The English language is a minefield where spelling and pronunciation are concerned. It’s no wonder it’s one of the most difficult languages to learn.
We have words that are spelt the same or pronounced the same but have different meanings (homonym) and words that are spelt differently but pronounced the same and have different meanings (homophone).
Just to recap here:
Homonym = Two or more words spelt the same or pronounced the same but having different meanings.
Homophone = Two or more words spelt differently but pronounced the same and having different meanings.
And that’s only part of the language English speakers take for granted.
Forgive me if I repeat myself in this article, but I want to make myself clear about the distinction between homophone and homonym for today’s words.
Confused? You will be
Just when you think you’re getting your head round the difference between a homophone and a homonym, along comes a word that falls into both camps – desert. That’s desert as in, abandon, leave, and not desert as in, arid region.
In the desert, one might desert their host before dessert.
Desert (verb – abandon, leave – medium first ‘e’ as in berate, stress on the second syllable) and Dessert (noun – sweet course eaten at the end of a meal – medium first ‘e’ as in berate, stress on the second syllable) are homophones. The two words are pronounced the same but spelt differently and have different meanings.
Desert (noun – arid region, wasteland – short first ‘e’ as in pet, stress on the first syllable) and Desert (verb – abandon, leave) are homonyms. The two words are spelt the same but pronounced differently and have different meanings. Remember, homonyms can be spelt the same or pronounced the same.
Distinguishing between the two words (or is that three?)
How do you ensure you choose the correct spelling? To do this I’ve taken the noun dessert as a starting point. It only belongs in the homophone category along with desert (abandon, leave).
Dessert is an extra course taken at the end of a meal. Of course, you might think of dessert as part of a meal, but a meal consists of more than one course. So, in line with there being an extra course to a meal, in the word dessert there is more than one s – an extra letter. Pudding!
Desert as Homophone to Dessert
Desert, where the meaning is to abandon or leave, has only one s. By leaving out the extra s that is in dessert the meaning becomes, to leave.
Desert as a Homonym to Desert (above)
Desert, where the meaning is an arid region, also has something missing – that extra s. An arid region is also missing something – rain.
Got it? I hope so. If I haven’t made it any more complicated than it already is, then you should be able to remember which of the three words you need to use. Of course, if you are writing about someone abandoning someone or something in an arid region then you won’t have much trouble. It’s only when they have that extra course while abandoning someone in the arid region that you’ll need to remember the difference.
Can you think of any more words that are both homophones and homonyms? Do you have any tips on how to remember the difference?