heteronyms.

Grammatical Function Heteronyms

Very often in English words are used in more than one part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc.).Take the word dust, for example. If you dust the bedroom, you are removing the dust. In its first occurrence here, dust is a verb meaning to clean; the second dust is a noun meaning the stuff being cleaned away. Dust in not a heteronym, however, because both forms of the word are pronounced identically. Often, though, this is not the case; when the two words differ in sound, they form a pair of heteronyms.

In the list which follows, all the heteronyms are the result of a word taking on two grammatical roles. An example sentence has been given for each heteronym. Try reading these out loud to spot the pronunciation differences.

  • Abuse; When people abuse drugs this is called drug abuse.
  • Contest; To contest the issue they held a contest.
  • Convert; John became a convert after deciding to convert to Judaism.
  • Duplicate; If I need a duplicate I can use the Xerox to duplicate the letter.
  • Graduate; When I graduate I will become a graduate.
  • Insult; You can insult someone by shouting an insult.
  • Permit; The guard will permit you to pass if you show a valid permit.
  • Produce; These factories produce the produce that is shipped abroad.
  • Rebel; A rebel is one who has decided to rebel.
  • Transplant; The doctor won't transplant a heart if the transplant is damaged.
  • Use; Please put my typewriter to use because I never use it.

Do you notice anything about the pairs above? In every case one of the heteronyms is a noun and the other is a verb. In most cases, the difference in pronunciation is simply a matter of stress or emphasis. In fact, a deeper pattern emerges if you study which of the syllables are stressed in these sentences. Look at the two-syllable words and you will see that in almost every case the noun is stressed on the first syllable, and the verb is stressed on the second (e.g. noun: CON-test; verb: con-TEST).

Two of the above examples, abuse and use, do not change their stress pattern. The words differ by the pronunciation of the s. In one form (the verb) it is voiced like zzz, and in the other (the noun) it is voiceless like sss.

This sort of heteronym is not confined to noun-and-verb pairs. Here is a list of heteronyms in which one form is an adjective.

  • Absent; The boy was absent because he chose to absent from school
  • Alternate; They alternate between using the alternate machine and the main one.
  • Aged; My grandfather is aged ninety-two so he is quite aged.
  • Crooked; I crooked my neck to see the man with the crooked stick.
  • Desolate; Extreme weather may desolate a place making it a desolate place.
  • Learned; Everything I know I learned from that learned old man.
  • Perfect; The overture took years to perfect, but eventually it was perfect.
  • Separate; I want you to separate the cards into two separate piles.

A further subcategory of this type of heteronym occurs when two different words have plurals that are spelled the same, but pronounced differently:

  • Arses: plural of arse; plural of arsis (musical term).
  • Asses: plural of ass; plural of as (Roman coin).
  • Axes: plural of ax (US spelling) or axe (British spelling); plural of axis.
  • Bases: plural of base; plural of basis.
  • Ellipses: plural of ellipse; plural of ellipsis (syntactic omission).
  • Plies: plural of ply; plural of plié (ballet movement).
  • Soles: plural of sole; plural of sol (French coin).
  • Taxes: plural of tax; plural of taxis (locomotor response to external stimulus).
Read is also a heteronym because the present tense and past tense forms of the verb are pronounced differently but spelled identically: I want to read the sequel today because I read the first book yesterday.

These Grammatical Function Heteronyms have been separated from so-called True Heteronyms because heteronyms must differ in meaning. In these cases where the only notable difference is their category of speech, you could argue that their meanings are not that different at all.

Capitonyms

Capitonym is not a word that you will find in the dictionary, but it has been used to describe words that change their pronunciation and meaning when capitalized. They are thus a form of heteronym. Here is a selection of capitonyms, complete with brief definitions:

  • Ares: God of War; ares: Plural of metric unit of area.
  • August: Eighth calendar month; august: Important.
  • Begin: Russian-born Israeli politician; begin: To start.
  • Bund: Federation; bund: Irrigation embankment.
  • Chou: Chinese dynasty; chou: Type of pastry.
  • Degas: French painter and sculptor; degas: To remove gas.
  • Embarrass: River in eastern Illinois; embarrass: Mortify.
  • Ewe: A people and language Africa; ewe: Female sheep.
  • Job: Author of a Biblical book; job: Employment.
  • Junker: Member of Prussian aristocracy; junker: Old car.
  • Lima: Capital of Peru; lima: Type of bean.
  • Liver: Comedy duo The Liver Birds; liver: Human internal organ.
  • Magdalen: Oxford college; magdalen: Reformed prostitute.
  • Male: Capital of the Maldives; male: A gender.
  • Manes: Deified spirits of Roman dead; manes: Plural of mane.
  • Natal: Region of southeast Africa; natal: Relating to birth.
  • Nice: French City; nice: Pleasant.
  • Polish: Relating to Poland; polish: To make shine.
  • Rainier: Volcanic peak in Washington; rainier: More rainy.
  • Reading: Borough in England; reading: Comprehending writing.
  • Said: Egyptian port; said: Spoken.
  • Scone: Village of central Scotland ; scone: Biscuitlike pastry.
  • Seat: Car manufacturer; seat: Chair.
  • Slough: A borough in England; slough: Dead skin of reptile.
  • Tang: Chinese dynasty; tang: Sharp Flavour.
  • Worms: City in southwest Germany; worms: Plural of worm.

Capitonyms are not really True Heteronyms for two reasons. First, the capitalised forms are proper nouns, and as such may not be found in standard dictionaries. Second, a pair of heteronyms must be spelled identically. It is arguable that there is a graphological difference between a word that must be capitalized and one that must not.

Accent Heteronyms

Occasionally foreign words accepted into use in English retain their diacritical marks (accents). However, as English does not make use of diacritical marks, it is generally considered acceptable to omit them. If the adopted word is spelled the same as an existing English word, but pronounced differently, then a heteronym is born. Here are a few examples:

  • attachés and attaches
  • exposé and expose
  • lamé and lame
  • maté and mate
  • pâté and pate
  • pliés and plies
  • resumé and resume
  • rosé and rose

True Heteronyms

As has been said, there are many heteronyms in the English language, and there is not space for a comprehensive list here. The list below is a selection of the words that, whilst sharing a spelling, have unique pronunciations and unique meanings.

  • Ablative; My efforts to learn the ablative case have an ablative effect on my brain.
  • Agape; During the agape, I noticed a man sitting with his mouth agape.
  • Appropriate; It was appropriate for the teacher to appropriate the boy's knife.
  • Bow; I stood on the bow of the ship with my bow and arrow.
  • Bower; The bower lived in a bower near his farm.
  • Buffet; The winds buffet the hotel, whilst inside the guests enjoy the buffet.
  • Console; I tried to console the controller as he stood at his console.
  • Content; John was content that the content of the box was undamaged.
  • Drawer; The drawer drew a picture of the cupboard and drawer.
  • Entrance; The lavishly decorated entrance will entrance the visitors.
  • Incense; It will incense the bursar that we have spent so much on incense.
  • Intimate; Ron tried to intimate that Liz had an intimate relationship with Ben.
  • Moped; As my mother moped about, a man on a moped rode by.
  • Number; I broke a number of bones in my right hand; it's number than the left.
  • Proceeds; As the charity event proceeds, the proceeds keep pouring in.
  • Pussy; The unfortunate pussy cat's septic sores are very pussy.
  • Recount; The President will recount the events that led to a vote recount.
  • Refuse; The city dump was so full, they had to refuse to accept more refuse.
  • Resent; I resent the fact that the letter was lost, but I have resent it.
  • Sewer; As the sewer sat sewing, she smelled the stench of a local sewer.
  • Sow; Every time I sow seeds the sow digs them up and eats them.
  • Wound; The doctor wound a bandage around the painful wound.

Can you think of more heteronyms?

Three-Way Heteronyms

There are a few rare cases of three words that share a spelling each having a unique pronunciation. When this happens, we have a group of three heteronyms. Some examples:

  • As: Like;
    As: Roman coin;
    As: Plural of a.
  • Colon: Punctuation mark;
    Colon: Colonial farmer;
    Colon: Costa Rican monetary unit.
  • Lather: Foam;
    Lather: Worker who operates a lathe;
    Lather: One who uses laths.
  • Pate: Head;
    Pate: Paste;
    Pate: Meat spread.
  • Redress: To compensate;
    Redress: A compensation;
    Redress: To dress again.

Each of the three words in each group is pronounced differently from the other two.

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