Phoneme vs Minimum Pair in English Phonetics

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In phonology and phonetics, the term minimal pair refers to two words that differ in only one sound, such as hit and hid.

Minimal pairs serve as tools to establish that two (or more) sounds are contrastive. A difference in sound means a difference in meaning, notes Harriet Joseph Ottenheimer, and thus a minimal pair is "the clearest and easiest way to identify phonemes in a language" (The Anthropology of Language, 2013).

Examples and Observations

  • "A minimal pair is a pair of words that differ in a single phoneme. Minimal pairs are often used to show that two sounds contrast in a language. For example, we can demonstrate that [s] and [z] contrast in English by adducing minimal pairs such as sip and zip, or bus and buzz. Since the only difference in these words is the [s] vs. [z], we conclude that they belong to distinct phonemes. However, a similar test would show that [a:j] and [Aj] are distinct phonemes in English, since writer and rider appear to be minimal pairs distinguished in their second elements, not their fourth."
  • "We looked!
    Then we saw him step in on
    the mat!
    We looked!
    And we saw him!
    The Cat in the Hat!"
  • "Cheers and Jeers is an activity that provides an opportunity to use music and humor to relax and release tension."
  • "Lit Up/Let Down"
  • "The learner has to identify medial or final plosives in isolated words and in sentences where either member of a minimal pair would fit in naturally. For example: Do you repair clocks/clogs?"
  • "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."
  • "The US Coast Guard had 125-foot cutters and eight 765-foot long patrol boats. By the late 1920s, forty-five vessels operated out of this local base with some parking at the pier, as can be seen in a postcard."
  • "The role of the sympathetic nervous system is to prepare the body for emergencies, commonly known as fright, flight and fight reactions."

Word Position and Context

  • "[T]he only way we can create a minimal pair with reference to the two sounds involved is to put them in exactly the same environment in terms of word position and the surrounding context, To clarify further, the pair: jail–Yale shows the contrast between /dʒ/ and /j/ in initial position, budge–buzz focuses on the contrast between /dʒ/ and /z/ in final position, while witch–wish contrasts /t∫/ and /ʃ/ in final position. It should be noted that minimal pairs include forms that have different spellings, as evidenced in jail–Yale."

Near Minimal Pairs

"[S]ometimes it is not possible to find perfect minimal pairs differentiated by only a single sound for every phoneme. Sometimes it is necessary to settle for near minimal pairs ... [P]leasure and leather qualify as a near minimal pair, since the sounds immediately adjacent to the target sounds, [ð] and [ʒ], are the same in both words: [ɛ] before the target sound and [ɹ] after it. Like minimal pairs, near minimal pairs are usually sufficient to demonstrate that two sounds are separate phonemes in a language."


  • Matthew Gordon, "Phonology: Organization of Speech Sounds." How Languages Work: An Introduction to Language and Linguistics, ed. by Carol Genetti. Cambridge University Press, 2014
  • James Alasdair McGilvray, The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky. Cambridge University Press, 2005
  • Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat, 1957
  • Edie L. Holcomb, Getting Excited About Data. Corwin Press, 2004
  • Album by the band Vains of Jenna, 2006
  • Inge Livbjerg and Inger M. Mees, "Segmental Errors in the Pronunciation of Danish Speakers of English," 1995
  • Dr. Seuss, The Lorax, 1972
  • A. Wynelle Deese, St. Petersburg, Florida. The History Press, 2006
  • Neil Moonie, Advanced Health and Social Care, 3rd ed. Heinemann, 2000
  • Mehmet Yavas, Applied English Phonology, 2nd ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011