The prefix homo- comes from Greek, meaning same. When writing we encounter homonyms, homophones and homographs, and without proper training it is easy to become confused. The English language is so diverse, with so many influences, that at times even trained professionals muck things up. Sometimes the way we spell words makes little sense when pronouncing them, and vice versa. Although pronounced nearly identically, the difference between the spelling of two words can simply be a single vowel. By knowing the difference between a homonym and homograph, one can improve his/her spelling simply by knowing there is an alternative spelling of a word. By knowing two or more spellings of a word exists, a writer might take the extra time to ensure the spelling used is the correct one.

Homonyms are words that sound alike but have different meanings. Homophones and homographs are both forms of homonyms, thus the term can be used as a blanket one. However, homonyms traditionally describe how two words sound the same when spoken, yet mean different things. Homonyms always sound the same yet are defined differently, but they can be either spelled the same or not. Consider the examples below.

  • Pair (couple) / Pear (fruit)
  • Fair (exhibition) / Fair (reasonable) / Fare (price of conveyance)
  • Compliment (praise) / Complement (to complete)

Homophones are specific types of homonyms, those that sound the same and have different meanings, but they are spelled differently. When you have a spoken language filled with homonyms, typically context is the key to understanding what is being said by the other person. We don't think of spelling when speaking, we understand the words used based on context. It is important, however, to use the proper words when writing. Even if your audience understands what you are conveying, it never looks good if you consistently use the wrong spelling. Homophones are explicit to writing because they sound the same but are spelled differently. Using the examples above, we can define some homophones.

  • Pair (couple) / Pear (fruit)
  • Fair (reasonable) / Fare (price of conveyance)
  • Compliment (praise) / Complement (to complete)

Not only do these words have different definitions, they are spelled differently as well.

Homographs are not as important for this lesson, but it's good to go ahead and cover them. Homographs are spelled the same but have different meanings and at times pronounced differently. Consider the following:

  • Lie (untruth) / Lie (to rest in a horizontal position)
  • Tear (rip) / Tear (saline from the eye)

Heteronyms are types of homographs that are spelled exactly the same but always pronounced differently. (Consider the second homograph example.)

As an English speaker you are already aware of homonyms. What is important in writing is that you become aware of these words, and by being aware of these words you should take the extra time to ensure you're spelling them properly.

Of course this is more important in formal writing. When posting on forums or a blog, who really cares? Few probably even notice when you accidentally confuse homonyms in an informal environment. But it is good practice to begin recognizing homonyms, particularly in informal writing. If you pay attention when writing informally, making sure to use the proper spelling of words and not confusing homonyms, it will become second nature to you. So when it comes time to write a proposal for work, or an official email, the final product won't be filled with mistaken homonyms.

When you write and use a word that has alternate spellings, be sure to take the time to look the word up and make sure you're using it correctly. Believe it or not, confusing homonyms in formal environments, even those where good grammar doesn't seem important, can make the difference between remaining stagnant in a job or getting that promotion. You never know, so it's good to recognize them and start practicing!