There are many homonyms in the English language, words that are spelled the same and pronounced the same but have different meanings. A few examples:

  • A grizzly bear can bear great weight.
  • I stake out the house while perched on a stake.
  • I took a bow after shooting my bow.
  • Take your pick of any pick or shovel.
  • I came to see the Bishop's see.

Are these considered one word or two? Does it perhaps depend on their etymology? Maybe if both meanings can be traced to the same root they are one word and if they derive from different sources they are two? Alternatively, how are words defined? Is it in terms of spelling, of meaning, of origin or a combination of the three? The free dictionary defines word as

A sound or a combination of sounds, or its representation in writing or printing, that symbolizes and communicates a meaning and may consist of a single morpheme or of a combination of morphemes.

That definition can be read as describing homonyms being both single (a word is a representation of sound in writing) and multiple (a word communicates a meaning) words.

  • 1
    These questions are answered in answers at 'Q: Is there a term for the phenomenon where the same word forms more than one part of speech?' ( english.stackexchange.com/… ) Commented Aug 24, 2013 at 15:10
  • I wouldn't dare venture a guess as to your first questions. As to your last question, the "identical words" are called that because they share a commonality or a common identity in some way: some because of sound; some because of spelling; and some because of meaning. At least at first blush, that's what they seem to be. I'll take my "extra points" in the form of cash, please. My address is: Rhetorician, 666 Venal Lane, New Mammon, New Mexico 66666 USA. Thanks! Commented Aug 24, 2013 at 15:15
  • 3
    @terdon: No. Words are not defined in terms of their origin for me. For me "words" are not defined at all. I'm a professional linguist and if I'm trying to be precise (as one should in definitions), I wouldn't use the term "word" at all. I'd talk about lexical items, semantics, etymologies, pronunciations, phonosemantics, and probly a few other terms. What I'm trying to say is that "How many words?" questions, or "Are X and Y considered single words?" questions are the wrong question. There's nothing to count. "Word" is a popular term, and does not represent real language. Commented Aug 24, 2013 at 16:27
  • 1
    @JohnLawler ah, OK, now I get it. Do you think you could whip that into answer form? Perhaps explaining what "lexical items" are to a linguist (I take it that is what is used in the field for most cases where a layman would use word)?
    – terdon
    Commented Aug 24, 2013 at 16:30
  • 1
    @JohnM.Landsberg - We can wait for John Lawler to answer, but I don't think he means "there are no words." Instead, he's pointing out the term "word" is so nebulous that talking in terms of "words" leads to confusion all too often. Take the question, "Is a phrasal verb one word or two?" The answer could be either: one could argue that it's one word made up of two words – which sounds rather paradoxical. I think Mr. Lawler is saying that it's best to just not go there, and use more precise descriptors instead.
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 10:38

2 Answers 2


Dictionaries have long had to contend with this issue. The word run, for example, has 50 or so meanings as a verb, and another 30 or so as a noun, but they all are grouped under one single dictionary entry. On the other hand, bow has three separate entries.

Most print dictionaries denote this using superscripted numerals for each separate entry, much like NOAD does (see screen shot below). In contrast, the online dictionary by Collins uses a numeral in a blue square for each entry to denote the same thing, as can be seen at their listing for bow).

As for your last example:

I came to see the Bishop's see.

I'd say that see and see are not the "same word," based on how they are listed in the dictionary.

However, as John Lawler has mentioned in his comments, it depends on who is counting, and what the count represents. In the sentence:

He had had a cold.

had and had are two separate words (it is a five-word sentence, after all), yet those two hads happen to map to the same dictionary entry, whereas, in the earlier sentence, see and see map to two different dictionary entries.

So it all depends on what your definition of word is.

enter image description here NOTE: Some definitions have been removed from this image in the interest of conserving space

  • So, for you, bow would be three words?
    – terdon
    Commented Aug 29, 2013 at 18:25
  • @terdon: If you asked me how many repeated words were in the sentence She put a red bow on the bow of the ship, I would say there is one repeated word: the word the. If you asked me how many repeated words were in the sentence She tied the red bow to the quiver and bow, I would answer that there were two repeated words: bow and the. The words bow and bow are the "same words" in the first sentence, but different words in the second sentence – that's how the dictionary lists them.
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 29, 2013 at 20:54

A word is a sound (in speech) or a letter-group (in writing) that has a particular meaning. So "bear" and "bear" and even "bare" are distinct words. Even words that mean the same thing (like "automobile" and "motor car") are different words (obviously).

One of the most striking examples of a homophone is the pair "entrance" and "entrance" (accent on the first syllable, or on the second).


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.