For teachers of the English language to non-English speakers, especially to adult learners, the numerous idiosyncrasies of the English language can become daunting indeed. Much of the confusion related to learning the language can be traced to the influx of new languages brought to England by a succession of peoples over the centuries. Doggers, Celts, Romans, Saxons and Normans each in turn brought their language to Britain, where it melded with local dialects, eventually resulting in the beloved tongue spoken there today.

One group of linguistic peculiarities that cause lots of trouble for ESL teachers and their students are three related word-similarity conditions: homophones, homonyms and homographs. Some educators almost see them as a three-headed Gorgon, barring their students from entering a promised land of correct English usage. Homophones are two or more words pronounced the same, but with different spellings and meanings. Examples: to-two-too, plane-plain, by-buy-bye, tic-tick, you-ewe-yew, bear-bare, for-four-fore, dear-deer, etc.

Homonyms are two or more words pronounced AND spelled the same, but with different meanings. Examples: saw (cutting tool and past tense of verb ‘to see’), pool (small water body, group of items, table game), fit (degree of conformity, display of temper or distress), cricket (athletic sport, insect), bat (athletic sport equipment, flying mammal, verb ‘to strike’), plain (wood-working tool, flat landscape), drag (dress as opposite gender, pull or tow an object), foot (unit of measurement, body part), etc. The number of homonyms is continually expanding, as a general tendency exists to make verbs out of nouns, and vice versa, i.e. ‘Xerox me a copy’ (duplicate it), ‘Google it’ (look it up). While this trend is more prevalent in American and Australian dialects of English, the British are in no way immune.

“A little awe generated by suddenly becoming aware of an interesting facet of a topic, at times even a bit funny, promotes learning.”

Homographs are two or more words spelled the same, but pronounced OR accented differently, and have different meanings: bass, the musical clef and bass, the fish; minute, a measure of time and minute, adjective meaning ‘tiny’; moped, small two-wheeled motor vehicle and moped, past tense of verb ‘to mope’, meaning act sullenly. Some words become homographs when usage changes. Object, the noun, changes both all meaning and pronunciation when becoming a verb. Invalid changes full usage when going from noun to adjective. Desert makes the biggest leap of all, going from a deserved reward to places like central North Africa! The issue of inclusion of proper nouns and adjectives opens up new territory for all three heads of our linguistic monster, e.g. does a Polish Army soldier polish his brass?

When confronted with any of the three linguistic phenomena, an English teacher will certainly render a conscientious explanation to an inquiring student. After that, however, a temptation may arise to move quickly on to other instructional concerns. This may be a mistake, as homophones, homonyms and homographs, for all their proclivity for confusion, also contain a potential for generating subtle interest, even humour. An enterprising instructor can seize this opportunity to turn initial student confusion into greater understanding and retention. A little awe generated by suddenly becoming aware of an interesting facet of a topic, at times even a bit funny, promotes learning.

One way to capitalise on this phenomena is to assign students to write sentences using each one of the three ‘monster heads’ in several sentences. These sentences, like any other English assignment, should feature correct spelling and usage, and when read orally, feature correct pronunciation. Depending on general class sophistication, it may be possible to use two or even all three of the linguistic phenomena in the same sentence. The important thing here is for students to be able to identify which ‘monster head’ appears where in which sentence, and why this is the case. The following examples resemble typical sentences from such an assignment.

Homophones: The Royal Air Force planes landed on the American Great Plains. The tailor will sew my suit so I may wear it. There is no way they’re getting their clothes dry in time to go to the dance.

Homonyms: I bank on my wife to deposit my check in the bank. He saw the carpenter cut the wood with a power saw. Seal up the hole in the dike, so my pet seal doesn’t escape.

Homographs: The bass opera singer went fishing and caught a bass. The boy moped because his moped was wrecked. Are you content with the content of our algebra textbook?

Two, three in one: Wind your watch before the wind blows so hard I see it blow it into the sea. The pilot flew his plane despite having the flu; that’s the plain fact, as he had to transport a sick invalid, even though his pilot’s license was invalid.

The fact the final sentence is rather strained to include all three linguistic phenomena is an attempt to demonstrate use of levity as reinforcer of retention of a concept. The learner becomes more likely to recall a topic if forced to employ manipulation and humour to play a role in its acquisition. Far from the nightmare first contemplated when addressing homophones, homonyms and homographs, these concepts, when fully understood, become part of the beautiful dream of greater English language comprehension.

A second student assignment, more intellectually advanced, would be an investigation of why English contains so many of the three phenomena, compared to many other world languages. This inquiry might be suggested to ESL students planning, once their command of English is secured, to seek higher education and eventual college degrees. The basic reason for this fact touches upon scholarly disciplines of History, Anthropology and Classics, and is related to the sequence of migrations into the British Isles over the years. By contrast, Japan has experienced only two major influxes of peoples in all recorded history.

After the Romans withdrew from England in early Medieval times, in poured the Germanic Saxons, soon followed by their Flemish and Viking cousins. All three called a large water body a zie or zee. It’s no coincidence that English contains the word sea. This fact led to some new homophones and homonyms based on the new noun, teaming up with the older root from Roman times having to do with vision.

A little later in the Middle Ages, 1066 to be exact, a man named William and his followers overran Britain. These newcomers spoke French. The second person pronoun in French is vous, from which the English you evolved. William and his followers also brought the ‘th…’ sound to English shores, a syllable anathema to the Saxons and their Germanic cousins on the continent. It was then and still is there today. Here again, more material for new homophones, homonyms and ultimately homographs to be born into existence.

So we have even more beautiful dreams, not just for adult students striving to master a new language in a new land, but also for those hoping to go on to more education there.


Glenn Dahlem age 85, Honolulu, Hawaii resident, likes to write about linguistics, teaching methods, coaching sports and farming/gardening. He holds BS and PhD degrees from his original hometown school, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an MS from Winona (Minnesota) State University.