This word set can be confusing, even for word geeks. Let's start with the basics. A homograph is a word that has the same spelling as another word but has a different sound and a different meaning:

lead (to go in front of)/lead (a metal)

wind (to follow a course that is not straight)/wind (a gust of air)

bass (low, deep sound)/bass (a type of fish)

A homophone is a word that has the same sound as another word but is spelled differently and has a different meaning:

to/two/too

there/their/they're

pray/prey

Not so bad, right? The ending –graph means drawn or written, so a homograph has the same spelling. The –phone ending means sound or voice, so a homophone has the same pronunciation. But here's where it gets tricky. Depending on whom you talk to, homonym means either:

A word that is spelled like another but has a different sound and meaning (homograph); a word that sounds like another but has a different spelling and meaning (homophone)

OR

A word that is spelled and pronounced like another but has a different meaning (homograph and homophone)

So does a homonym have to be both a homograph and a homophone, or can it be just one or the other? As with most things in life, it depends on whom you ask.

In the strictest sense, a homonym must be both a homograph and a homophone. So say many dictionaries. However, other dictionaries allow that a homonym can be a homograph or a homophone.

With so many notable resources pointing to the contrary, are we losing this strict meaning? What then will we call a word that is spelled and pronounced the same as another but has a different meaning? If homonym retains all these meanings, how will readers know what is actually meant?

The careful writer would do well to follow the strict sense, ensuring his meaning is understood immediately.