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[c. 3,050 words] [End]

Introduction to the Correct Pronunciation Wordlist

[The "Correct Pronunciation" table employs the spelling scheme given in the "Fanetik" table found elsewhere on this site. Most spellings will be self-evident as to sound (even if you haven't read the rules given in the table), but, to clarify possible sticking points in the transliterations below, A stands for schwa, the neutral, short vowel sound of A in "about" (abóut), U in "circus" (sérkas), and the second E in "telephone" (télafoen), not the short-A sound in "cat", which is expressed by AA: aat, kaan, áaroe ("at", "can", "arrow"). OO is always as in "good", never as in "food". The long-OO sound is the long-U sound, which is shown as UE: fued, crue ("food", "crew"). If there is a Y-sound with the long-U, it is shown by YUE: yues, avanyue ("use", "avenue"). An O followed by R is still short-O as in "on": Flórida, fórast ("Florida", "forest"). The sound of O in "north" is written AU: naurtth. And Q is silent, used only to show that a vowel at the end of a word is short (poq = "pa": father), since in English almost all vowels in final position are long, or to separate consonants or consonant clusters that might otherwise be confused (fáatqhed, witthqhóeld.] 

Some people say tráans.fer, others traans.fér. Does it make a difference? Is there a reason for the different pronunciations? What about rée.saurs and ree.sáurs? rée.serch and ree.sérch? káu.fee and kó How about "often": is the T spoken or silent? And "kiln": is the N spoken or silent? These and many other questions occur to people when they encounter an unexpected pronunciation in television, films, or conversation, or when they are reading and come across a word they're not sure how to pronounce.

People who are trying to learn English as a Second Language  ("ESL") may not know why some people say Fraans while others say Frons ("France"); why some say áafter, paast, tamáeto, skéjool, and lueténant, while others say ófta, post, tamóto, shéjool, aand lefténant (standard spellings for these words are "after", "past", "tomato", "schedule" and "lieutenant"). (The first group of pronunciations is American; the second, British.) Which pronunciations are "correct", and which "incorrect"?

If one goes to a typical dictionary to resolve such questions, s/he may find little or no guidance, because most dictionaries today are "descriptive" rather than "prescriptive". That means the editors include all pronunciations actually heard in the major dialects of English spoken across the world, with the result that all of the above pronunciations are included in major dictionaries — which leaves the person who consults a dictionary getting no answers to his or her questions.

The mere fact that one pronunciation is listed first in a dictionary does not necessarily mean it is preferred, just as the fact that a definition appears first does not necessarily mean it is the most commonly used. Some dictionaries give the OLDEST definition first, and the same principle may apply to pronunciations. Or some other criterion/criteria may determine a given pronunciation's order in a list of several.

Merriam-Webster's Tenth New Collegiate Dictionary, for instance, at the entry "forte", lists foert and faurt first; then says that the pronunciation for the "strong point" sense of the word "is often fáurtae or faurtáe or fáurtee" but goes on to say that fáurtae and faurtáe are probably the most common pronunciations in the U.S. — in which Merriam-Webster is based and where most of its dictionaries are sold! (I have transliterated Merriam-Webster's diacritic-filled pronunciations into Augméntad Fanétik, because M-W's are impossible (or nearly impossible) to generate in HTML, but Augméntad Fanétik is easily generated. Further, Merriam-Webster's keyed pronunciations are often very hard to read, especially when a macron (long sign) is placed over a lower-case I, for it then looks very much like a plain dot because the character it overlies is so narrow.)

It is because typical dictionaries are so confusing and unhelpful that I generated the "Correct Pronunciation" site to begin with — and to popularize my spelling reform, Fanetik.

This wordlist is different.  It does give guidance, because it presumes that there are better and worse pronunciations, and that educated people do prefer some pronunciations for themselves, will accept other pronunciations as used by others, and even use more than one themselves (for instance, both áurijin and órijin, histáurikal and histórikal, at different times and in different contexts), but find some pronunciations absolutely unacceptable, even offensive.

People who use socially disapproved pronunciations run the risk of being thought ignorant and having what they say discounted by however much the listener dislikes the way they pronounce it.

The "Correct Pronunciation" list on this site, of over 1,700 commonly mispronounced words, gives the reader guidance as to what is best to say, what is okay to say, and what may brand him an ignoramus. The "But NOT" column includes unacceptable pronunciations I have actually heard, in person or on television, radio, or film, from native speakers of English. It does not include the wide range of errors made by native speakers of other languages who use English as an auxiliary language solely for communication purposes. (Language has other purposes, such as expressing one's innermost, poetic heart, serving as flag for a culture or for ethnic pride, etc.)

In addition to the tabular list of pronunciations, there are over 120 usage notes to explain why one pronunciation is better than another and to give guidance on English pronunciation more generally. See "Guiding Principles" below for a discussion of the criteria I have used in deciding among alternative pronunciations generally.

How one speaks is important. It determines, in significant part, how easily and widely one can be understood by others. It may affect how people regard a speaker, and whether they heed his words or disregard them because his manner of speech suggests he is not to be taken seriously. It is also important that speech be relatively transparent, that people go beyond how one speaks to what he says.

Bad speech attracts attention to itself and, thus, away from what a person is saying. It can cause people to lose track of what a speaker continues to say because they are still thinking about some peculiar pronunciation earlier on.

The pronunciations shown as preferred in the little dictionary shown elsewhere on this site will attract little or no negative attention. It is, however, specially important that one not use the pronunciations marked "illiterate".

Guiding Principles

The criteria I used in selecting words to place on the "Correct Pronunciation" list, and in deciding which pronunciation among alternatives to approve, include:

 1.  Frequency
 2.  Clarity
 3.  Distinctness
 4.  Classless sophistication
 5.  Nearly equal alternatives
 6.  Syllabic stress
 7.  Grammatical function
 8.  Closeness to spelling
 9.  Usage level
10. Standard ([North] American), not dialectal (British, Australian, etc.)

1. Frequency. By "frequency" I mean "frequency of actual use by educated speakers who are careful about usage". That means that educated people who pay attention to what they say tend to say this rather than something else.

Not everyone is equally to be heeded in matters of pronunciation. There are educated people who don't care about speech. They say whatever they learned as children immersed in their local dialect. If they were raised in the Deep South or Brooklyn, they accept their dialect's peculiarities without thinking, and simply express themselves as they have always expressed themselves. The burden of understanding them falls on listeners.

Other people care deeply how they sound, and strive for maximal clarity and, yes, elegance. If they were raised in a dialect area but think that speaking that dialect will create problems for other people in understanding them, they rid themselves of that accent and adopt standard speech. This wordlist and introduction are intended to serve as a guide to people who want to know with certitude what really is "preferred" by educated people who aspire to standard English.

2. Clarity. In many cases, this work will select the pronunciation that is clearest for having the most full vowels and fewest schwas: káandidàet rather than káandidat, próegraam rather than próegram.

Schwa is a highly variable vowel. Some speakers will say "candidate" so it sounds like káandidit, others so it sounds more like (but certainly not exactly like) káandidut or something between káandidet and káandidaet — but certainly not either of those pronunciations. It is very hard to give a reader guidance as to which full vowel a schwa most closely approaches. For the sake of clarity, then, where many careful speakers use a clear, full vowel but others use the vague schwa sound, this work will ordinarily prefer the pronunciation with the unambiguous full vowel.

3. Distinctness. Often, one alternative pronunciation of a word is similar or identical to another word with a very different meaning (a homophone), but the other common pronunciation one might use cannot be confused with any other word. In such cases, this work will ordinarily prefer the pronunciation that is distinct: haráas, not háaras for "harass", because the latter is easily confused with the proper name "Harris" (and besides, verbs generally take stress on the last syllable, not the first); áatol, not áataul, for "atoll" to avoid confusion with "at all"; hauk (for "hawk"), not hok, to avoid homophony with "hock"; bruech ("brooch"), not broech ("broach"); kleek ("clique"), not klik ("click"), konch ("conch"), not kongk ("conk"); éera ("era"), not éra ("error" as said by R-droppers); ont ("aunt"), not aant/aint ("ant"). Similarly, I prefer kódifi over kóedifi ("codify") so the listener knows one is talking about setting forth laws rather than encrypting something in code.

English has far too many unavoidable homophones. We mustn't add entirely avoidable new ones. Indeed, we may be able to separate some present homophones into two or more unconfusable words by opting for one pronunciation for one sense and another for a different sense: for instance, we can separate "bouquet" into two nonhomophonic words by sense if we say boekáe for a cluster of flowers but buekáe for aroma.

4. Classless Sophistication. This work condemns pronunciations that reek of class snobbery and which are used mainly to make the speaker stand out as 'better' than other people. We will have no part of oemózh, when hómaj will do perfectly well (for "homage"); no pseudo-Spanish Chéelae or Neekarrógwoq, when standard English Chílee and Nikarógwa will do; no méntaur nor áaktaur where ménter and áakter will do very nicely, thank you . Nor will we sanction pronouncing silent vowels — éveree, éevaning for évre, éevning ("every", and "evening" meaning night) — as some people do who try to sound better-educated than they really are. If they were, truly, highly educated, they would know that the second E in each of those words is silent.

I do prefer some 'classier' pronunciations over their blander alternatives: plóza over pláaza; ónvaloep, ónvoi, aand ónklaev over énvaloep, énvoi, and énklaev ("envelope", "envoy", "enclave"), dèevaursáe over diváursee. But I choose akwáatik over akwótik and vaez over voz.

In my part of the United States (I was raised in central New Jersey, lived 35 years in middle-class Manhattan's West Side, and now live in semi-suburban Newark, NJ), these are, to put the case most simply, the pronunciations more commonly said by educated people here, and this region is the locus of much of the United States's informational broadcasting. Many sophisticated, careful speakers do, however, use other pronunciations. Thus the next principle.

5. Nearly equal alternatives. Where more than one pronunciation is used by roughly equal numbers of equally educated and sophisticated careful speakers, I give both as acceptable, with the one that is marginally preferable given first. It is never wrong to use either of these pronunciations unless a usage note indicates specific guidance as to when one is distinctly preferable to the other. In many cases it doesn't make any difference whether you use one pronunciation or the other because neither will be confused with any other word and both are equally acceptable to educated speakers.

6. Syllabic stress. Sometimes a word can be pronounced with two different syllabic stresses, depending upon context. This is especially common among adjectives. A given adjective may take one syllabic stress before the noun it modifies and another if it stands alone or in the predicate: únfìt múther but he'z unfít; wíedspred póvertee but póvertee iz wiedspréd. In the case of other words, syllabic stress may vary according to grammatical function, which is discussed in the next section. Because a change of syllabic stress that depends upon the location of a word in a sentence is contextual and thus unpredictable, I do not generally distinguish such shifts. But where the stress differs pretty much as a consistent pattern to show grammtical function, I do draw the distinction, as immediately below.

7. Grammatical Function. The pronunciation of a word may vary for grammatical reasons. Words like "combat" can be both noun (kómbaat) and verb (kambáat); words like "expert" and "adult" can be both noun (ékspert, áadult) and adjective (ekspért, adúlt). Which function such words serve in a given instance makes a difference.

In general, nouns and adjectives take syllabic stress toward the beginning of the word, and usually on the first syllable (except when a noun is distinguished from an adjective by varying the syllabic stress), whereas verbs take syllabic stress toward the end, and usually on the last syllable. So yes, to answer the first two questions atop this Introduction, it does make a difference whether you say tráansfer or traansfér. And yes, there is a reason for the difference in this case: tráansfer is the noun; traansfér is the verb.

It is wrong to say "to tráansfer", and this verb, which should always be traansfér, may well be the most commonly mispronounced word in the English language.

(Answers to the other questions asked atop this intro can be found in the word list itself.)

People who know not to mix up pérmit (noun) and permít (verb) — and who regard people who do confuse those two pronunciations as illiterate hicks — often do not carry over that understanding to the host of other words in which a similar split occurs (áaksent/aaksént, déetail/ditáil, fíenaans/fináans, próetest/pratést). And Peter Jennings, ABC Television's (Canadian-born) evening news anchor, actually said "tu próg.res" (intending the verb but saying the noun) in mid-May 1999!

When syllabic stress shifts, the quality of vowels is affected. The stressed vowel is always pronounced fully in quality and longer in duration. Vowels in unstressed syllables are said for a shorter time, and their quality may change from full vowel to schwa. Thus the noun is kóntraakt, the verb, kantráakt; and fréekwant is primarily an adjective. tho sometimes a verb, but frikwént is only a verb.

Sometimes a word pair differs in other ways. One common pattern is délagat (noun) and délagàet (verb); sabáurdinat (adjective) and sabáurdinàet (verb).

The careful speaker will heed such distinctions, and many of his or her listeners will understand more readily the distinctions s/he draws, without necessarily knowing why that is.

8. Closeness to Spelling. Some pronunciations are closer to the spelling, others farther away. Sometimes the spelling influences my selection of preferred as against disapproved pronunciations: jígalo, not zhígalo for "gigolo"; dólya, not dáalya for "dahlia". But, as a spelling reformer, I am not captive to irrational spelling, so I do not always go with the alternative closer to the traditional spelling. It is, indeed, because we don't have phonetic spelling that we don't know how to pronounce things to begin with, so have so many alternative and just plain wrong pronunciations floating about!

9. Usage Level. Often, two pronunciations are given, one of which is shorter by a small syllable (jénral/jéneral, séprat/séparat) or seems in some other way more casual than the other. The shorter pronunciation is what most people say most of the time; the longer is preferred in formal usage such as speeches before gatherings of academics or elected officials. In most other contexts, the more formal pronunciation will seem stilted, even pretentious.

10. Standard ([North] American), not dialectal (British, Australian, etc.). If you want to learn proper British pronunciation, look elsewhere. This area is devoted to proper transnational English, which is General American ("G.A."), the speech preferred by broadcasters across the United States and Canada. British English, where it departs from (North) American, is dialectal, specific to the British Isles, New Zealand and, especially in its lower-class varieties, to Australia, South Africa, and the West Indies.

North American English is spoken by three-fourths of all native speakers of English and is the pronunciation heard in the great preponderance of English-language films and television.  A variant of G.A., much influenced by Southern dialect, is heard in many pop-music recordings.

American English is the prestige speech of both the English-speaking world and the world more generally, having replaced Britain's class-conscious "Received Pronunciation" ("RP") at least forty years ago.

Being closer to the spelling of English, American speech is both easier to learn and more widely understood by learners of ESL.

Even within the British Isles, (a) the educated speech of Ireland is more like G.A. than RP. Indeed, the host of Irish emigrants, with their powerfully pronounced R's, who landed in the U.S. and Canada helped to make Anglo-America a speech community that pronounces R everywhere it is written. And (b) tho this fact is not adequately appreciated outside England, there are many dialects within England that are closer to G.A. than to RP. It is emigrants from among the ancestors of people who speak these dialects today who combined with Irish immigrants to give North America its predisposition to fully-pronounced R and rounded vowels. Immigrants from other parts of the world who learned English largely from print, so pronounced R everywhere they saw it, and who found the fuller, rounded (diphthongized) vowels of their neighbors more pleasant to the ear than the shortened vowels of some British accents, drove the last nail into the coffin of RP's R-dropping, clipped-vowel influence in North America.

RP never really stood a chance here, inasmuch as it is essentially an artificial, class-based dialect invented by the elitist "public" (actually, bizarrely, private) schools of southern England — thus the term "Received": kids "received" it in school; they did not learn it at mommy's or daddy's knee. We didn't have such schools here; we didn't have such classes here; so we don't have that speech here.

Most speakers of dialect in Britain, Australia, South Africa, and the West Indies can understand General (North) American speech very easily, but many Americans and Canadians have great difficulty in understanding British dialects. Some such dialects (e.g., those of Northern Ireland, parts of Scotland, the West Indies, and even rural Australia) are so hard for North Americans to understand that when interviews with native speakers of such areas have been shown on North American TV, it has actually happened that subtitles are shown to "translate"! No subtitles to "translate" G.A. would EVER be required for normally educated people in any part of the English-speaking world, so you can emulate the pronunciations in the "Correct Pronunciation" list in clear confidence that every single educated native speaker of English on Earth will be able to understand you.

If one aspires to maximal comprehensibility across the English-speaking world, one MUST use proper American speech. In the "Correct Pronunciation" wordlist, then, British usage that departs from American is in the "But NOT" column.

 End of Introduction

[Revd 2/24/02.]

[Go to the Correct Pronunciation table.] [Go to the table that explains the Fanetik pronunciation key.] [Contact the author.]