As is too often the case, the differences among three concepts — in this case homonyms, homographs, and homophones — seem simple and clear . . . until you try to explain them. Whether it’s indicative of a bona fide disagreement among word people or of a historical confusion that is reflected in dictionaries and usage guides, the dilemma of defining these three words can be difficult to wrap your head around.
I’ll do my best, but to quote Charles Harrington Elster in How to Tell Fate from Destiny, “I will give you some reliable guidelines, but after that you’re on your own.”
Let’s start with what we all agree about: the element that all three words have in common. Homo- comes from the Greek and indicates “same,” as in homogenous and homosexual. And each of the three words under consideration indicates characteristics that words share. Here are the strict definitions, as I see them:
The -onym in homonym means “name,” as it does in antonym, pseudonym, and anonymous. So homonyms are words that have the same name; that is, they’re spelled the same and are pronounced the same but have different meanings.
Think Bob Costas and Bob Barker; they’re both Bobs, but they’re different people.
Ellen’s tear through the mall ended when she found a tear in her pants.
The -graph in homograph indicates writing, like in autograph and paragraph. Homographs are words that are spelled the same (like homonyms) but that are pronounced differently.
Think Joan Baez and Joan Miro.
The tear in Ellen’s pants brought a tear to her eye.
Telephone, megaphone, and phonics all use the same -phone — meaning “sound” — as homophone. Homophones are words that sound the same but are spelled differently.
This is Katharine McPhee, Katherine Heigl, and Catherine the Great.
That Ellen could summon a single real tear was proof that she was a top-tier actor.
This all seems reasonable enough, but as I mentioned, there is disagreement among the word-meisters of the world about how loose or restrictive these definitions really should be. Neal Whitman, who holds a PhD in linguistics, prefers what we might call broad definitions of these words, and he’s not alone. He argues that homophones are words that sound the same and have different meanings, but leaves out the restriction of the words having different spellings. He also defines homographs more simply as words that are spelled the same and have different meanings, without any mention of pronunciation.
Whitman’s defines homonyms the same way as I do above: words that are both spelled and pronounced the same, but have different meanings. But in his reckoning, homonyms are words that are both homophones and homographs.
Whitman definitions can be nicely illustrated with a simple Venn diagram, but I find them problematic because they involve so much overlap. By these broad definitions, pen (the pig kind) and pen (the ink kind), for example, are simultaneously homophones, homographs, and homonyms. Such an outlook can make discussions about homonyms ambiguous because which similar characteristic is the focus won’t necessarily be clear — is it the identical spelling or the identical pronunciation?
The narrower definitions given above — the ones that I prefer — create three separate, non-overlapping categories of words. By these definitions, pen and pen are homonyms only; they are neither homophones (because they aren’t spelled differently) nor homographs (because they aren’t pronounced differently). By these narrower definitions, it’s clearer exactly which similarities between words are under discussion.
But that’s my opinion, formed while trying to explain these three words to myself. No doubt the confusion — or the disagreement — will continue unabated, and you will likely have to explain your terms whenever you use them.