Heteronym: Definition & Examples

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Davis

Richard teaches college writing and has a master's degree in creative writing.

Heteronyms are words that have the same spelling but different meanings and pronunciations. Learn about the definition of heteronyms and explore common examples of heteronyms. Updated: 10/03/2021

Definition of a Heteronym

Chances are you've come across the word 'homonym' in your studies. Homonyms are words that sound alike but have different spellings. A classic example, which haunts grammar teachers and copy editors to this day, can be found in the words 'their,' 'they're,' and 'there.' Still, homonyms aren't the only tricky words to look out for.

In this lesson, we'll be taking a look at the term 'heteronym,' a close relative of the homonym. Unlike homonyms, however, heteronyms are words that have the same spelling but sound different. An easy way to remember the difference between heteronyms and homonyms is to look at the prefixes, meaning the first part of the word. The prefix 'hetero' means 'different,' and the prefix 'homo' means 'the same.' So, remember, homonyms have the same sound and heteronyms have different sounds.

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  • 0:00 Definition of a Heteronym
  • 0:49 Examples of Heteronyms
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Examples of Heteronyms

Now that we've defined what a heteronym is, let's look at a common example of one. Consider the sentence, 'Jane read the book.'

In this instance, the word 'read' sounds like the color 'red.' This is because this sentence uses the past tense form of the word 'read.' If you were to pronounce 'read' like the word 'reed' (with an 'ee' sound), then this sentence would have a different meaning, since the present tense form of 'read' sounds like 'reed.' However, this is not correct, because the present tense would call for the word 'reads,' because Jane is only one person.

Now, let's make a very slight change to our example sentence: 'Jane, read the book.' As you can see, the only thing that's different is that there is now a comma after the word 'Jane.' Still, this changes the meaning of the sentence a great deal. Instead of describing in the past tense the action of Jane reading the book, the sentence is now telling Jane to read the book. Because the sentence is talking directly to Jane, this kind of sentence is known as direct address.

More importantly, the correct pronunciation of 'read' has also changed. In this version of the sentence, the word 'read' is no longer in the past tense. Rather, whoever's speaking this sentence is ordering Jane to read the book 'right now.' Therefore, the word 'read' is in the present tense.

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