Definition and Examples of English Pronunciation

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

"If anyone corrects your pronunciation of a word in a public place, you have every right to punch him in the nose" (Heywood Broun). (Planet Flem/Getty Images)

Pronunciation is the act or manner of speaking a word.

For a variety of reasons, many words in English are not pronounced the way they are spelled, and some sounds can be represented by more than one combination of letters. Consider, for instance, that the words does, was, and fuzz all rhyme with one another.

From the Latin, "to announce"

Pronunciation: pro-NUN-see-A-shun

Pronounciation and Spelling

Orthography refers to the conventions of spelling in a given language. In English, of course, many words are not spelled how they sound. Writers, playwrights, and others have commented on orthography in English and how it relates to the sometimes odd spelling of words in the language.

David Crystal

  • "[T]he most common of all complaints to the BBC concerns the topic of pronunciation. And sloppy speech is the charge most often cited. . . . In almost every case the words called sloppy are in fact perfectly normal pronunciations in everyday speech, and everyone uses them. They include such forms as Feb'ry for February, lib'ry for library, Antar'tic for Antarctic, as'matic for asthmatic, twel'ths for twelfths, patien's for patients, reco'nize for recognize, and so on. It's very difficult in fact to say some of these words in their 'full' form--try pronouncing the second t in patients, for example. . . .
    "Most listeners give just one reason for their complaint: a letter is there in the spelling, and so it should be pronounced. This is another example of the widespread belief . . . that speech is a poor relation of writing. We always need to remind ourselves that speech came first . . . and that we all learn to speak before we learn to write. . . . We also need to remember that pronunciation patterns have changed radically since the days when the spelling system was laid down. English spelling hasn't been a good guide to pronunciation for hundreds of years."
    (The English Language. Penguin, 2002

David Wolman

  • "[P]laywright George Bernard Shaw . . . called for a new alphabet and new orthography to 'prescribe an official pronunciation,' and he left a little money in his will as a cash prize for someone who could come up with a new English alphabet. . . . Shaw was consumed by the idea that people, especially children, were wasting time learning a 'foolish orthography based on the notion that the business of spelling is to represent the origin and history of a word instead of its sound and meaning.'"
    (Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling. Harper, 2010)

Willard R. Espy

  • "Melville Dewey, inventor of the library classification system, spelled one word GHEAUGHTEIGHPTOUGH. Thus GH is P, as in hiccough;
    EAU is O, as in beau;
    GHT is T, as in naught;
    EIGH is A, as in neigh;
    PT is T, as in pterodactyl;
    OUGH is O, as in though. That is, potato."
    (The Best of an Almanac of Words at Play. Merriam-Webster, 1999)

Changes in Pronunciation

Others have written about how pronunciation changes over time, with some academicians simply explaining the process and others calling it a "decline."

Kate Burridge

  • "Old nursery rhymes can . . . give us nice clues about earlier pronunciations. Take Jack and Jill--'Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water; Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.' The words water and after are awkward here and, as you might guess, it's the word beginning with 'w' that's the culprit. . . . [T]he vowel sound of water--[wahter]--shifted to [wawter]. So water originally rhymed with [after]. It wasn't a perfect fit, of course, because of the 'f' in after. However, in nonstandard pronunciations, this 'f' was often left out. Dickens occasionally spelt after as arter. So it was probably more a case that 'Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of [wahter]; Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling [ahter].' Much better!"
    (Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History. HarperCollins Australia, 2011)

Thomas Sheridan

  • "[T]he regard formerly paid to pronunciation has been gradually declining; so that now the greatest improprieties in that point are to be found among people of fashion; many pronunciations, which thirty or forty years ago were confined to the vulgar, are gradually gaining ground; and if something be not done to stop this growing evil, and fix a general standard at present, the English is likely to become a mere jargon, which every one may pronounce as he pleases."
    (A General Dictionary of the English Language, 1780)

Teaching Pronounciation

Scholars, grammarians, and linguists have also offered suggestions on how to teach proper pronunciation, as these excerpts show.

Joanne Kenworthy

  • "There is a great deal of evidence that native speakers rely very much on the stress pattern of words when they are listening. In fact, experiments have demonstrated that often when a native speaker mishears a word, it is because the foreigner has put the stress in the wrong place, not because he or she mispronounced the sound of the word."
    (Teaching English Pronunciation. Longman, 1987)

University of Leicester

  • "A study at the University of Leicester highlights the need for a new approach to the teaching of English pronunciation given that English is now a lingua franca, with more non-native speakers in the world than native speakers.
    "It suggests that the emphasis on ‘correct’ pronunciation of English as depicted in films like My Fair Lady and The King and I should be discontinued in favour [of] mutual intelligibility among non-native speakers, as well as celebrating the national identity of non-native speakers.
    "Therefore a Chinese or Indian speaker of English need not seek to ‘disguise’ his or her origins in seeking to speak English ‘properly’--instead they should feel free to speak with their dialects and accents intact so long as what they said was clear and intelligible."
    ("Study Calls For New Approach To Teaching English As A Lingua Franca." ScienceDaily, July 20, 2009)

Pronunciation Potpourri

Yet others have written about various aspects of pronunciation, whether it be how pronunciation develops, anxiety over how to say words, and even how to pronounce the names in William Shakespeare's plays.

Theodora Ursula Irvine

  • "In English probably more than in most languages, there is a laxity in respect to the pronunciation of proper names. The following pronunciations are a perennial wonder: Magdalen pronounced Maudlin, Beauchamp . . . Beecham, Cholmondeley . . . Chumley, Greenwich . . . Grinidge, Mainwaring . . . Mannering, Leominster . . . Lemster, Marjoribanks . . . Marchbanks, Weymiss . . . Weemz. No one would marvel if such names were the despair of lexicographers."
    (How to Pronounce the Names in Shakespeare, 1919)

Anne Curzan

  • "I mentioned to a colleague that I had just recorded a radio segment about the pronunciation of the word niche. He exclaimed, 'That word always gets me! I am never sure how to pronounce it.' We commiserated over our shared angst when confronted with this word. Does 'neesh' sound too French and too pretentious? Does 'nitch' make us sound unsophisticated? ...
    "My colleague then added, 'And then there’s homage! I don’t know what to do with that one either ...' I agreed: there’s the issue of where the stress goes as well as whether to say the initial /h/. I added the word forte to the how-should-I-pronounce-that mix. . . .
    "The conversation left me thinking, though, about the valuable work that can get done if we’re willing to talk about the anxiety that can come with these pronunciation conundrums and open up the space for students and others to put on the table words they’re not sure how to say—with no worries that anyone is going to question their education or intelligence if there are words more familiar to the eye than to the ear. And if anyone is laughing, it is out of relief that someone else isn’t sure how to pronounce that word."
    ("Pausing Over Pronunciation." The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 31, 2014)

William Cobbett

  • "[P]ronunciation is learned as birds learn to chirp and sing. In some counties of England many words are pronounced in a manner different from that in which they are pronounced in other counties; and, between the pronunciation of Scotland and that of Hampshire the difference is very great indeed. But, while all inquiries into the causes of these differences are useless, and all attempts to remove them are vain, the differences are of very little real consequence. For instance, though the Scotch say coorn, the Londoners cawn, and the Hampshire folks carn, we know they all mean to say corn. Children will pronounce as their fathers and mothers pronounce; and if, in common conversation, or in speeches, the matter be good and judiciously arranged, the facts clearly stated, the arguments conclusive, the words well chosen and properly placed, hearers whose approbation is worth having will pay very little attention to the accent. In short, it is sense, and not sound, which is the object of your pursuit."
    (A Grammar of the English Language in a Series of Letters: Intended for the Use of Schools and of Young Persons in General, but More Especially for the Use of Soldiers, Sailors, Apprentices, and Plough-Boys, 1818)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of English Pronunciation." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Definition and Examples of English Pronunciation. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of English Pronunciation." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).