Three Unlikely Helpers

Three Unlikely Helpers

by Glenn G. Dahlem, Ph.D.

Many EFL teachers shudder when any of the three ominous figures of speech appear unannounced during class. These are the related language curiosities homophones, homonyms and homographs.

Normally they come in pairs, like plane and plain, but can occur as trios (you, ewe, yew), and quadruplets, i.e. air, err, heir, ere.

  • Homonyms are two or more words spelled AND pronounced the same, but with different meanings–for example, saw, a cutting tool, and saw, past tense of a verb meaning to observe.
  • Homographs are two words spelled the same, but either pronounced or accented differently, thus having different meanings. For example, bass can either be a musical clef or a fish.

When the word invalid is accented on the first syllable, it means a physically impaired person. When the second syllable is accented, it is an adjective meaning defunct or no longer in force.

There is no doubt that English can be exasperating as the following sentences show:

I told that young lady I was banking on her, and this didn’t mean I wanted her to deposit some money.
I told this boy “you are the one”, and I didn’t mean to compare him to a female sheep (ewe).
I wrote on the black board an “A” on a test was their just desert, and someone thought I was talking about their ancestral home in the Sahara.”

Turn Minus into Plus

Actually these three alleged impairments to learning can become positive aids for the teaching-learning process. This is true because their status as quirks of the language can be used as a platform to explain the origins of certain words and to explain what a cauldron of soup the English language really is and how it was originally formed through the various races which invaded Britain.

Language teaching needs a sense of humour.

Sometimes with such complicated material, a little humour will help, for example,

  • Take a bow and wear a bow.
  • For you got four more words correct on this test than last time, bringing you to the fore.

Fun Contest Lesson Promotes Learning

A homophone contest among students, to see how many homophone pairs, trios and quadruplets they can list and use in a grammatically correct sentence is a good learning activity. Score one point for a pair, two for a trio, three for a quadruplet. Students will enjoy hearing winners read some of their gems to the class.

Everyone will probably get pairs like one-won and rap-wrap and trios like there-their-they’re and by-buy-bye.

Homonym Contest Teaches Parts of Speech

The concept of a homophone contest can be repeated with homonyms. Here, since paired words are spelled alike, the task of identifying the part of speech of each word in the sentence is where points are scored.


I ate a roll (noun) while watching my dog roll (verb) on the ground.
Watch (verb) me wind my watch (noun).
At supper, I will fast (verb), so I can run fast (adverb).
In Lent and Ramadan, fast (adjective) people keep the fast (noun).

Many plain old nouns and verbs have multiple meanings. For instance, as a noun, bank can be a repository for money, river shore, stored data or foodstuffs, etc. When a verb, it can mean to maneuver as an airplane pilot, or to rely on someone or something.

Be Dreaded No More

So homophones, homonyms and homographs, long regarded as problem areas for English teachers of all stripes, can actually become facilitators of education. If presented properly, they help students improve usage, vocabulary, spelling and pro-nunciation, and for those who are interested in derivations they can pack a load of history too.