A while back I reminisced about the time that Mrs. Perkins, my eighth-grade English teacher, challenged our class to correctly use the words “there,” “their” and “they’re” in a sentence. Since my roots as a wannabe word guy go way back, my hand shot into the air. She called on me. “They’re playing with their ball over there,” I responded confidently.

Mrs. Perkins was pleased with my answer, and ever since that time I’ve harbored a strange interest in those things known as homonyms — two or more words that share the same spelling, or the same pronunciation, or both, but have different meanings.

One type of homonym I’d like to focus on today are heterographs — words that are pronounced the same and are always spelled differently. You know, like “they’re,” “their” and “there.”

We’re all familiar with pairs of heterographs such as the “whole hole,” the “hair of the hare,” or the before-and-against words “ante” and “anti.” We might even “assent” to make an “ascent” up a mountain.

Almost as common as double heterographs are the triple ones. One such example would be  “axel” (a figure-skating jump named after Norwegian skater Axel Rudolph Paulsen), “axil” (the angle between a leaf and the axis from which it rises) and “axle” (a central shaft for a rotating wheel or gear). Groups of three or more words that have the same pronunciation along with different meanings and spellings get their own fancy name: multinyms.

A few other examples of triple multinyms are: “bight” (a recess in a coast or river), “bite” and “byte”; “does (are deer, female deer),” “doughs” and “doze”; and “ewes (female sheep),” “use” and “yews” (trees or shrubs).


Quadruplet multinyms, such as carat (a unit of weight for precious stones), caret (that inverted “V” used by proofreaders to show where to insert a word or letter), carrot (yum) and karat (a measure of the purity of gold), are fairly easy to find. Some more straightforward quads include right, rite, wright and write, as well as bi, buy, by and bye.

To find examples of quintuplet multinyms and beyond, I referred to the “multinyms” page of the Florida State University website people.sc.fsu.edu, which sometimes makes use of some pretty obscure words in order to achieve its goals, For instance: seau (a pottery pail), sew, so, soe (a large wooden tub) and sow.

“Surely there can’t be sextuplets, Mr. Word Guy,” you say? Well actually there is one and the creators of the Florida State University site appear to have gone to great lengths to come up with one, writing: “air, are (a unit of area equal to 100 square meters), e’er (ever), ere (earlier than), err, heir.”

And yes, those same folks even managed to scare up a septuplet of sound-alike words with: “raise, rays, rase (to erase), raze, rehs (mixtures of sodium salts), réis (plural of “real,” a unit of Brazilian currency), and res (plural of one of the steps of the musical scale).”

Thank you for indulging my obsession with heterographs. I’m happy to know that they’re always there doing their thing.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.

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