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Homophone / homonym

A question from Sokhom in Cambodia:
What is the difference between homophone and homonym?

Gareth Rees answers:
Hello Sokhom.
Thank you for your question concerning two terms connected to pronunciation and spelling,
namely homophones and homonyms.

Ill start with homophones. These are words which have the same pronunciation but which are
different in both spelling and meaning. Listen to the following two examples and identify the

I was amazed that I knew the answer to every question in the test.
I bought a new car yesterday. Would you like to see it?

So, the homophones are knew, spelt K-N-E-W and meaning that I had the knowledge of
something, and new, spelt N-E-W and meaning the opposite of old. Here are a few other
homophones: meet, spelt M-E-E-T or M-E-A-T; road, spelt R-O-A-D and R-O-D-E; bean,
spelt B-E-A-N and B-E-E-N.

Homonyms also have the same sound, but they also have the same spelling. Only the meaning
is different. Identify the homonyms in these examples.

When I was camping in the forest I saw a brown bear, which actually rather scared me.
I cant bear that noise anymore. Im going to call the police!

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The homonyms are bear, spelt B-E-A-R, with the first meaning an animal that looks cute but
is really rather dangerous, and the second meaning to tolerate something. Other examples of
homonyms include fair, patient and coach.

Just to finish, Id like to say that homophones and homonyms often form the basis of simple
jokes, because they allow a play on words. That is, one sound may have two meanings, and
this may create a joke. In case, Im not making myself clear, here are a few examples. I hope
you find them funny.

Waiter, waiter, whats this?
Its bean soup.
I dont care what it was, I want to know what it is now!

John is so stupid. He thinks a tennis coach has four wheels.
Well, how many wheels does it have?

Doctor! Help me quickly! I think Im shrinking. Im getting smaller! Help me.
Well, first you will have to calm down and learn to be a little patient.

Gareth Rees has a BA (hons) in History and Philosophy of Science, CTEFLA, and DELTA.
He has taught EFL, EAP and Business English in China, Spain and England, and he is the co-
author of the Language Leader Elementary and Pre-Intermediate English language course
books (Pearson Longman). He currently teaches English in the Language Centre at the
University of the Arts, London.