Home > Grammar > Heteronyms


Heteronyms are a quirk of the English language which can easily cause confusion for non-native speakers. We’ll outline what heteronyms are, some examples, and how to understand them.

What is a heteronym? 

A heteronym occurs when two or more homographs – words which are spelt the same – are pronounced differently. In a written text, this can be confusing. 


  • Bass – a fish, or a low-pitched instrument
  • Bow – a thing you fire arrows with, or when you bend over in a respectful greeting
  • Desert – to abandon, or a (usually sandy) area with little rain
  • Moped – when you were sad, or a low-powered alternative to a motorbike
  • Perfect – when you get really good at something, or when something is flawless
  • Polish – when you make something metal look great, or something from Poland
  • Wind – when you twist something, or when the air moves

How do you tell heteronym word pairings apart? 

One way to tell heteronyms apart is if they occur in the same sentence. If you see the word pairing together, you can usually see where the stress on each word is different. For example:

“I record my record in a few days.”

“The change of plans will affect her affect; she really doesn’t like new experiences.”

“His conduct while he conducted the orchestra was horrendous. I won’t be surprised if he’s fired.”

In each pair of heteronyms which include a noun and a verb, the noun usually receives the stress on the first syllable. While the verb receives the stress on the second.

There are some exceptions, such as “excuse,” to forgive, and “excuse,” an explanation. The difference in pronunciation does not rely on the stress a syllable receives.

Another way to tell heteronyms apart is to look at the sentence contextually. This can be difficult at first if you are learning English, and understandably so. However, if we take the example, “He played the bass in the band”, we can comfortably assume the bass player isn’t plucking at a fish. This is a simple example, but the contextual cue largely applies. 


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