Homonyms: A Guide to Multiple-Meaning Words
Homonyms, or multiple-meaning words, can cause a lot of confusion. This is true even for adults who like to read. Even more importantly, Scholastic® points out that many standardized tests assess students’ ability to interpret multiple-meaning words in the vocabulary section. The TASC Test Assessing Secondary Completion™ Reading subtest does just that, because multiple-meaning words are a medium emphasis topic.
Multiple-meaning words are a unique problem for students, especially true if you are reading quickly and trying to analyze and answer questions about a variety of texts. However, once you know a few things about multiple-meaning words, they’ll seem less tricky. In fact, many homonyms are not difficult. You simply need to be aware of your reading process and familiar with multiple-meaning words as you work through the TASC test.
What are Multiple-Meaning Words?
Multiple-meaning words are words that “share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings.” An easy example is the word left:
When we left the party, we turned left out of the driveway and headed home.
The first use of left means to depart from a place or to no longer be somewhere. These second use is the direction, and the opposite of right.
These are different than homophones, which are words that sound alike, and homographs, which are words that have the same spelling but different pronunciations and different meanings.
Examples of homonyms, divided by level of difficulty, include:
Table adapted from resources at Homespeechhome.com
The definitions and usages of multiple-meaning words can be quickly separated when you know how they differ. Strategies for finding differences between multiple-meaning words include:
- Different capitalization
- Different punctuation
- Different parts of speech
- Different tense
- Different connotations (literal or figurative)
How Might I See Them on the TASC Test Reading Subtest?
Some test takers might have multiple questions about homonyms while others don’t have any. Though we cannot guarantee that you’ll see questions like this, it’s good practice to review all high emphasis and medium emphasis topics to thoroughly prepare for any version of the Reading subtest.
Questions about multiple-meaning words may be multiple-choice questions, like the following examples from Scholastic. In the following examples, you should choose the word whose meanings fit both sentences. Mark down your answers on a sheet of paper. Then consult our answers and explanations behind the right choices to check your understanding.
- We had to _____ the dense undergrowth to reach the old camp.
The old blacksmith still fashioned horseshoes on his _____.
- I asked him not to _____ the glass.
It looks like there is only one _____ left.
- Gasoline, oil, and diesel fuel are all _____ from petroleum.
Mrs. Dupont came from an old and _____ family.
For the first example, the answer is d. Forge. As a homonym, this word can function as either a verb or a noun. In the first sentence, forge is a verb and it means to form or to make through concentrated effort. The subject of the sentence, we, is using concentrated effort to create a trail through the dense undergrowth. In the second sentence, forge is a noun. It refers to the workshop of a blacksmith, or a smithy.
For the second example, the answer is c. Drop. Again, the word can be read as either a verb or a noun. In the first sentence, drop means to fall. In the second sentence, drop means a very small quantity of liquid.
In this case, the teachers at Scholastic recommend thinking through the sentence aloud because the two sentences can be confusing when they’re placed together – they seem to build a context, but are somewhat disjointed. They model this: “It says to choose the word whose meanings fit both sentences… which alerts me to make sure my choice works in both sentences. I know that two or three of the possible answers will work fine in one of the sentences, but only one word will fit both sentences. I’m going to cover the second sentence with the pencil.”
In this final example, the answer is c. Refined. Again, it’s an issue of the word’s part of speech. In the first sentence, refined is used as a verb. It refers to a process of removing impurities from something. In fact, it is most often used to discuss oil. The second sentence uses refined as an adjective, meaning to have well-bred feelings or tastes. It is typically used to refer to the upper class, which is also associated with “old” families, referring to families who can trace their ancestry back and have long-established traditions.