Definition of Homograph

Homographs are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. For example, the word “present” in English can either be a noun, in which it is a gift; a verb, in which it means to offer; or an adjective, in which it means something is in a certain place. Some dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary also require the definition of homograph to refer only to words that come from different origins. For example, “lead” would be a homograph because its two meanings—a noun referring to a metal that was once added to paint, and a verb meaning to guide the way for others—come from different root words. The OED would not consider “read” to be a homograph, however, because, while the present and past tense of the verb are pronounced differently, they share the same contextual origin.

Homographs can be pronounced the same way, making them homonyms, or they may be pronounced differently, making them heteronyms. Note that in the example of “present,” the noun and adjective are pronounced the same way and are thus homonyms as well as homographs, while the verb is pronounced differently, making it a heteronym of the other two words. In some accents of a language a homograph pair may be homonyms, while in other accents they are pronounced differently and are thus heteronyms.

The word homograph comes from the Greek words ὁμός (homós) and γράφω (gráphō), meaning “same” and “write,” respectively.

Difference Between Homograph, Homonym, and Homophone

The definitions of homograph, homonym, and are all very similar. They all contain the prefix homo-, which means “same.” Homographic words are spelled the same way, homophonic words are pronounced the same way, and homonymic words are both spelled and pronounced the same way. All three of these terms refer to words which have something in common and yet have unique meanings.

Common Examples of Homograph

There are numerous examples of homographs in English. Here is a short list:

The following sentences involve homograph examples in which there are two meanings of a word that is written the same way:

Significance of Homograph in Literature

Generally, when an author uses a homograph in a work of literature it’s in order to show a bit of cleverness. Homograph examples also generally involve some sense of a pun or cleverness when simply written; when they are said out loud it is clear the words are different (unless they are homonyms as well as homographs). Thus, an author might use an example of a homograph in a case where he or she would not expect the work to be read out loud, and instead would use a homograph as a visual pun.

Examples of Homograph in Literature

Example #1

SAMPSON: Gregory, on my word, we’ll not carry coals.
GREGORY: No, for then we should be colliers.
SAMPSON: I mean, if we be in choler, we’ll draw.
GREGORY: Ay, while you live, draw your neck out of collar.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

In this fine passage of wit, William Shakespeare uses both homophone and homograph examples. “Colliers,” “choler,” and “collar” represent a trio of homophonic words, which is to say they are written differently yet pronounced the same way. There is also a homograph in the word “draw.” Sampson uses the word to mean that the two will duel, while Gregory uses it to refer to the action of moving something in a certain direction. The homographic pair “draw” and “draw” also qualify as a homonymic pair because they are both written and pronounced the same way.

Example #2

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have More.

(“A Hymn to God the Father” by John Donne)

John Donne used some clever puns in his poem “A Hymn to God the Father.” John Donne’s wife was named Anne More, and thus when the narrator makes comments saying “I have More,” he’s actually referring to the woman named More. Therefore, this is a homograph because there is more then one meaning of “more” at work here, and also a homonym because her named was pronounced in the same way as the common word “more.”

Example #3

But they wouldn’t leave me alone. They seemed to think the opportunity lost, if they failed to point the conversation at me, every now and then, and stick the point into me. I might have been an unfortunate little bull in a Spanish arena, I got so smartingly touched up by these moral goads.

(Great Expectations by Charles Dickens)

In his novel Great Expectations, Charles Dickens uses some clever word play. In the above excerpt, the main character Pip is sitting with his family and their friends, feeling put upon by their company. Dickens uses the word “point” with two different meanings in this excerpt. Pip, an orphan, feels that everything that is said must ultimately refer back to him. He also compares himself to a bull in a bullring as the family’s friends act to metaphorically stick him with the barbs of their moral judgments.

Example #4

LADY BRACKNELL: My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality.
JACK: On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.

(The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde)

Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest contains much humor and cleverness, especially the main joke on the meaning of the word “earnest.” It is, of course, an adjective meaning someone who is sincere. It can also be a name, leading to the homographic/homonymic pun that runs throughout the plan. In this play, there is much humor based on the importance of being sincere juxtaposed against the insincerity of some characters who pretend to be named “Ernest.”