Homographs even sometimes have different pronunciations depending on how they’re used, a feature that can be challenging even for fluent speakers. One of the simplest and most common examples is “read” and “red.” The former refers to reading and can be used in the following way: “She read the book to us.” At the same time, the latter is a color. Someone might say: “The book was red.” Then, to make things even more difficult, one might say: “She read the red book to us.”
Homographs are often used in literature, everyday speech, public speaking, essays, and other expressions. They are unavoidable if one wants to use the entire range of language that English has to offer.
Definition of Homograph
The word “homograph” comes from the Greek word “homos,” meaning “the same,” and the word “graph,” which means “to write.” Homographs are found throughout the English language and other languages. They can make language-learning more difficult while also providing a challenge or fluent speakers who encounter them in new scenarios. These words have the same spelling and different meanings. Sometimes they have different pronunciations, but not always. For example: “close” meaning to “close the box,” and “close” meaning “my family and I are close.”
Examples in Literature
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is a famous example of a homograph. The play contains a great deal of humor and is one of the best examples of a farce in the English language. It was Wilde’s most successful play and is still performed to this day. The central plot of the story revolves around the use of the words “earnest” and “Ernest.” The famous final lines of the poem read:
On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.
These words are spelled differently and, depending on how they’re used, can have different meanings. But, in the play, the two words are interchangeable. Often, the name “Ernest” is used to refer to the “earnest” character trait. In the last lines, Jack makes a final joke about the use of the two words. It’s important for him to be named “Ernest,” as his true love will only marry someone with that name, and he almost must be “earnest” as a human being.
Discover Oscar Wilde’s poetry.
A Hymn to God the Father by John Donne
This well-loved Donne poem depicts a speaker’s desire to be forgiven by God for all the terrible sins he’s committed. The speaker never clearly reveals what these sins were or why he thinks they are so bad. He spends the lines begging God to see him as a good person who is capable of more than his actions suggest. Here are lines from the first stanza which contain an example of a homograph:
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.
The poet uses the words “done” and “more” several times in this passage. This is a choice that scholars have determined is related to his own last name and that of his wife, “More.” These words have the same pronunciations, so he’s able to use them in this creative manner. Often, the last word of this excerpt, “More,” is capitalized, further emphasizing this connection.
Read more John Donne poems.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Throughout Romeo and Juliet, readers can find numerous interesting examples of a wide range of literary devices. Readers will encounter everything from alliteration to allusion and more. There are also examples of homographs. For example, in the following passage, when Sampson and Gregory are talking about dueling.
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.
Here, there are actually examples of homophones and homographs. He uses “draw” in two different ways in these lines and uses “colliers,” “choler,” and “collar” as homophonic words.
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
“Much Ado About Nothing” is a clever and humorous play that was first published in the First Folio in 1623. It was written in either 1598 or 1599. It wasn’t performed until 1612. In this second Shakespeare example, readers can find a good example of a homograph in a few lines Beatrice speaks to Claudio. Here they are:
The count is neither sad, nor sick,
nor merry, nor well: but civil, count; civil as an
orange, and something of that jealous complexion […]
She uses the word “civil” twice in this passage, using it differently each time. He’s “civil” like a particularly bitter orange, a good representation of his emotions in this scene. But, she also creates a pun that references where oranges come from, “Seville,” which is spelled differently, with a different meaning, but has the same pronunciation (mostly).
Why Do Writers Use Homographs?
Writers use homographs for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes, there’s no escaping them if someone wants to write a particular sentence, or example, using the words “bear” and/or “bare.” Or, in other circumstances, one might seek out homographs in order to make a pun and create humor in their dialogue. Writers always have to be careful not to use too many too quickly for fear their readers might lose track of what they’re talking about.
Related Literary Terms
- Ambiguity: a word or statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.
- Analogy: an extensive comparison between one thing and another that is very different from it.
- Cadence: the natural rhythm of a piece of text, created through a writer’s selective arrangement of words, rhymes, and the creation of meter.
- Connotation: the feeling a writer creates through their word choice. It’s the idea a specific word or set of words evokes.
- Euphony: a literary device that refers to the musical, or pleasing, qualities of words.