Hi kofga

We have a number of technical terms to describe the properties of word ambiguities of this general kind, and you can often apply two descriptions to a particular class of words.

The kissing-cousin terms follow Greek descriptions, based on homo~ (same) and hetero~ (different), plus the descriptions of sound (~phone), name (~nym), and writing (~graph).

‘Homograph’ describes one of a pair of words spelled the same but different in meaning or derivation or pronunciation.


A subset of these ambiguous words is the homonym: a word that is pronounced and spelled the same way as another, but that has a different meaning, such as bat as in "fruit bat" or "bat and ball".

The general type you are referring to is known as a heteronym: one of two (or more) words that have the same spelling, but have different pronunciation and meaning – for example "bow" as in "bow of a ship" or "bow and arrow". In other words, heteronyms are heterophonic homographs :)


There are two main types of heteronym I know of: ‘grammatical function’ heteronyms and true heteronyms. An example of the former type (when essentially the same word is forming a different part of speech) is a sentence like this:
• Produce: These factories produce the produce that is shipped abroad.
In this use of produce and similar two-syllable words you will see that in almost every case the noun is stressed on the first syllable, and the verb is stressed on the second (e.g. noun: CON-test; verb: con-TEST). Some of these examples, such as ‘abuse’ and ‘abuse’, do not change their stress pattern: the words differ by the pronunciation of the /s/. In one form (the verb) it is voiced [like zzz}, and in the other (the noun) it is voiceless [like sss]. It can also be a verb/adjective pair:
• Perfect: The overture took years to perfect, but eventually it was perfect.
It can also occur through change of tense - the present tense and past tense forms of the verb to read are pronounced differently but spelled identically:
I want to read the sequel today because I read the first book yesterday.

In the grammatical function heteronyms, the pronunciation is certainly different in the ways analysed, but arguably the meaning is still very close. In true heteronyms, the meaning and pronunciation are both unique:
• Sewer: As the sewer sat sewing her silk, she smelled the stench of a slimy sewer.

Here’s a great sample!

"There are seven heteronyms in the following passage: 'Heteronyms must incense foreign learners! I can't imagine a number feeling than if they spent hours learning a common English word, a minute little word, then found a second meaning and pronunciation! Surely agape could not be a foreigner's emotion as he or she becomes frustrated with our supply textured English words, which, we must admit, can be garbage and refuse to be defined' (opening to 'Heteronyms', David Bergeron, English Today 24, Oct. 1990)."

(from The Oxford Companion to the English Language)

I guess there is a case for a word to narrowly define the subset of heteronyms formed only by different syllabic emphasis, but I haven’t personally encountered it yet… Heterosyllabiphonic heteronyms?!

There are some three-way heteronyms too. Can anyone get some?