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English pronunciation is a minefield — here’s how to survive

by Tomasz P. Szynalski
Do you feel lucky? (Photo: John5199)

Many languages have sensible writing systems. If you look at a Spanish, German or Italian word, you can tell how to pronounce it – all you need to know is a handful of basic rules. But English is not one of those languages. English words with almost identical spellings often have different pronunciations, so looking at a word’s spelling doesn’t tell you very much.

Here are some examples of similarly spelled English words and their pronunciations:

how /haʊ/ now /naʊ/ low /loʊ/ tow /toʊ/
most /moʊst/ post /poʊst/ lost /lɒst $ lɒːst/ cost /kɒst $ kɒːst/
horse /hɔːʳs/ worse /wɜːʳs/
home /hoʊm/ Rome /roʊm/ come /kʌm/ some /sʌm/
bone /boʊn/ tone /toʊn/ done /dʌn/ none /nʌn/ gone /gɒn $ gɒːn/
bush /bʊʃ/ push /pʊʃ/ hush /hʌʃ/ rush /rʌʃ/
heart /hɑːʳt/ heard /hɜːʳd/
peak /piːk/ bleak /bliːk/ break /breɪk/ steak /steɪk/
roll /roʊl/ poll /poʊl/ doll /dɒl $ dɑːl/
war /wɔːʳ/ wall /wɔːl/ wag /wæg/ wax /wæks/ want /wɒnt $ wɑːnt/ wash /wɒʃ $ wɑːʃ/
nose /noʊz/ rose /roʊz/ lose /luːz/
comb /koʊm/ tomb /tuːm/ bomb /bɒm $ bɑːm/
finger /'fɪŋgəʳ/ singer /'sɪŋəʳ/ ginger /'dʒɪndʒəʳ/
ease /iːz/ tease /tiːz/ cease /siːs/ grease /griːs/
enough /ɪ'nʌf/ though /ðoʊ/ through /θruː/
limb /lɪm/ climb /klaɪm/
anger /'æŋgəʳ/ danger /'deɪndʒəʳ/
even /'iːvən/ ever /'evəʳ/

To make things worse, even the exact same spelling can correspond to different pronunciations:

Many of the example words in this article come from the poem The Chaos by Dutch writer and traveler Gerard Nolst Trenité.

For a very long list of English letter sequences (such as gi or ou) and their possible pronun­ciations, see this page by The English Spelling Society.

  • I like to read /riːd/.
    I read /red/ it yesterday.
  • Close /kloʊz/ the door.
    Stay close /kloʊs/ to me.
  • Where do you live /lɪv/?
    It’s a live /laɪv/ TV show.
  • She tied the ribbon into a bow /boʊ/.
    Bow /baʊ/ before your king.
  • You sound like an old record /'rekəʳd/.
    I forgot to record /rɪ'kɔːʳd/ the game.
  • I think I saw a tear /tɪəʳ/ in her eye.
    There’s a tear /teəʳ/ in the canvas.

If you think the English spelling system looks like it was designed by someone who didn’t know how to pronounce English words, you’re right. It turns out the Normans and the Dutch are largely to blame.

Even native speakers have difficulty pronouncing words that they have only seen in writing – words like analogous, indefa­tigable, artisanal or solder (all actual examples of mispro­nounced words that I’ve heard from educated native speakers). Similarly, proper names are a frequent source of puzzlement in the English-speaking world – and I’m not talking about foreign names like Nguyen, but names of places and people from Anglo-Saxon countries. It’s not at all obvious to native speakers of English how you should pronounce names like Basinger (/'bæsɪndʒəʳ/ or /'beɪsɪŋəʳ/?), Keynes (/ˈkeɪnz/ or /ˈkiːnz/?) Islington (/'aɪlɪŋtən/ or /'ɪzlɪŋtən/?), Melbourne (/ˈmelbɔːrn/ or /'melbərn/?). When Microsoft released their cloud services platform called Azure, one of the first questions in the IT community was “how the heck do you pronounce it”? (Azure is a real English word, but it is rare and many native speakers have never heard it spoken.)

Bad habits

The most dangerous consequence of the irregularity of the English spelling system is that it is extremely easy to make pronunciation mistakes. And, just like grammar mistakes, pronunciation mistakes can lead to bad habits.

Suppose you want to say the word determine. You know this word from reading in English, so you know how to spell it and how to use it, but you don’t know how to pronounce it, so you say /ˈdiːtərmaɪn/, to rhyme with mine and fine. That is a mistake (the correct pronunciation is /dɪˈtɜːʳmɪn/), but you don’t know that, so you say /ˈdiːtərmaɪn/ again and again, until it becomes natural for you. Whoopsie — you’ve developed a “bad habit”!

If you’re not careful, you can teach yourself the wrong pronunciation of hundreds of words. Even if you learn the correct pronunciation later, the wrong pronunciation can be difficult to eliminate, because you’ve repeated it so many times.

You may think that when you make a mistake, somebody will correct you, so you won’t form a bad habit. But in reality, you can’t count on that. Correcting someone’s mistakes takes not only great English skills, but also time and effort. It’s really hard to find someone who would be willing to correct all your written and spoken sentences.

Bad habits can appear not only when you’re speaking with mistakes — they can also form during other activities. The worst one is probably reading aloud. If you read English texts aloud, but you don’t know the correct pronunciation, you will surely form bad pronunciation habits.

“Normal” reading can also be risky. People sometimes pronounce sentences in their head while they’re reading. If they don’t know the correct pronunciation, they will make mistakes. That is why, in an ideal world, you would learn pronunciation before you started to read in English.

Be paranoid

How can you make your way across the minefield that is English pronunciation without picking up bad pronunciation habits? The answer is: extreme paranoia. You have to think of every word as a potential trap.

  • If you’re not sure how to pronounce a word, don’t try to guess. There is a big chance that you’ll mispronounce it. Instead, check the pronunciation in a dictionary – if not immediately, then later.
  • If you are pretty sure how to pronounce a word because you know how to pronounce words with a similar spelling, you should probably ignore that intuition – especially if you’re a beginner! When you’re a beginner, your instincts will often be wrong. For example, after learning words like date, hate and rate, you may believe that the ending -ate is always pronounced /eɪt/, but this is not true – there are many words in which -ate is pronounced /ɪt/, for example private /'praɪvɪt/ and accurate /'ækjərɪt/. So don’t trust your intuition until you’ve learned to pronounce at least a few thousand English words.
  • Remember that even basic English words like were, won’t or color can have very surprising pronunciations. Just because you know a word very well, doesn’t mean you know the correct pronunciation. Many English learners – even serious learners who pay attention to pronunciation – mispronounce a large percentage of basic words like some, draw or hold because they’ve never looked them up in a dictionary. If you’re reading this site, you are probably a serious learner and you probably know thousands of English words – but how many do you actually pronounce correctly?

    A special case of “tricky words that you know well” are “international” words. Certain words, e.g. automatic, bilingual or wi-fi, are known in many European languages with the same, or similar, spelling. These words often come from ancient languages like Greek or Latin, but sometimes also from modern languages like French or English. Because learners recognize these words, they don’t check their pronunciation in a dictionary — instead, they pronounce them the way they are pronounced in their native language. This is typically a mistake. English usually has its own pronunciation for such words. Here are some examples:

    automatic /ɔːtəˈmætɪk/ not: /aʊtɔˈmætɪk/
    bilingual /baɪˈlɪŋgwəl/ not: /biːˈlɪŋgwəl/
    Orion /əˈraɪən/ not: /ˈɔːriən/
    media /ˈmiːdiə/ not: /ˈmediə/
    psychology /saɪˈkɒlədʒi/ not: /psɪˈkɒlədʒi/
    stereo /ˈsterioʊ/ not: /steˈreɔ/, /ˈstereɔ/
    wi-fi /ˈwaɪ ˈfaɪ/ not: /ˈwiː ˈfiː/

Memorize all the things

Another consequence of the spelling chaos in English is that English requires far more memorization than other languages. There is no way around it – if you want to speak English well, you have to put a lot of word pronunciations in your head. It’s probably best to assume that you have to learn the pronunciation of every word that you’re going to use in speech. There are two basic ways to do it: 1 listening to spoken English and paying attention to pronunciation, and 2 checking a lot of pronunciations in a dictionary while reading, listening or speaking.

Start as soon as possible

Most learners ignore pronunciation when they start learning English – instead, they focus on grammar and vocabulary. The problem is, the longer you speak English without proper pronunciation knowledge, the more errors you will make and the more bad habits you will pick up. Paying attention to pronunciation early on will save you a great deal of trouble and help you get the most out of your spoken input.