Avoid Homographs in Stories

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Publish Insights 5 March 2022

Don’t make it difficult for readers to follow the action in your stories. Homographs are similar words with multiple meanings—sometimes with different pronunciations.

Verbal Confusion

As an author, you put the final touches on your work of art. Now someone is reading your story and comes to a suspenseful scene. Do you jeopardize the emotional connection by choosing homographs—words that have the same spelling but different meanings? Here is an example:

“The father kicked open the locked door and saw tears.” Wait! He saw what? Was someone sobbing or was the room torn to shreds?

Wikipedia lists 290 homographs of the English language. Having the reader mispronounce, and thus change the meaning, results in regressions that break the flow of an engaging story. The importance rises during climactic scenes.

Some homographs are more obscure than others. Homonyms, sometimes defined synonymously with homographs, are words that can sound the same with a different meaning. Dear (beloved) and deer (animal) or their (position) and their (possessive) are homonyms. Prevent readers from back­tracking during yor stories by familiarizing yourself with—and avoiding—common homographs:

Clear word meanings

  • Bias (obtuse or prejudice)
  • Bi-weekly (twice per week or every other week)
  • Bow (bend over or archery instrument)
  • Can (ability, container, or toilet)
  • Clear (transparent or erase)
  • Close (similar, near, or shut)
  • Content (elements or satisfied)
  • Deliberate (intentional or consult)
  • Deserts (arid land or punishment)
  • Discharge (release or fire weapon)
  • Fan (whirling blades or fanatic)
  • Grade (angle or score)
  • Hard (firm or difficult)
  • Inclined (propensity or angle)
  • Lead (front position or metal)
  • Leading (front position or line spacing)
  • Novel (book or unique)
  • May (able or month after April)
  • Presents (feature or gifts)
  • Read (past or present tense)
  • Resume (continue or work history)
  • Saw (tool, axiom, or viewed)
  • Tear/s (rip or cry)
  • Whip (strike or blend)
  • Will (name, inheritance, or tendency)

Context can improve comprehension of homographs or homonyms. As an example, word pairing of the verb “novel technique” or noun “read a novel” can clarify understanding.

But you cannot always rely on context. A reader might confuse this sentence, “The husband received just deserts” with him receiving only desserts (sweet treats). Deserts is an example of an English word that changes pronunciation based on context. Most text-to-speach readers will butcher this page.

Save the charades for game night. The best way to combat misunder­stand­ings is to use synonyms of the ambiguous words. Choose a different word with the same meaning, even if it requires rephrasing the sentence.

Let’s get back to that climatic scene mentioned earlier: “The father kicked open his daughter’s locked bedroom door and found her sprawled on her bed, sobbing, with the fading sound of hurried footsteps coming through the open window.” That’s much clearer.

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