What Are Heteronyms?

There are many different words in the English language that create confusion due to their similar spellings and definition, but one of the most frustrating are heteronyms. Heteronyms are words that look exactly the same but are pronounced and defined differently.

It can be difficult to learn how to spell different words that look the same. The way the pronunciations and definitions differ can be confusing even to native English speakers when attempting to learn vocabulary correctly.

Let’s look at how to define heteronyms and understand how to recognize and use them in your writing.

Examples of Heteronyms

A few examples are given in the list below. This list is limited to the words that are most often used in English.

Some pairs of heteronyms have entirely different meanings, while others have implications that are somewhat related.

  • Affect – touch someone’s feelings/emotion or desire
  • Alternate – occur in turn repeatedly/different choice or option
  • Attribute – regard something as being caused by/trait, quality, or characteristic
  • Axes – plural of ax/plural of axis
  • Bass – stringed instrument/type of fish
  • Bow – instrument used to shoot an arrow/bend the upper part of the body as a greeting or sign of respect
  • Bowed past tense of bow (see above)/twisted or warped
  • Buffet – to strike repeatedly, as wind or waves/meal of several dishes where diners help themselves
  • Close to move to cover an opening/nearby
  • Conduct – to lead or guide/how a person behaves
  • Conflict to be incompatible or at a variance/a serious disagreement or argument
  • Console – to comfort/an electronic panel or unit with a set of controls
  • Desert – to leave or abandon/a dry, barren area of land
  • Digest to break down food in the stomach/a compilation or summary of information
  • Does third-person singular present tense form of “do”/plural of “doe”
  • Dove – past tense of “dive”/a type of bird
  • House to provide accommodations/home
  • Incense to make angry/substance that is burned for its sweet or pleasant odor
  • Intern to confine someone as a prisoner/a student or trainee who is working to gain experience
  • Lead to show someone the way/a type of metal
  • Moderate – to make or become less extreme/average in amount
  • Number – comparative form of “numb”/an arithmetical value
  • Object to say or do something to express disagreement or disapproval/material thing
  • Perfect – to make something without flaw or defect/without flaw or defect
  • Permit – to give authorization or consent/an official document that gives permission
  • Polish – to rub the surface of something so it becomes smooth and shiny/relating to Poland
  • Record – to set down in writing or another permanent form for later reference/something kept in writing or other form for permanent keeping
  • Refuse – to indicate or show unwillingness to do something/garbage
  • Separate – to cause to move or be apart/viewed as a unit apart or by itself
  • Sewer – an underground conduit for carrying away wastewater/a person who sews
  • Subject to cause or force to undergo/a person or thing that is being discussed
  • Tear to rip or pull apart in pieces/a drop of liquid secreted by the eyes
  • Wind to twist or coil something around a core/the natural movement of air
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