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Heteronyms: Words that try to fool their readers

John Murray

With English containing a lot of homophones (words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings), even people proficient in the language can often slip up and mistake a ‘there’ for a ‘their’, or a ‘your’ for a ‘you’re’. It’s just the sort of thing that grammarians pounce on though, particularly if such errors are made on a business website or social media page.

A slightly less common, but still prevalent, occurrence in English is  the heteronym. This is in many ways the opposite of the homophone, as it’s two words with the same spelling, but different pronunciation, and sometimes very contrasting meanings.

Perhaps the most common of these is ‘read’. Depending on its pronunciation, it can be either present or past tense. This means that a simple sentence like “I read comics” can have two very different meanings, if written rather than spoken.

It’s not just tenses that cause this issue though, as sometimes the heteronyms are of completely different origins. Try reading the following sentences, which are unusual but grammatically (and often factually) correct:

“Compared to a millennium, a minute is a minute amount of time.”

“The number of items I have lifted has made my back feel number.”

“A dog’s lead is not made of lead.”

“The tears in the dress reduced her to tears.”

“It’s time to desert the desert.”

“It is customary to bow and present a present, tied up with a bow.”

If any of these confused you, try reading them out loud and applying different pronunciations to any repeated words.

Unlike homophones, heteronyms rarely cause too much trouble for writers. For the sake of clarity though, the above examples show that there are times when alternative wording can help us to avoid confusion in written form.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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