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updated: 3/13/2012 10:52 AM

Can a bare bear bear it? Fun with homonyms, homophones

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Kristina Gopp's fourth-graders at O'Plaine School in Gurnee asked, "What's the difference between a homonym and a homophone and a homograph?"

Is it an animal, vegetable or mineral?

In the game charades, those categories guide players to figure out the winning answers. Words have categories, too, including homonyms, homophones, homographs and heterographs. These identify word meaning or spelling when differences might not be obvious.

"Homonyms are words that have identical spelling but different meanings," explains Nathan Breen, English professor at the College of Lake County. "The word 'bear' is a perfect example; it can refer either the noun -- the four-legged mammal, like a grizzly, panda, or polar bear -- or the verb, as in the Second Amendment right to bear arms. We understand the meaning of these words based on the way they are used in a sentence and not by the way they are pronounced or spelled."

There are as many as 8,000 homonyms in the English language. Many homonyms are also homographs and heteronyms. Most are noun/verb pairs and most are single syllable words.

"Homophones are words that sound the same, but have different meanings and sometimes even different spellings," Breen said.

Homophones are best understood when read rather than pronounced.

"The words 'bear' and 'bare' are pronounced the same, but they have very different meanings," he said. "Think of the difference between 'bear feet' and 'bare feet' -- the first would be found on the legs of furry four-legged mammals, whereas 'bare feet' would be found on people who are not wearing shoes or socks."

Homographs have the same spelling, and might have similar pronunciation.

Breen remembers celebrity singer Katy Perry's presentation earlier this year at the 2011 AP NFL Rookie of the Year awards when she announced the "Offensive Rookie of the Year."

"The word 'offensive' can have two different meanings, depending on where the stress is placed on the word," Breen said. "When the emphasis is on the first syllable of the word, the word refers to someone who plays offense on a sports team. Emphasis on the second syllable means rude and hurtful, as in, 'What an offensive thing to say.' Unfortunately, Ms. Perry gave Cam Newton the award for the rudest new player on the field, not for the best new quarterback."

Other homograph examples are bear (the mammal) and bear (to hold) and sow (to plant) and sow (a female pig).

A heterograph is a word pair that's spelled different but sounds the same. The homonym pair "bear" and "bare" also are heterographs.

Does this seem confusing? Look at the roots of the words for the explanation. Homo means same. Hetero means different. Phone means sound. Nym means name. Graph means writing.

Knowing homonyms, homophones and homographs will give clues as to which of these could cause you pause (or paws).

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