In this edition of “YGC Global Encounters,” we will explain English Homographs.
When it comes to achieving fluency of comprehension and expression in a foreign language, the devil is most certainly hidden in the details. One great way to improve your command of English is to pay attention to the tiny details in every sentence that can subtly transform its message (Quick! What’s the difference between “it’s” and “its”?). Although reading and listening for the general tone or gist are important skills as well, in today’s edition of YGC Global Encounters, we are going to take a deep, detail-oriented dive into a very tricky group of English words: homographs. By the end, I hope you will have a better understanding of the importance of accurate pronunciation and the use of parts of speech in every English sentence that you read, hear, speak, or write!
First off, what does the word “homograph” mean? This is an English word that originally comes from Greek, and is made of two parts. The first part—“homo”—means “same,” and the second half—“graph”—means “write.” Basically, homographs are two words that are spelled the same way. Usually, when we discuss homographs, we are referring to two words that are spelled the same but are pronounced differently and have different meanings in different contexts. Sometimes, homographs’ meanings will be closely related, but sometimes, the shared spelling seems more like a coincidence. Let’s look at some examples below.
Read the sentences below. (Try to read them out loud if you’re in a quiet, private place!)
Did you catch the homographs? Two different words in these sentences are written as “bass,” but with two different pronunciations and meanings. In sentence 1 the word “bass” rhymes with “class” and refers to a type of fish (also note that this word is the same in the singular and plural forms—unless you are referring to two different categories of bass! We will discuss the intricacies of nouns, articles, and pluralization in a different article). In sentence 2, the word “bass” is pronounced the same as the word “base,” and it refers to a large stringed instrument. (This word can also refer to the lower range of music notes in general, or to a four-stringed bass guitar.) Both of these words are nouns, and their meanings are completely unrelated. Based on context, however, the correct pronunciation and meaning of these two homographs shouldn’t be too hard to get straight.
Now that we’ve whetted our homograph appetites, let’s take a look at another pair of sentences:
In the first sentence “lead” rhymes with “bleed” and refers to a person’s ability to be an example for others to follow after. This is a different, unrelated meaning from “lead” in the second sentence, which rhymes with “bread” and refers to a type of metal. As these homographs are different parts of speech—a verb and a noun respectively—they can be easier to spot than homographs that share the same role in a sentence.
Let’s look at another one:
In this instance, both uses of “bear” have the same pronunciation. However, they still have different meanings. In the first sentence “bear” means to carry a load or endure something unpleasant. In the second, “bear” means . . . well, a bear! This example shows us that not all homographs have different pronunciations, though it is always good practice to check the pronunciation of unknown words when you encounter them.
There are also homographs that would be familiar to second language learners as well. Perhaps you learned homographs early on without realizing what they were. Or perhaps the written similarities between two words with different meanings caused confusion and headaches. For example:
Hopefully you have seen both of these uses of bow in the past and recognize their differences. Astute language learners often ask why these differences exist. “If the meaning is different,” they ask, “why is the spelling the same?” The answer is not as straightforward as the question posed, and would require a deep look at the winding history of the English language. The shortest answer is that English has greatly evolved over time to be as convenient as possible for those utilizing the language, and the various homographs we have today are simply one result of that evolution.
While we have shown only five examples here today, there are over two hundred homographs in the English language. You may be surprised at how many you already know!
The best way to learn more homographs is to read more books. Through reading, you can encounter more words in context and more easily spot homographs that you may not have known contain multiple meanings. Our program at YGC encourages literacy improvements through novel reading and in-class discussion of literary texts. By joining YGC, students are exposed to language in context, including homographs, which better prepares them to use that information on their own.
We hope you enjoyed learning about homographs today and look forward to seeing you in the next edition of YGC Global Encounters.