Which words in English have different meanings based on their context?

Which words in English have different meanings based on their context?

by Adriana Stein
June 1, 2021

In the children’s book series, Amelia Bedelia, Amelia is often asked to complete tasks in which she takes the instructions literally. For example, she’s asked to dress the chicken. What does she do? Amelia literally puts a little green pair of shorts and a pink top on the chicken. 

Was that what her instructions meant? Of course not! She was supposed to prepare the chicken for cooking. But that’s just it:  The English language is complex because sometimes the same word can be used in a different context and have a whole new meaning. This is what’s referred to as a homonym or homophone. Let’s dive into the most frequently used English words that have multiple meanings.

Most frequently used English words with multiple meanings 

It’s vital to understand and recognise homophones and homonyms when in conversation with someone, because you wouldn’t want to mistakenly dress a chicken up in clothing, would you?

Exactly!

Let’s first analyse homonyms. 

What are Homonyms?

Homonyms are words that are spelt the same and sound the same but mean something different. I’ve compiled a list of common homonyms below.

List of Homonyms

1. Jam 

When used as a noun, jam means the sweet Smucker strawberry jelly you smudge on your PB&J sandwich. 

The verb jam could also have numerous meanings. For one, it could be used to refer to playing music. Here’s an example, “I got my drums and he’s got his guitar… it’s time to jam”. 

2. Pool

Pool can mean the body of water in a backyard that’s used to swim in. 

For example, “After a long day at work, I relaxed in my pool.”

The other version is the game of billiards, or using a stick to push a ball into a specific corner of the playing table. When you play pool, you’re competing against another person to get as many of your colour balls into the hole first as possible. 

3. Season

The smell of freshly cut grass and distant giggles of kids splashing about in their pool are all sounds of summertime. Summer is a season just like winter, fall and spring. Because the Sun and Earth are constantly moving, the sun shines differently across different areas on Earth. This creates different temperatures during the time periods we call seasons

On the flip side, you can season your food with salt and pepper to give it a bit of spice and pizazz! 

4. Read

This word is special because it means the same thing in context but the way you say it indicates either past tense or present. The present tense version of “read” means to utter aloud, as in “I am going to read you this story right now”. 

The other option “read”, is pronounced like the colour red. It means to have already studied or read aloud. 

5. Letter

A letter can be a written note typically delivered via email or the symbols we use to make up words. To illustrate, “I wrote a letter to my brother while he was away at war”.

6. Nail

A nail is a protective layer of hard skin on your fingers and on most other mammals such as gorillas or cats. Some prefer to paint their nails to give them some spunk!  

On the other hand, a nail could be a piece of metal used to keep two objects together. Nails are used to secure paintings to the wall or piece together bits of furniture. 

7. Bat

A bat is a nocturnal bird-like animal, while the other type of bat is a wooden object used to hit a baseball.

8. Fly

In the sentence, “I will fly a plane someday” the word “fly” is used as a verb. Whereas, if I say “That tiny buzzing fly landed on my fresh food while I was eating”, I’m using the word fly as a noun. 

These are only some of the most frequently used homonyms out of many.

What are Homophones?

Homophones are words that are spelt differently and have different meanings but sound the same. Below are some of the most common ones:

List of Homophones

1. One vs won

You might have one single pet or you may have won your last basketball game. One is a single unit of something and won is a victory.

2. Aloud vs allowed

Do you have kids? If so, let’s say you’ve put this rule into place: you aren’t allowed to eat chocolate ice cream before bed. The word allowed in this sentence means not permitted. 

In contrast, the word aloud means to be audible. For instance, “the teacher assigned Juliet to read chapter 8 of Charlotte’s Web aloud”. 

3. Affect vs effect

Affect means to make a difference. Effect on the other hand is a result. These words go hand in hand because to be affected means to have an effect. Let me clarify with an example. 

Amanda wondered if Crest White Strips would affect her teeth.

Crest White Strips had the promised effect on Amanda’s teeth. 

4. Here vs hear

Can you guess the difference between the meaning given these two sentences?

  • Can you come over here and help me fix this sink?
  • I can’t hear what you said because I’m too far away.

In the first sentence, “here” suggests a location, and the person who needs help is in a different place than the person they need help from. 

You’ll notice in the second statement “hear” suggests he or she cannot perceive what is being said because of the distance. 

5. Buy vs by vs bye

Did you just sing the Bye Bye Bye NSYNC song in your head? Yeah, me too. The “bye” used in that song implies a farewell greeting and is short for good-bye. Use the word “buy” when you need to purchase something and the word “by” to refer to location. Let me further explain with a couple of sample sentences:

  • I got back on the plane and said bye to my boyfriend after a lovely trip together.
  • I had to buy some fresh oranges from the store.
  • Can you get her purse? It’s right by the door. 

6. Your vs you’re

Let’s begin with “you’re”, which is a contraction of the words “you are”. A contraction is a select group of words that are shortened and replaced with an apostrophe. A good way to see if you should use your or you’re is to revert back to “you are” instead of “you’re” and see if it makes sense in the sentence. 

For example which sentence sounds correct:

  • Is that your coat over there?
  • Is that you are (you’re) coat over there?

The first one right!? The one your in the first sentence symbolises belonging. What belonged to the person? The coat belonged to the person. 

7. Ate vs eight

I ate pizza for dinner. Here, the word ate means to consume and is the past tense version of eat. The other version, eight, is the number after seven and before nine. 

8. Eye vs I

An eye is the body part you use to see the world while “I” is a pronoun that’s used when you’re talking about yourself. Here are some examples:

  • I was running late for my date because there was a traffic jam.
  • I saw the magic trick with my very own eyes.