What are heteronyms? A guide to look-alike words in English

What are heteronyms? A guide to look-alike words in English

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated August 15, 2022

If you study English, then surely you’ve come across confusing words. In English there are many grammar rules that seem to have endless exceptions! Have you encountered words that are spelled the same but have a different meaning? And are they pronounced differently as well? These words are called heteronyms. 

This article will describe heteronyms, give examples and discuss some similar grammatical word forms

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What is a heteronym?

Heteronyms are words that are spelled the same, but have different meanings and different pronunciations. In English, most heteronyms come in pairs. Here is an example:

  1. The couple got into a big row last night. 

In this sentence, row means an argument. This is the pronunciation /rau/ and it rhymes with cow. 

  1. We had to row the boat for hours to get back to shore. 

In this sentence, row means to use oars to move a boat. This is the pronunciation /rō/ and it rhymes with go. 

These words are clearly confusing! The word row is spelled the same in each sentence. But the meaning is completely different and the pronunciation is different. As you get better at English, you will recognize the right word to say based on context.

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Heteronym examples

Now that we know the definition of a heteronym let’s take a look at a list of heteronyms. 

HeteronymDefinition, usage and pronunciation 1Definition, usage and pronunciation 2
BassA stringed instrument, type of guitar
He plays the bass.
/bās/
A type of fish

They go fishing for bass.
/bas/
BowA tool used to shoot an arrow at a target
The kids practiced using a bow and arrow at camp.

/boh/
To bend the upper part of the body as a greeting or sign of respect
In Japan, it is respectful to bow when greeting people. 
/bou/
CloseCover an opening
Will you close the door? 
/klohz/
Near 
The store is close to the school. 
/kləʊs/
DesertTo leave or abandon
Did he desert his wife?

/dih-zurt/
A dry, barren area of land
The Sahara desert is in northern Africa.
/dez-ert/ 
LeadTo show someone the way. 
I am going to lead the group trip in Mexico. 
/leed/
A type of metal. 
Lead paint is banned in many countries. 
/led/
LiveTo reside
I live in Chicago. 
/liv/
In the moment, in person
I like listening to live music.
/lahyv/
ObjectTo express disagreement
It is common for a lawyer to object to the argument from the other side. 
/əbˈdʒɛkt/
A material thing
The museum had an interesting object on display. 
/ob-jekt/
RefuseGarbage
After the party there was a ton of refuse

/ref-yoos/
To indicate an unwillingness to do something
I refuse to answer your questions. 
/ri-fyooz/
TearTo rip or pull apart 
If you tear the paper in half you will have two pieces of paper. 
/tair/
A drop of liquid in the eye
I always cry a tear of happiness when I watch romantic movies. 
/teer/
WindThe natural movement of air
The wind is strong at the top of the mountain. 
/wind/
To change direction, bend or turn
The road seems to wind through the mountains. 
/wahynd/

What is the difference between homonyms and heteronyms?

Let’s review another grammar form similar to heteronyms. Remember, heteronyms are words that are spelled the same, have different meanings, but are pronounced differently. Homonyms are words that are spelled the same, have different meanings, but are pronounced the same.

Here are some common homonyms used in example sentences:

Can I borrow your pen to sign my name? (Writing utensil that uses ink.)

The farm animals live in a pen so they do not escape. (Small fenced-in area.)

I am reading a great book. (A printed publication bound in a cover.)

Did you book the hotel room for our vacation? (Reserve.)

I broke my arm when I fell out of the tree. (Upper limb of the human body.)

I work for the New York arm of the company. (A division of a company.)

The child is very bright. (Smart.)

My new apartment is very bright. (Sunny.)

What kind of food would you like for dinner? (Type.)

My cousin is so kind to everyone. (Nice.)

They love rock music. (Rock and roll.)

The rocks in the river are smooth. (Hard mineral deposit.)


Is it live or live? 

If you desert (abandon) your English studies, your language skill will become like the desert (a dry area of land without much life or vegetation). If you enjoy learning English, homonyms and heteronyms will be fun for you. With practice, you will know the difference between I live in Chicago (the city) and listen to live music by the Chicago (the band).

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her consulting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

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