Even if you didn’t know the term, you’re surely using homonyms all the time
Everyone knows what synonyms and antonyms are (and just in case you don’t, synonyms are words that mean the same thing as another word, and antonyms are words that mean the opposite). But do you know what homonyms are?
If you don’t, let me put you out of your misery: Homonyms are words that have the same sound or spelling as other words, but have different meanings. There are two kinds of homonyms, homophones and homographs. Homophones, which comes from the Latin for “same sounds”, are words like aid and aide, or meat and meet, that sound the same when they are spoken aloud but differ in meaning and often in spelling. Homographs are words that have the same spelling (“graph” means “written”) but differ in meaning and sometimes in pronunciation, such as the verb bear (to carry, suffer or endure) and the noun bear (the animal) or the verb bail (to clear water out of a boat) and the noun bail (releasing a prisoner).
Even if you didn’t know the term, you’re surely using homonyms all the time. You can ring a girl with the intention of one day slipping a ring on her finger. You can be on the right politically (and your views might even sometimes be right, or correct!), but you may not be standing on the right in a group photograph. Here, both ring and right are homophones, since they sound the same when spoken, but mean different things in those sentences. Or your right-wing friend might write a speech conveying his views, and “right” and “write” would be homophones too, though spelled differently. Just as you might, in medieval times, have earned your mite serving the local baron as a knight, though defending his barren lands at night might be a challenge if you couldn’t see invaders coming from the sea!
And then there are homographs. A Japanese executive might bow at a visitor wearing a bow tie or even carrying a bow and arrow. When a careless friend tears up the paper containing your homework, tears may flow from your eyes. When the wind blows fiercely, you may wish to wind a shawl around yourself. When the zoo attendant sees the does in the deer park aren’t feeling well, she does get medicine for them. (But if she gives them the wrong dose of medicine, that wouldn’t just be careless, it would also be a homophone.)
Spotting homonyms can be fun, but it’s also important to be aware of them to avoid some common mistakes in English usage which come from the confusion that arises when two words of totally different meanings sound alike. People whose language skills are largely oral — acquired by hearing people speak — are particularly prone to errors like confusing “write” and “right”, or “elicit” (to derive something) and “illicit” (against the law). It would be rare to mix up the “cell” of a prison, or a battery, with needing to “sell” your phone because you need another, but it is not at all rare to see people writing “can you please male me?” when they mean “mail”! Most common of all is people mixing up the homonyms “there”, “their” and “they’re”. “There” is an adverb used to indicate the location of something: “please stand there”. “Their” is the possessive pronoun for the subject “they”: “my friends are late because their taxi didn’t show up on time”. And “they’re” is a contraction that means ‘they are’: “I told you they’re late, now what can I do?”
Lazy spellings, such as those used by advertisers, are also often guilty of causing confusion. “Ladies’ nite”, posters will say, instead of “Ladies’ night”, and “Coke Lite” instead of “Coke Light”. It’s not a far stretch from commonly seeing such spelling errors around you to making them yourself, writing “site” for “sight” even though they are homophones that do not mean the same thing. You can say Dubai was the site of the Expo, and you can add that it was a splendid sight — but you cannot write “Dubai was the sight of the Expo”!
Feminists comfortable with homonyms might want to issue patriarchs a useful reminder: The Son is not the centre of the solar system; the Sun is!