I shed a tear upon seeing the tear in the painting. If you hesitated before reading the two “tears”s in this sentence, you’re not alone. English is a crazy language in oh so many ways, and the abundance of HETERONYMS is one of the reasons spoken English can be such a challenge.

Heteronyms are pairs of words with the same spelling but different meanings depending on how they are produced.

English is replete with heteronyms, which are typically achieved by –

  1. changing the pronunciation of a vowel, such as “wound” (/waʊnd/, past participle of “wind”) versus “wound” (/wuːnd/, an injury or to injure)
  2. and/or by changing the syllabic stress, such as “PREsent” (a gift) versus “preSENT” (to give).

Heteronyms are fun but pose a particular challenge to English learners. In this article, I give you two rules that will help you with the production of heteronym pairs that differ in syllabic stress.

  1. If the heteronym pair is a 2-syllable word, stress the first syllable for the noun and stress the second syllable for the verb. For example, “Object” (noun) versus “obJECT” (verb), “PROduce” (noun) versus “proDUCE” (verb), “REcord” (noun) versus “reCORD” (verb).”
  2. For heteronym pairs that end in “-ate” – if it’s a verb, pronounce the “a” vowel as /eɪ/ (as in the word “mate”); if it’s a noun or an adjective, pronounce the “a” as /ə/ (as in the word “mutt”). For instance, “separAte” (verb, /sɛpəɹeɪt/) versus “separate” (adjective, /sɛpɹət/), “estimAte” (verb, /estɪmeɪt/) versus “estimate” (noun, /estɪmət/).


Are you content with this content? Got questions? Please share in the comments.

As an exercise, write in the comments section a heteronym pair that this article has not mentioned.

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