English has some words which sound similar when you say them, and can even have the same spelling, but have a different meaning. Today we are going to talk about homonyms in our English grammar lesson, what they are, and why they are problematic for new English language learners. As usual, we provide lots of English listening practice to help you spot them and avoid confusion when you communicate with people using them.
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English grammar doesn’t need to be boring! There are lots of interesting things to learn about homonyms. Listening to this podcast several times will help your store what you learn in your longer term language memory. We recommend you use spaced repetition as part of your listening process. So once you’ve finished listening to the podcast, why not add a reminder with siri to play the podcast again in a few days, then maybe a week’s time. The next time you listen, think about what you didn’t remember, ask yourself why?
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Today I’m going to talk to you about another part of speech in the English language that language learners find is a challenge. In this podcast, we’ll learn all about homonyms, what they are, why they’re a challenge, and I’ll give you some examples to help you practise using them. Being aware of them will really help you.
Hello, I’m Hilary, and you’re listening to Adept English. We will help you to speak English fluently. All you have to do is listen. So start listening now and find out how it works.
So homonyms. Spelling first, of course. HOMONYM. And this word in English, is made up of bits of Greek words. So very often the prefix ‘ homo’, HOMO means something is ‘the same’. Like ‘homosexual’ meaning ‘same sex’, ‘homogenous’ meaning ‘same type’ or ‘homophone’ which means ‘sounding the same’. And the ‘nym’, the NYM part at the end of ‘homonym’ means ‘name’ or ‘word’.
So a homonym is ‘a word that is the same’, but has a different meaning. Homonyms are words which are spelt the same, which sound the same, but they have two or more completely different meanings, unrelated meanings. And English is chock full of them. Apparently if you speak Spanish, Estonian or Russian, you also have a lot of homonyms in your language! Let me give you an example of an English homonym to make it clearer.
The word ‘spell’, SPELL - well, you probably met that word first when you were learning to write and spell in English. So ‘to spell’ means that you put together the correct letters to make a word. I ‘spell out’ words in my podcasts - that means I say them out loud to try and help you.
And if you want the noun that’s connected to this - it’s ‘spelling’, SPELLING. There I am, spelling the word ‘spelling’ for you. But there are other meanings of this same word ‘spell’. A ‘spell’ can also mean ‘a period of time’ - so you might hear on the weather forecast, ‘Oh, we’re in for a spell of wet weather’. That means it’s going to rain for a period of time. Or you might talk about a football team, Manchester United having ‘a spell of losing matches in their season’. That means that they’ve had a period of time where they’ve lost every game.
And it’s not finished there, because the word ‘spell’ can also be used to mean a witch’s spell. If you think of Harry Potter and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry - where the boys are training to be wizards and the girls are training to be witches - that’s WITCH. Then ‘a spell’ is also the word for an enchantment, or ‘a charm’, a set of words that have magic power, when you say them. Again from Harry Potter and Hogwarts, the Levitation Charm, Wingardium Leviosa was a ‘spell' used to make objects fly, taught to first-years in the school.
And back to ‘to spell’ as a verb. What you may also hear sometimes is this verb being used to mean ‘to indicate’. So someone might say ‘Failed crops spell higher prices’. Or ‘If it rains again this weekend that will spell trouble for people living by the side of swollen rivers’. When we used ‘to spell’ in this way, it’s usually talking about, indicating a negative outcome. ‘That spells disaster!’ we might say.
Sometimes people refer to words like these as ‘strong homonyms’, because they both sound the same and are spelt the same, whereas ‘weak homonyms’ are spelt differently, but sound the same. If you’re being really particular here, you might say that words that are spelt the same are also ‘homographs’, HOMOGRAPH. Other examples of these ‘strong homonyms’ though are ‘bark’, BARK - this can mean the covering, on a tree, on a tree trunk, the rough surface of a tree, or ‘a bark’ also is the noise that a dog makes.
A hand reaching out to touch tree bark. Homonyms can be tricky. But, with some practice and guidance, you'll conquer them in no time.
There’s no relationship at all between those two words, but it’s the same spelling and the same pronunciation! What about the word ‘wave’, WAVE. This can mean a surge of water - if you stand on a sea shore or beach, you’ll see ‘waves’ of water coming up the sand. And you might talk about ‘sound waves’, but that’s a similar sort of meaning. But an unrelated meaning - ‘to wave’. That’s a verb and you ‘wave’ your hand perhaps, especially when saying ‘Goodbye’ - that’s ‘to wave’, not related.
And just like the example of the word ‘spell’, many of these homonyms have nothing to do with one another in meaning. It’s almost as though we couldn’t be bothered to think up a new word. ‘Oh, let’s just use a word we already have and give it a new, additional meaning!’ Like a form a recycling, I guess! But possibly confusing and frustrating if you’re learning English as a foreign language, especially if your own language doesn’t have homonyms.
Here are some common homonyms.
- A bear, BEAR is a big animal that’s fierce - you might find grizzly bears in somewhere like Canada, but ‘to bear’, the verb means either ‘to put up with’, ‘to endure’ - or ‘to carry’. In the US, they talk about ‘the right to bear arms’, meaning the right to carry weapons.
- A match, MATCH can mean a sporting game - like I mentioned Manchester United earlier, so a football match, or a netball match or a hockey match. Basically a fixture, a ‘match’ between two teams. But a match can also be a little piece of wood that you use to light a candle, a cigarette or a fire.
- A ring, RING could mean something that you wear on your finger, a piece of jewellery. Or it could mean a much bigger circle - like a ring of stones, or a circus ring. But if I say to you ‘I’ll give you a ring’, it’s much more likely to mean that I’m going to phone you up than I am to give you a piece of jewellery.
- A bat, BAT - well it’s an animal that flies at night and which hangs upside down in a cave. But a bat can also be what you use to play cricket with - it’s made of willow. And there’s a verb ‘to bat’ - which is what you do in cricket. No relationship between those two meanings.
- The word ‘can’, CAN - well it’s not just a modal verb. You might hear people talk about ‘a can of coke’ or ‘a can of beer’ or ‘a can of baked beans’. Americans and Australians would s probably say ‘tin’ here instead. We use that sometimes in the UK.
- What about the word ‘nail’, NAIL? Well this can mean that part at the end of your finger, where you might wear nail polish. Or it could mean that little piece of metal that you hit with a hammer to fix something together or to hang something on the wall. There’s no reason why those two things are the same word - again they’re not related!
- One last one? Well, ‘a duck’ is a bird that’s very common in the UK. They swim in rivers and they go ‘quack quack’. And if you like crispy pancake rolls with hoisin sauce, then you’ve probably eaten duck. Magret de canard is a very nice form of duck which they eat where my sister lives in France. But there’s also a verb ‘to duck’. And it means ‘to lower yourself down quickly’. If someone throws something at your head, or if there’s a low ceiling, it’s a good idea to ‘duck’. Completely, crazily unrelated words, but they sound the same, are spelt the same. But different meanings. That’s homonyms.
In a minute I’m going to tell you some jokes that rely on homonyms to make sense. But before that, just a reminder that if you would like to consolidate your English vocabulary to help with speaking, then our Most Common Five Hundred Words Course will help you do this.
It’s exactly what it says - a whole lot of English listening, but only using the most common five hundred words, so that you get to know them really well. Well, except that there are a couple of extra chapters now, which use the most common six hundred words, just to extend you a little.
If you’re finding speaking difficult and a challenge, this course will help you and ensure that you have the words that you need. Go to our website at adeptenglish.com and our Courses page to have a look at it. Oh...and don’t forget, if you signed up for the English Consonants Pronunciation Course discount - you need to buy the course before the end of May. Look in your email inbox for the link.
So here are some children’s jokes, which rely on homonyms - just to finish off with!
- Why did the king draw straight lines? Because he was a ruler.
- Why did the cat run down the tree? Because he saw the tree bark.
- Waiter, will the pancakes belong? No sir, round.
- Why were the elephants thrown out of the swimming pool? Because they couldn’t keep their trunks up.
Don’t blame me! I did say children’s jokes. And if you want help working out the meanings of those jokes, then in the transcript I’ve underlined the homonyms that these jokes depend upon to make sense! I hope that’s settled something in your mind.
When you hear a word which you think you already know, but it’s being used in an entirely different context, then quite possibly it’s a homonym. It’s probably a word with two or more unrelated meanings.
Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.
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- Homophones are a reel waist of thyme
- They came for our homonyms and I said nothing. They came for our synonyms and still, I said nothing. Nil. Zilch. Nada.
- When they came for our antonyms, I was opposed.