Definition of Homophone

A homophone is a word that is pronounced in the same way as another word but has a different meaning, and usually a different spelling. For example, the words “sea” and “see” constitute a homophone pair because they are pronounced the same way but have different meanings and different spellings. Note that some words count as homophones in one person’s accent, while in another person’s accent the words sound different. For example, for some people “merry,” “marry,” and “Mary” are all pronounced exactly the same, while for others there are three separate vowel sounds.

The word homophone comes from the Greek words homo- (ὁμο‑) and phōnḗ (φωνή), which mean “same” and “voice” or “utterance,” respectively. The definition of homophone is very similar to that of homonym, which also refers to a word that is pronounced the same way, but which must be spelled in the same way as well. Therefore, every homonym is a homophone, while not every homophone is a homonym.

Difference Between Homophone, Homograph, and Homonym

Every example of homophone pairs is pronounced the same way, while every homograph pair is spelled in the same way. A homonym pair must be pronounced in the same way as well as spelled the same way. To qualify as a homograph, a homophone, or a homonym the words in question must have different meanings; they often have different root words as well.

A homophone pair that is spelled differently can also be further classified as a heterograph pair.

Common Examples of Homophone

There are many different examples of homophone pairs in English. There are also over 80 homophone triples, 24 homophone quadruples, and a few examples of homophonic groups that have five, six, and even seven words.

  • Homophone pairs: Flower, Flour; Deer, Dear; Cot, Caught; Maid, Made; Stake, Steak; Sale, Sail; Faint, Feint; Great, Grate; Days, Daze; Beach, Beech; Creak, Creek; Grease, Greece; Minor, Miner; Knight, Night; Mode, Mowed; Yolk, Yoke; Aloud, Allowed; Witch, Which
  • Homophone triples: Pair, Pare, Pear; To, Two, Too; Wail, Whale, Wale; Rood, Rude, Rued; Rapped, Rapt, Wrapped; Coward, Cowherd, Cowered; Chord, Cord, Cored; Bald, Balled, Bawled; Aisle, I’ll, Isle; Ade, Aid, Aide; Frees, Frieze, Freeze; Knead, Kneed, Need; Knot, Naught, Not; Reign, Rain, Rein
  • Homophone quadruples: Gnu, Knew, New, Nu; Prays, Preys, Praise, Prase; Metal, Meddle, Mettle, Medal; Carat, Caret, Carrot, Karat; Sense, Cents, Scents, Cense
  • Homophone quintuplet: Seau, Sew, So, Soe, Sow

There are many pun examples in English that depend on homophonic words. Here are some examples:

  • When she saw her first strands of gray hair, she thought she’d dye.
  • Once you’ve seen one shopping center you’ve seen a mall. (a mall=‘em all)
  • Those who jump off a Paris bridge are in Seine. (in Seine=insane)

There are also many longer jokes in which the punch line depends on a homophonic pun, such as the following:

A string walks into a bar with a few friends and orders a beer. The bartender says, “I’m sorry, but we don’t serve strings here.”

The string goes back to his table. He ties himself in a loop and messes up the top of his hair. He walks back up to the bar and orders a beer.

The bartender squints at him and says, “Hey, aren’t you a string?”

The string says, “Nope, I’m a frayed knot.”

Significance of Homophone in Literature

When authors choose to use homophones in literature, it’s usually to create a pun. Though homophones do not have the same meaning, when they are heard aloud there can be a brief moment of confusion as the audience works out the meaning of the word from the context. Thus, homophone examples are especially popular in drama, because the audience will hear the word spoken and thus hear the pun intended by the different meanings of the homophonic words.

Examples of Homophone in Literature

Example #1

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

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare particularly loved including homophone examples in his works to show clever wordplay. In the above excerpt from Romeo and Juliet, the characters of Sampson and Gregory come up with three homophones: collier, choler, and collar. They know they are being witty, and choose their rebukes just to further the game of words. Their back-and-forth is not necessarily full of sense, but instead makes use of this homophone triple for humor’s sake.

Example #2

DON PEDRO: Why, how now, Count, wherefore are you sad?
CLAUDIO: Not sad, my lord.
DON PEDRO: How then, sick?
CLAUDIO: Neither, my lord.
BEATRICE: The Count is neither sad, nor sick, nor merry, nor well, but civil count, civil as an orange, and something of that jealous complexion.

(Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare)

In Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare uses a clever play on words that might not be quite as obvious as the previous example. Beatrice says the Count is “civil as an orange.” In this case, the word “civil” is suppose to be a homophone for the Spanish city of Seville, which is where the majority of oranges came from in Shakespeare’s day. Thus, his audiences would hear the somewhat strange simile of “civil as an orange,” and understand it to be a homophonic pun. Indeed, the joke goes a bit further because oranges from Seville were known to be bitter, and thus Beatrice is implying that the Count is feeling bitter.

Example #3

His death, which happen’d in his berth,
At forty-odd befell:
They went and told the sexton, and
The sexton toll’d the bell.

(“Faithless Sally Brown” by Thomas Hood)

In this final stanza from his poem “Faithless Sally Brown,” Thomas Hood uses two homophone examples. The man in this poem is a sailor, and thus when Hood refers to “his berth,” he is talking about the man’s bed on his ship. However, it is also clearly a homophonic pun which hearkens back to the word “birth” and therefore the line is clever because it contains a seeming juxtaposition between the man’s death and birth.

Example #4

ROSENCRANTZ: Oh yes, it’s dark for day.
GUILDENSTERN: We must have gone north, of course.
ROSENCRANTZ: Off course?
GUILDENSTERN: Land of the midnight sun, that is.
ROSENCRANTZ: Of course….I think it’s getting light.
GUILDENSTERN: Not for night.
ROSENCRANTZ: This far north.
GUILDENSTERN: Unless we’re off course.

(Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard)

The above excerpt from Tom Stoppard’s absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is not quite an example of homophone because “of course” and “off course” are usually not pronounced the same way. However, the characters mishear each other, making the two phrases functional homophones in this passage. Stoppard’s play contains many such exchanges that show the limits of communication and the consequences of miscommunication. Therefore, this passage is humorous to the audience who likely can hear the difference between the two phrases and note that the two characters are not understanding the difference.

Test Your Knowledge of Homophone

1. Which of the following statements is the correct homophone definition?
A. A word which has the same pronunciation but a different meaning as another word.
B. A word which has the same spelling but a different meaning as another word.
C. A word which has the same spelling and same pronunciation as another word.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. B is the definition of homograph and C is the definition of homonym. A homophone may be a homonym, but not ALL homophones are homonyms (i.e., not all homophones are spelled in the same way, whereas all homonyms must be spelled identically).[/spoiler]

2. Choose the homophone example from the following pairs of words:
A. Stare/Steer
B. Bear/Bare
C. Mayor/Mayer
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. The pairs of words in A and C are not pronounced the same way.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following sets of lines from Gloucester’s speech in William Shakespeare’s Richard III contains an example of homophone?

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;


And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.


Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;

[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. Shakespeare includes a pun on the word “sun,” hinting at the homophonic word “son.”[/spoiler]