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Homograph, Homonym, Or Homophone?

By Expert Author: Thomas Ward

The answer to the simple question, "What is a homonym?" seems to be, "It depends on whom you ask." The very fact that there are three words made me suppose that there were three different meanings. Unfortunately, it's not that easy. As Wikipedia says: In practice there is a noticeable difference in the precise meaning of these words and a variety of other interpretations may be encountered. That's putting it mildly. But, for the purpose of the book I was writing, I felt that I had to have some consistency in what these words mean. What follows is what I was faced with after I had consulted a number of the more respected dictionaries.
Homographs (Latin for same writing), was defined by Wikipedia as words spelled the same and may or may not be pronounced the same and have different meanings. The American Heritage College says they're words spelled the same but sound different and have different meanings. Merriam-Webster hedged a bit with words spelled the same but may sound different and have different meanings. Encarta says, simply, words spelled the same but have different meanings. In this case, "spelled the same" is the only point of total agreement. After that, pronunciation and meaning can be or not be part of what makes a word a homograph. That means that record (I'll record your voice) and record (He set a record for distance) are homographs, but so is bow (The ship's bow was damaged) and bow (The cast took another bow). Fortunately my book doesn't deal in homographs, so I could skip all this.
Homophones (Latin for same sound), on Wikipedia, are words pronounced the same and may or may not be spelled the same. In the OED, they're words that sound the same but have different meanings. American Heritage College, Merriam-Webster, and Encarta agree that they're words sometimes spelled the same but sound the same and have different meanings. In two cases, the emphasis is more on the spelling. In the other, it's more on meaning. So, everyone agrees that our and hour are homophones, but according to Wikipedia so are bow and bow. This didn't help much, because I was writing about homophones.
Homonyms (Latin for same name) are defined on Wikipedia as words spelled or pronounced the same but having different meanings. The OED is more terse. They're words spelled the same but having different meanings. The American Heritage College is closer to Wikipedia with words spelled the same but sound differently and have different meanings. Merriam-Webster doesn't agree and says they're words spelled and pronounced the same but with different meanings. Encarta is less specific with words spelled the same or pronounced the same but with different meanings. That puts bow and record in the homonym bucket along with trunk (The beast's trunk was very long) and trunk (The old clothes trunk was heavy). And Wikipedia would also allow our and hour. Again, I needed something more solid to work with.
Fortunately I could totally ignore capitonyms which are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings and may have different pronunciations depending on whether they have initial caps or not. Examples are Polish/polish, Lima/lima, and Job/job.
OK, fine, I decided. If everyone else can have their own definitions, why not me, too. So, I sifted through all these sources plus a number of others and finally settled on my own definitions for the purpose of getting the book written.
Homophones are words that are spelled differently but sound the same and have different meanings. Examples are towed, toad, and toed.
Homographs are words that are spelled the same but sound different and have different meanings. Examples are record, excuse, and wind.
Homonyms are words that are spelled the same and sound the same but have different meanings. Examples are fluke and bank.
With this major piece of work accomplished, I could tell my readers what my definitions are at least between the covers of one particular tome. If you like these, please feel free to adopt them. Maybe if enough of us agree, we can end up with only one definition for each word.

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