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Pronunciation Nuances: What are Heteronyms And How To Use Them?

What are Heteronyms And How To Use Them

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If you have been learning English for at least a few months, you’ve probably noticed how confusing and weird it can be. Grammar rules have many exceptions, some words look and sound identical but mean distinct things, and others also look exact but sound differently… If you’ve ever noticed anything like that, you’ve most likely wondered – what are heteronyms, and how to determine and use them in English? Fortunately, this is precisely the topic we are going to cover today. So please make yourself comfortable, and we will start immediately. 

What is a heteronym?

To help you understand the meaning of this term, we want to start with the practice. Please look at the words to present and a present. Read them out loud – do you notice any difference in pronunciation? Next, let’s try to put it in the sentence: We are glad to present this article as a present for our readers. What about now? Did you notice anything? If the answer is yes, congratulations. You’ve just learned your first heteronym. 

As you can guess, heteronyms are common words that are spelled identically but have different pronunciations. Some of these words are related, derived from each other, or have a similar meaning. Others, however, are entirely different; the only thing they have in common is the exact spelling. 

Heteronyms, homonyms, and homophones – what is the difference?

In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition, a heteronym is explained as a homograph. It’s because this term is connected with two other word classes – homonyms and homophones. But what is the difference between them? Let’s find out together. 

  • Heteronyms, as we already said, are words with the exact spelling but different pronunciations. One of the best heteronym examples is the words a desert (as in the Sahara desert, and to desert (to leave someone without return; to abandon someone). 
  • Homonyms, on the other hand, have the opposite meaning. They are words that are spelled differently but have the same pronunciation. A great example of homonyms is the accept and except.
  • Homophones are similar to homonyms, as they describe words with similar pronunciation and spelling but different meanings (a bear as an animal and to bear as to tolerate something).

As you can see, there is a visible connection between these terms. Sometimes you can see that the word homonym is used to describe a heteronym or homonym as well. It is permissible because this term combines the previous two, but it is still necessary to use the correct meaning to understand the context fully. 

Main types and examples of heteronyms in English

To understand this topic better, you must learn the main heteronym types. There are three of them – capitonyms, true heteronyms, and three-way heteronyms. Below, you will find the definition of all of them that will help you understand such a challenging topic. So, here are the most popular heteronyms examples and types: 

  • Capitonyms. These words are tricky since the main difference between them is the capital letter that changes the pronunciation of the word (Polish (as from Poland) and polish (as to shine); Mobile (as the Alabama city) and mobile (as your phone); August (as a month) and august (as important), etc.). But remember that not all capitonyms are heteronyms words; pay attention to pronunciation.
  • True heteronyms. This term defines words with identical spelling but different meanings and pronunciations (content as the information and content as the emotion). Most often, these words are not connected in any way, unlike other heteronyms, which can be derived from each other. 
  • Three-way heteronyms. This is the rarest form of heteronyms. It defines three words that have identical spelling but sound different and mean various things. For example, a simple word as is a three-way heteronym – meaning the Roman coin, the plural form of the letter a, or as a preposition or a conjunction. 

Now that you know the heteronyms definition, main types, and ways to distinguish them, it is time to see the most common examples of such words. Of course, many of them exist, and we can’t list them all. But below, you will find the most common ones you can use in your daily speech. 

A comprehensive English heteronyms list

Heteronyms are much more common than you think. And sometimes, you might not even realize that some words you use actually have identical twins with different pronunciations. Here is a comprehensive list of heteronyms for you. 

  • House. 

The first example in our heteronym list is the word house. Depending on the situation, it can be a noun or a verb. A house /haʊs/: is a building where people live, while to house /haʊz/: means to give someone (a person or an animal) a place to live or to provide a place to store something. For example: 

Look at this house! It reminds me of the one I grew up in. 

We built this shelter to house all the animals we could find. 

  • Live. 

Another popular heteronym that you probably use often. And it also has two different meanings, which are different parts of speech. To live /lɪv/ as a verb means to reside somewhere or to continue to have life. Live /laɪv/ as an adjective or an adverb usually refers to broadcasting something at the exact same moment. For example:

You can come to my house if you want. I live nearby.

Live translations are becoming a new online trend. 

  • Refuse. 

Like the previous examples, this heteronym also has two definitions. As a noun, refuse /ˈref.juːs/ means a waste material, while a verb refuse /rɪˈfjuːz/ means to reject doing something you’ve been asked to do. For example:

We decided to be more green and reduce our kitchen refuse. 

She asked me to go shopping with her, but I refused. 

  • Dove. 

We all know the noun dove /dʌv/, which defines a small bird considered a symbol of peace. The verb dove /doʊv/ is a Past Simple form of the verb dive that describes the process of jumping or moving down under the water. You can mostly hear this word in Northern America and Canada. For example:

You can often see doves at weddings – brides and grooms usually let them out of their hands in the middle of the ceremony. 

She dove off the pier right into the lake. 

  • Tear. 

When you are happy or sad, you can feel salty, watery drops falling from your eyes – this is what the noun tear /tɪr/ describes. The verb tear /ter/, on the other hand, refers to the process of pulling something apart. For example:

I was very sad, but I could hold back my tears.

Love will tear us apart again, as Joy Division sang. 

  • Polish. 

We’ve already mentioned this heteronym before, but it is worth being on our list. As you remember, it is a capitonym – a capital letter makes all the difference. A polish /ˈpɑː.lɪʃ/ as a noun or verb refers to the process of cleaning something, rubbing it until it becomes shiny. Polish /ˈpoʊ.lɪʃ/ as an adjective describes everything that is connected with Poland. For example:

I need to polish my floor before we leave.

She likes this Polish singer, but I can’t remember his name. 

  • Object.

Another great example of the same word having different pronunciations. A noun object /ˈɑːb.dʒɪkt/ refers to any material you can see or touch; usually, we use this word when talking about inanimate things. The verb object /əbˈdʒekt/ means to dislike someone or something or to show disagreement with something. For example:

My dog likes to chew any object it sees. 

No one objected when Lisa offered to order some food. 

  • Separate. 

You can use the adjective separate /ˈsep.ɚ.ət/ to describe something happening or being in different physical places or things that exist severally from each other. The verb to separate /ˈsep.ə.reɪt/ means to split something, to divide into parts. For example:

I try to keep fruits separate from vegetables since it helps me to keep them fresh. 

Can you please help me to separate the white shirts from the black ones?

  • Close. 

A simple verb close /kloʊz/ literally means to make something that is open, not open anymore. Meanwhile, the adjective close /kloʊs/ refers to very special and precious relationships between two or more people. For example:

I need to close the door before the storm. 

I am happy to be so close to my mother. 

  • August.

Last on our list is the heteronym-capitonym august, the meaning of which also depends on the capital letter. August as a noun /ˈɔː.ɡəst/ describes a beautiful, warm, and pleasant time of the year, the eighth month, the one between July and September. An adjective august /ɔːˈɡʌst/ is a formal term meaning “of high importance.” For example:

I am Leo; I was born in August. 

The duke of Wellington was an august person. 

Understand the heteronyms better with the Promova

Studying heteronyms might be tricky for inexperienced English learners. This topic requires some knowledge of vocabulary and pronunciation, which can be hard to obtain alone. But we have a perfect solution for you if you want to reach the top and master even the most challenging English rules. Promova is a convenient online platform created specifically for language learning

There are a few options for those whose goal is to master English. First, you can start personal lessons with professional tutors ready to prepare a unique curriculum based on your preferences, proficiency level, etc. Another option is to join group classes – they are perfect for practicing the language and meeting new friends from all over the world. And if you prefer to study alone, you can always install a convenient Promova app and access dozens of topics available anywhere and anytime. 

Conclusion

All in all, heteronyms are a really popular studying topic. You can face these words every day and not even realize they are identical siblings with completely different pronunciations. But it is important to remember at least a few of them if your goal is to become fluent in English. It will help you avoid conversation misunderstandings, expand your vocabulary, and strengthen your pronunciation skills. And we are glad to assist you in your path – this article will be a perfect place to start. 

FAQ

What do you call words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently?

In English, you call them heteronyms or heterophones. According to Wikipedia, the literal meaning of this word is “different sound,” which perfectly describes this term. The best examples of English heteronyms are the words separate, object, house, refuse, tear, close, wind, polish, dove, live, mobile, present, as, desert, and abandon.

What are the main types of heteronyms?

Three main types of heteronyms are capitonyms, true heteronyms, and three-way heteronyms. The first category includes the words that sound different depending on the letter capitalization – like Polish and polish. The second type contains words with the complete opposite meaning, words that are not derivatives. The third category comprises groups of three heteronyms, all with different spellings and meanings.

What is the difference between heteronyms, homonyms, and homophones?

Heteronyms are words with the same spelling but different pronunciations and meanings. Homonyms are words that sound the same despite the spelling (like flower and flour). Homophones are similar to both previous terms because they have the same pronunciation and spelling but different meanings (like the words mean, bear, etc.).

Why is it important to learn English heteronyms?

Pronunciation is a tricky thing. You can accidentally say something bad or even offensive if you don’t know how to pronounce the word correctly. That is why learning heteronyms is important – pronunciation is the only thing that distinguishes similar words, so you need to know how to say the right one to share your opinion. 

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