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Heteronyms fall into a category of words that many find confusing. We will examine exactly what a heteronym is, some examples of heteronyms and the etymology of the word.

Heteronyms are two words or more that are spelled in the same way but are pronounced differently and have different meanings. Heteronyms exist because of our ever-changing English language, and these words with the same spelling and different pronunciation and meaning are a challenge for those who wish to learn to speak English. It can be difficult to learn how to spell different words that look the same. The way the pronunciations and definitions differ can be confusing even to native English speakers when attempting to learn vocabulary correctly. Phonological spelling and spelling rules do not always work, and most people avoid misspelling by studying vocabulary words from spelling lists, enhancing their literacy skills through spelling practice, and learning words in English by studying a dictionary of the English language. English words are also spelled according to their etymologies rather than their sound. For instance, the word tear meaning a liquid drop that falls from an eye is derived from the Old English word tear, meaning a drop or nectar; tear meaning to pull apart comes from the Old English word tearan, which means to lacerate. Heteronyms are confusing words and are commonly misspelled words because of the confusion that arises from words that are pronounced differently but are spelled the same and come from a different etymology. When reading, it is sometimes difficult to know what word is being used in a sentence and how to pronounce the word phonetically. A spell checker will rarely find this type of mistake in English vocabulary, so do not rely on spell check for these commonly confused words but instead, learn to spell. Even a participant in a spelling bee like the National Spelling Bee will ask for an example of a heteronym in a sentence, so that she understands which word she is to spell by using context clues. Do not confuse heteronyms with homophones, which are two or more words that are pronounced in the same way but are spelled differently and have different meanings; do not confuse them with homonyms, which are words that have the same spelling and pronunciation but different meanings. Some examples of heteronyms and their usage in English sentences:

He suffered a catastrophic wound in the war.

My grandfather wound his watch every night.

The desert is unbearably hot during the day and uncomfortably cold at night.

Do not desert your friends when they need you.

Every minute the lovers spent apart felt like an hour.

She found minute chiggers clinging to the plant’s leaves

The word heteronym is derived from the the Greek hetero- which means different and -onym which means name. Remember, heteronyms are words that are spelled in the same way but are pronounced differently and have different definitions. They come from etymologically different origins.

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