What are the five types of homonym in English?

This is the first of two lessons about Homonyms and Polysemes. To complete this course, read each lesson carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.   

– Introduce the concept of homynmy in English

– Explore the five types of homonym: capitonym, heteronym, homograph, homophone and polyseme

– Include examples and features of each homonym type to help guide the reader to successful identification

Lesson 1

When it comes to the exploration of word meaning in English, there are many terms that describe the various patterns found in the language. While you may be familiar with the labels antonym and synonym for example, most students tend to find terms like ‘homonym’, ‘homograph’ and ‘polyseme’ much less recognisable. Yet having an understanding of the patterns these terms describe, and therefore of how words may come to share identical meanings, spelling or pronunciation, can help students considerably when learning new vocabulary

In this short two-lesson course on homonyms and polysemes, we focus first on the five types of homonym and how to identify them. Then in Lesson 2, we explore how homonymy and polysemy are different, how they share similar qualities, and whether a polyseme is in fact a type of homonym. After reading through these lessons and studying our examples, consider unlocking and completing our Lesson 1-2 Worksheets to check your comprehension and improve your English proficiency.


What is a homonym?

The broad definition of homonym used in this short course is “any word which shares identical spelling or pronunciation with another word”. As can be seen in the tables below, each of the two word pairs are homonyms of each other because of their shared written or spoken forms:

However, some grammarians argue that true homonyms are “solely those words which share both their spelling and their pronunciation”. Under this definition, only the words ‘rose’ and ‘rose’ in our examples could be considered homonymous.

What are the five types of homonym?

Using the broad definition in which any two words that share the same spelling or the same pronunciation are homonyms, it’s possible to define five types of homonym in the English language. These are capitonyms, heteronyms, homographs, homophones and polysemes. One particularly special word that we will use to demonstrate each of these five types is ‘bow’.

Type 1: Capitonyms

The oddly named capitonym is when two words possess different meanings but have the same spelling, with pronunciation being unimportant. The only difference between these words is that one word is capitalised and the other is not, explaining their strange name. This can be seen with the words ‘Bow’ and ‘bow’:

Another example would be the words ‘polish’, meaning ‘to clean until shiny’, and ‘Polish’, as in ‘the language from Poland’.


Type 2: Heteronyms

Next, we can see how heteronyms (also known as heterophones) are those words that have different meanings and pronunciation but identical spelling:

Another example would be ‘desert’ (a noun meaning ‘a dry region of Earth’) and ‘desert’ (a verb meaning ‘to abandon’). These words are pronounced differently due to their differing word stress, i.e.: ‘desert’ vs. ‘desert’.


Type 3: Homographs

Much like capitonyms, except that there’s no difference in capitalisation, homographs are words which share different meanings but identical spellings. How the words are pronounced is not important to allocate the label ‘homograph’. The Type 2 words ‘bow’ and ‘bow’ used previously are therefore both heteronyms and homographs. However, the examples of ‘bow’ in the following table are homographs only because they share identical pronunciation: 

Two additional homographs with identical pronunciation are ‘bark’ (a verb meaning ‘the sound a dog makes’) and ‘bark’ (a noun meaning ‘the skin of a tree’).


Type 4: Homophones

The fourth type, homophones, have different meanings but identical pronunciation, with no care for their spelling. This means that the Type 3 examples of ‘bow’ and ‘bow’ are both homographs and homophones, whereas the examples below of ‘bow’ and ‘bough’ are homophones only as their spelling is different:

Another example of homophony would be the three words ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’, which each have different meanings but identical pronunciation. The fact that their spelling is different does not remove their homophonous categorisation.


Type 5: Polysemes

The final and perhaps most complex type of homonym is the polyseme. Although we will deal with this concept in more detail in Lesson 2, it’s worth highlighting the basics of polysemy here with a continuation of our ‘bow’ example. The first thing to know is that pronunciation is not an important aspect when defining a polyseme. The defining features of polysemous words are (i) that they have the same spelling as each other and (ii) that they have different – though related – meanings. As is shown in the table below, both ‘bow’ and ‘bow’ have meanings that share a reference to shape, namely their curved shape. A bow, for example, is most often made from a piece of wood that bends outwards, just as how a child with bowed legs has legs that bend outward in a similar curve:

While the meaning relations between these examples may seem simple enough, as we will find out in Lesson 2, identifying polysemous relationships can be quite tricky. After all, was the weapon named after the shape, or the shape after the weapon? And did the verb ‘bow’ come before or after the noun that identifies that weapon? Only a thorough study of word history (also known as etymology) could answer such questions, and even then the answers may never be clear. To find out more about polysemy in English, continue studying with Lesson 2. In that final lesson we’ll discuss how to identify polysemous words and explore just how useful they are in academic settings.

1 of 2 Lessons Completed


Once you’ve completed all three lessons in this short course about Homonyms and Polysemes, you might then wish to download our Lesson Worksheets to check your progress or print for your students. These professional PDF worksheets can be easily accessed for only a few Academic Marks.

Lesson 1 explores the topic: What are the five types of homonym in English? Our Lesson 1 Worksheet (containing guidance, activities and answer keys) can be accessed here at the click of a button. 

Lesson 2 explores the topic: How is polysemy different from homonymy? Our Lesson 2 Worksheet (containing guidance, activities and answer keys) can be accessed here at the click of a button. 

To save yourself 1 Marks, click on the button below to gain unlimited access to all of our Homonyms and Polysemes Lesson Worksheets. This All-in-1 Pack includes every lesson, activity and answer key related this topic in one handy and professional PDF.


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