Synonyms, you’ve probably heard of. Synonyms are words that have similar meaning to each other. Sick and ill are synonyms, as are buy and purchase. Homonyms, on the other hand, are words that look or sound the same, but have different meanings.
The following words are homonyms of each other: to, too, and two. And despite being written differently, each word is pronounced the same: /ˈtü/. There are two types of homonyms: homophones and homographs. Homophones sound the same, and homographs are written the same. So, to, too, and two are in fact homophones in that they sound the same, but of course have different meanings. See if you can identify the three different meanings of the words pronounced /ˈtü/ in this sentence: “Christina wants to go to the concert and Alex does too.”
No doubt you realized that too means as well. But to, which appears twice, has a different meaning each time. The first to, “Christina wants to go…”, is the infinitive marker. English, as you probably remember, forms the full infinitive by putting to in front of the basic, or first, form of the verb, e.g., to eat, to go, to swim, and so on. But the second to is a preposition, “go to the concert,” which indicates where Christina wants to go.
So, to is both a homophone and a homograph. Too is also a homophone and a homograph, as in, “Christina went to two concerts last Saturday. I think that’s one too many, and Steve thinks so, too.”
There is a second type of homograph that I just want to mention briefly; words that are spelled alike, but pronounced differently, and of course have different meanings. The word row is a good example. There are two ways to pronounce row: /ˈrō/ and /ˈrau̇/. How is row pronounced in each of the following sentences?
- There was a row of bushes in front of their house.
- The people down the street had a terrible row yesterday. Everyone heard them.
As a student of English, homonyms may be a bigger deal than you realize. In the early stages of learning a foreign language we tend to spend a lot of time trying to memorize vocabulary that we consider useful for meeting our everyday communication needs. When you’re just getting started it’s important to be able to say things like, “What’s your name?”, “How much does this cost?”, and so on. But as time goes by, not only do we learn more words, we also learn more meanings for words that we already know. And some words, it turns out, have many different meanings.
Take the verb get, for instance, which is a very often used word in English. Get has many different meanings, in other words many homonyms. Here are the most important meanings: find, buy, collect/fetch, understand, reach, obtain, and the so called get passive, which replaces the verb to be in passive sentences. Compare the meanings of get in the following sentences. Can you think of a synonym to replace each instance of get?
- The journey was so long. I couldn’t wait to get home!
- Does anyone know where I can get some postage stamps around here?
- Marie and Louis got married in 1962. Just imagine!
- I’m afraid I’ll be 15 minutes late. I have to get my son from football practice.
- I just don’t get what you’re trying to say.
- I’ve never been in this part of town. Where do you suppose we can get lunch?
Homonyms are not often the cause of misunderstandings among native speakers since the meaning is usually clear from the context – though comedians often make use of words having multiple meanings in humorous ways. But as a learner of English, it might help you to bear in mind that, even if every word in a sentence is known to you, if the sentence doesn’t quite make sense, it may be because you have just met a new homonym.