I. What is a H0mophone?
Homophone (pronounced HAH-muh-fone) is Greek for “same sound.” It’s when two or more words have the same sound, but different meanings. They may be spelled the same or differently. When homophones have the same spelling, they’re also called “homonyms.” Homonym (pronounced HAH-muh-nim) means “same name.”
Homophones but not homonyms
- To, too, two
- Their, there, they’re
- Bear, bare
- Fair, fare
Homophones and homonyms
- Rose (flower), rose (past tense of “rise”)
- Bat (animal), bat (baseball)
- Bear (animal), bear (verb)
- Fair (festival), fair (equal)
II. Examples of Homophones
Inside, the blinds were drawn, but the furniture was real. (Spike Milligan)
This is a joke based on a homophone, also known as a pun. The word “drawn” is a homophone/homonym with two meanings: in this context, it means “closed,” but it also means “an artistic creation.” The humor of a pun comes out of the unexpected switch from one meaning to the other.
Their trying to get home on time to see they’re favorite show.
In this example, the author has gotten confused about homophones and made a mistake. This sort of confusion is a very common source of spelling and grammar errors, so as a writer you have to know your homophones really well!
I’ll wait for you by the bank.
This isn’t a grammar error, but it is a confusing sentence – does the author mean “river bank” or “savings & loan bank”? This is called ambiguity.
III. The Important Effects of Homophones
There are three possible effects of homophones/homonyms:
- Error. This is the most common affect of homophones. They can lead you to make spelling and grammar mistakes, which negatively effect the quality of your writing. (Did you notice the errors in this paragraph? To affect means to influence, whereas an effect is a result, therefore these homophones need to trade places.)
- Ambiguity. Sometimes an author will make a homophone/homonym mistake that isn’t quite a spelling or grammar error, but still makes the sentence less readable. This is because homonyms and homophones create ambiguity; in other words, they make the meaning of the sentence unclear. A simple example would be: “there are too many bats in the toolshed.” Because of the homonym, it’s not clear whether this person is talking about winged animals or sports equipment.
- Pun. We’ve seen an example of this already. If you’re going for laughs, you can try using a homophone joke, or pun.
IV. Examples of Homophones in Literature
“How is bread made?’
‘I know that!’ Alice cried eagerly. ‘You take some flour─’
‘where do you pick the flower?’ the white Queen asked. ‘in the garden or in the hedges?’
‘Well, it isn’t picked at all’ Alice explained; it’s ground─’
‘How many acres of ground?’ said the White Queen.”
(Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)
There are two sets of homophones in this passage: flour/flower, and ground/ground (also homonyms). The ambiguity is humorous, resulting in a couple of puns. It also contributes to a general sense of confusion and weirdness, which is central to the tone of Lewis Carroll’s book.
“I’m a lawyer,” said the corkscrew, proudly. “I am accustomed to appear at the bar.
(L. Frank Baum, The Emerald City of Oz)
There’s a homonym here with the word “bar” – in one meaning, it’s a place where people go to drink (so a corkscrew belongs there). In another, it means a court of law (where a lawyer might appear).
V. Examples of Homophones in Pop Culture
“Everybody wise up!
One thing I ask of you:
Time to learn your homophones is past due!”
Weird Al Yankovic goes over many common homophones (as well as plenty of other grammar rules) in his song “Word Crimes,” a parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”
In the Portal games, GlaDOS makes a lot of puns, many of them sinister and vaguely threatening. At one point, she tells the player: “When the testing is over, you will be…missed.” Since “missed” is a homophone for “mist,” it’s a veiled threat – GlaDOS is saying that the player character will be vaporized at the end of the test, and therefore also missed.