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English is renowned for its complexity, characterized by perplexing and sometimes contradictory rules that pose challenges for learners. Among the intriguing and occasionally amusing aspects of the language is the presence of heteronyms. In this article, we will unravel the concept of heteronyms and furnish you with illustrative examples.

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 Heteronyms 

In the realms of phonology and grammar, heteronyms refer to words that share the same spelling but possess distinct meanings and pronunciations. While two words can be homographs, they are not necessarily homophones.

For instance, “row” (using oars) and “row” (an argument) are heteronyms because they are articulated differently. On the other hand, “mean” (signify) and “mean” (average) are not heteronyms since they share the same pronunciation, making them homonyms.

Typically, heteronyms are found in pairs, although there are rare instances of three distinct words forming heteronyms. Homophones, in contrast, are words pronounced alike but may differ in meaning or spelling.

To reiterate, heteronyms represent a subset of homographs, with differences in pronunciation corresponding to different definitions or meanings. In a significant portion of cases in the English language, heteronyms manifest as noun-verb pairs with distinct pronunciations.

Examples of Heteronyms

The list below provides a few examples, focusing on words commonly used in English. Among these pairs of heteronyms, some exhibit entirely disparate meanings, while others have implications that are somewhat interconnected.

  • 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
  • Close – to move to cover an opening/nearby
  • Conduct – to lead or guide/how a person behaves
  • Tear – to rip or pull apart in pieces/a drop of liquid secreted by the eyes
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • Subject – to cause or force to undergo/a person or thing that is being discussed

And now a few examples. Try to say them:

  • I love to read so much that I read five books last week.
  • After reading the 500-number list repeatedly, her brain became the number.

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Summary

Heteronyms represent an intriguing and entertaining facet of the English language. While they can pose challenges and potentially result in confusion and miscommunication when not employed or comprehended accurately, dedicated practice and attention to context clues can enhance your proficiency in understanding and using heteronyms.

What is your English level?

Find out your A1 A2 B1 B2 C1 C2 level of English with our quick, free online test.