WWWebster Dictionary
Pronunciation Guide
[Back to Dictionary] [Back to Help Topics]

Pronunciation is not an intrinsic component of the dictionary. For some languages, such as Spanish, Swahili, and Serbo-Croatian, the correspondence between orthography and pronunciation is so close that a dictionary need only spell a word correctly to indicate its pronunciation. Modern English, however, displays no such consistency in sound and spelling, and so a dictionary of English must devote considerable attention to the pronunciation of the language. The English lexicon contains numerous eye rhymes such as love, move, and rove, words which do not sound alike despite their similar spellings. On the other hand, it also contains rhyming words such as breeze, cheese, ease, frieze, and sleaze whose rhymes are all spelled differently.

This grand mismatch between words that look alike and words that sound alike does at least serve to record something of the history of the English-speaking peoples and their language. Spelling often indicates whether a word comes down from the native Anglo-Saxon word stock or was adopted in successive ages from the speech of a missionary monk chanting Latin, a seafaring Viking dickering in Old Norse, a Norman nobleman giving orders in French, or a young immigrant to turn-of-the-century America. For example, the sound \sh\ is spelled as sh in native English shore, as ch in the French loan champagne, as sk in one pronunciation of the Norwegian loan ski, as si in the Renaissance Latin loan emulsion, and as sch in the recent Yiddish loan schlepp. English vowels present different complexities of sound and spelling, due in large part to the fact that William Caxton introduced printing to England in A.D. 1476, many decades before the sound change known as the Great Vowel Shift had run its course. With the rise of printing came an increasingly fixed set of spelling conventions, but the conventionalized spellings soon lost their connection to pronunciation as the vowel shift continued. The stressed vowels of sane and sanity are therefore identical in spelling though now quite different in quality. For the trained observer the vagaries of English orthography contain a wealth of linguistic history; for most others, however, this disparity between sound and spelling is just a continual nuisance at school or work.

Readers often turn to the dictionary wanting to learn the exact pronunciation of a word, only to discover that the word may have several pronunciations, as is the case for deity, economic, envelope, and greasy, among many others. The inclusion of variant pronunciations disappoints those who want their dictionary to list one "correct" pronunciation. In truth, though, there can be no objective standard for correct pronunciation other than the usage of thoughtful and, in particular, educated speakers of English. Among such speakers one hears much variation in pronunciation.

Dictionaries of English before the modern era usually ignored pronunciation variants, instead indicating a single pronunciation by marking the entry word with diacritics to indicate stress and letter values. These systems were cumbersome, however, and reflected the dialectal biases of the editors more than the facts about how a word was actually spoken. Lexicographers came eventually to recognize the need for separate respellings which could record the entire range of accepted variants along with appropriate notes about dialectal distribution or usage.

This dictionary records many types of variation in pronunciation. Distinctions between British and American speech are frequently noted, as are differences among the three major dialect areas of the U.S.--Northern, Southern, and Midland. Words that have distinctive pronunciations in Canada, such as decal and khaki, have those pronunciations duly noted. Pronunciations peculiar to certain spheres of activity are also represented, as for example the variants of athwart and tackle heard in nautical use. Finally, a wide range of unpredictable variations are included, such as the pronunciation of economic with either \e\ or \E\. Unpredictable variations frequently cut across the boundaries of geographical dialects, sometimes running along the lines of social class, ethnicity, or gender instead. In fine, this dictionary attempts to include--either explicitly or by implication--all pronunciation variants of a word that are used by educated speakers of the English language.

The pronunciations in this dictionary are informed chiefly by the Merriam-Webster pronunciation file. This file contains citations that are transcriptions of words used by native speakers of English in the course of utterances heard in speeches, interviews, and conversations. In this extensive collection of 3 x 5 slips of paper, one finds the pronunciations of a host of people: politicians, professors, curators, artists, musicians, doctors, engineers, preachers, activists, journalists, and many others. The Merriam-Webster pronunciation editors have been collecting these citations from live speech and from radio, television, and shortwave broadcasts since the 1930s. It is primarily on the basis of this large and growing file that questions of usage and acceptability in pronunciation are answered. All of the pronunciations recorded in this book can be documented as falling within the range of generally acceptable variation, unless they are accompanied by a restricting usage note or symbol or a regional label.

No system of indicating pronunciation is self-explanatory. The following discussion sets out the signification and use of the pronunciation symbols in this dictionary, with special attention to those areas where experience has shown that dictionary users may have questions. More detailed information can be found in the Guide to Pronunciation in Webster's Third New International Dictionary. The order of symbols discussed below is the same as the order on the page of Pronunciation Symbols, with the exception that the symbols which are not letter characters are here listed first.

Symbol Explanation
\ \ All pronunciation information is printed between reversed virgules. Pronunciation symbols are printed in roman type and all other information, such as labels and notes, is printed in italics.
\ ' " \ A single stress mark precedes a syllable with primary (strongest) stress; a double mark precedes a syllable with secondary (medium) stress; a third level of weak stress requires no mark at all: \'pen-m&n-"ship\. Since the nineteenth century the International Phonetics Association has recommended that stress marks precede the stressed syllable, and linguists worldwide have adopted this practice on the basic principle that before a syllable can be uttered the speaker must know what degree of stress to give it. In accordance with the practice of French phoneticians, no stress marks are shown in the transcription of words borrowed from French whose pronunciations have not been anglicized, as at ancien rgime and meute.
\ - \ Hyphens are used to separate syllables in pronunciation transcriptions. In actual speech, of course, there is no pause between the syllables of a word. The placement of hyphens is based on phonetic principles, such as vowel length, nasalization, variation due to the position of a consonant in a syllable, and other nuances of the spoken word. The syllable breaks shown in this text reflect the careful pronunciation of a single word out of context. Syllabication tends to change in rapid or running speech: a consonant at the end of a syllable may shift into a following syllable, and unstressed vowels may be elided. The numerous variations in pronunciation that a word may have in running speech are of interest to phoneticians but are well outside the scope of a dictionary of general English.

The centered dots in boldface entry words indicate potential end-of-line division points and not syllabication. These division points are determined by considerations of both morphology and pronunciation, among others. A detailed discussion of end-of-line division is contained in the article on Division in Boldface Entry Words in Webster's Third New International Dictionary. In this dictionary a consistent approach has been pursued, both toward word division based on traditional formulas and toward syllabication based on phonetic principles. As a result, the hyphens indicating syllable breaks and the centered dots indicating end-of-line division often do not fall in the same places.

\ ( ) \ Parentheses are used in pronunciations to indicate that whatever is symbolized between them is present in some utterances but not in others; thus factory \'fak-t(&-)rE\ is pronounced both \'fak-t&-rE\ and \'fak-trE\, industry \'in-(")d&s-trE\ is pronounced both \'in-d&s-trE\ and \'in-"d&s-trE\. In some phonetic environments, as in fence \'fen(t)s\ and boil \'boi(&)l\, it may be difficult to determine whether the sound shown in parentheses is or is not present in a given utterance; even the usage of a single speaker may vary considerably.
\ , ; \ Variant pronunciations are separated by commas; groups of variants are separated by semicolons. The order of variants does not mean that the first is in any way preferable to or more acceptable than the others. All of the variants in this dictionary, except those restricted by a regional or usage label, are widely used in acceptable educated speech. If evidence reveals that a particular variant is used more frequently than another, the former will be given first. This should not, however, prejudice anyone against the second or subsequent variants. In many cases the numerical distribution of variants is equal but one of them, of course, must appear first.
\ \ The obelus, or division sign, is placed before a pronunciation variant that occurs in educated speech but that is considered by some to be questionable or unacceptable. This symbol is used sparingly and primarily for variants that have been objected to over a period of time in print by commentators on usage, in schools by teachers, or in correspondence that has come to the Merriam-Webster editorial department. In most cases the objection is based on orthographic or etymological arguments. For instance, the second variant of cupola \'ky-p&-l&, -"lO\, though used frequently in speech, is objected to because a is very rarely pronounced \O\ in English. The pronunciations \'fe-by&-"wer-E\ and \'fe-b&-"wer-E\ (indicated simultaneously by the use of parentheses) are similarly marked at the entry for February \'fe-b(y)&-"wer-E, 'fe-br&-\, even though they are the most frequently heard pronunciations, because some people insist that both r's should be pronounced. The obelus applies only to that portion of the transcription which it immediately precedes and not to any other variants following.
\ & \ in unstressed syllables as in banana, collide, abut. This neutral vowel, called schwa, may be represented orthographically by any of the letters a, e, i, o, u, y, and by many combinations of letters. In running speech unstressed vowels are regularly pronounced as \&\ in American and British speech. Unstressed \&\ often intrudes between a stressed vowel and a following \l\ or \r\ though it is not represented in the spelling, as in eel \'E(&)l\ and sour \'sau(-&)r\.
\ '&, "& \ in stressed syllables as in humdrum, abut.
\ & \ immediately preceding \l\, \n\, \m\, \[ng]\, as in battle, cotton, and one pronunciation of open \'O-p&m\ and of and \&[ng]\ as in one pronunciation of the phrase lock and key \"lk-&[ng]-'kE\. The symbol \&\ preceding these consonants does not itself represent a sound. It signifies instead that the following consonant is syllabic; that is, the consonant itself forms the nucleus of a syllable that does not contain a vowel. In the pronunciation of some French or French-derived words \&\ is placed immediately after \l\, \m\, \r\ to indicate one nonsyllabic pronunciation of these consonants, as in the French words table "table," prisme "prism," and titre "title," each of which in isolation and in some contexts is a one-syllable word.
\ &r \ as in further, merger, bird. (See the section on \r\.) The anglicized pronunciation of the vowel \œ\ is represented in this book as \&(r)\. (See the section on \[oe]\.)
\ '&r-, '&-r \ as in two different pronunciations of hurry. Most U.S. speakers pronounce \'h&r-E\ with the \&r\ representing the same sounds as in bird \'b&rd\. Usually in metropolitan New York and southern England and frequently in New England and the southeastern U.S. the vowel is much the same as the vowel of hum followed by a syllable-initial variety of \r\. This pronunciation of hurry is represented as \'h&-rE\ in this dictionary. Both types of pronunciation are shown for words composed of a single meaningful unit (or morpheme) as in current, hurry, and worry. In words such as furry, stirring, and purring in which a vowel or vowel-initial suffix is added to a word ending in r or rr (as fur, stir, and purr), the second type of pronunciation outlined above is heard only occasionally and is not shown in this dictionary.
\ a \ as in mat, map, mad, gag, snap, patch. Some variation in this vowel is occasioned by the consonant that follows it; thus, for some speakers map, mad, and gag have noticeably different vowel sounds. There is a very small number of words otherwise identical in pronunciation that these speakers may distinguish solely by variation of this vowel, as in the two words can (put into cans; be able) in the sentence "Let's can what we can." However, this distinction is sufficiently infrequent that the traditional practice of using a single symbol is followed in this book.
\ A\ as in day, fade, date, aorta, drape, cape. In most English speech this is actually a diphthong. In lowland South Carolina, in coastal Georgia and Florida, and occasionally elsewhere \A\ is pronounced as a monophthong. As a diphthong \A\ has a first element \e\ or monophthongal \A\ and a second element \i\.
\ \ as in bother, cot, and, with most American speakers, father, cart. The symbol \\ represents the vowel of cot, cod, and the stressed vowel of collar in the speech of those who pronounce this vowel differently from the vowel in caught, cawed, and caller, represented by \o\. In U.S. speech \\ is pronounced with little or no rounding of the lips, and it is fairly long in duration, especially before voiced consonants. In southern England \\ is usually accompanied by some lip rounding and is relatively short in duration. The vowel \o\ generally has appreciable lip rounding. Some U.S. speakers (a perhaps growing minority) do not distinguish between cot--caught, cod--cawed, and collar--caller, usually because they lack or have less lip rounding in the words transcribed with \o\. Though the symbols \\ and \o\ are used throughout this dictionary to distinguish the members of the above pairs and similar words, the speakers who rhyme these pairs will automatically reproduce a sound that is consistent with their own speech. In words such as card and cart most U.S. speakers have a sequence of sounds that we transcribe as \r\. Most speakers who do not pronounce \r\ before another consonant or a pause, however, do not rhyme card with either cod or cawed and do not rhyme cart with either cot or caught. The pronunciation of card and cart by such speakers, although not shown in this dictionary, would be transcribed as \'k[a']d\ and \'k[a']t\. Speakers of r-dropping dialects will automatically substitute \[a']\ for the transcribed \r\. (See the sections on \[a']\ and \r\.)
\ [a'] \ as in father as pronounced by those who do not rhyme it with bother. The pronunciation of this vowel varies regionally. In eastern New England and southern England it is generally pronounced farther forward in the mouth than \\ but not as far forward as \a\. In New York City and the southeastern U.S. it may have much the same quality as \\ but somewhat greater duration. In areas in which \r\ is not pronounced before another consonant or a pause, \[a']\ occurs for the sequence transcribed in this book as \r\. (See the sections on \\ and \r\.) In these areas \[a']\ also occurs with varying frequency in a small group of words in which a in the spelling is followed by a consonant letter other than r and is not preceded by w or wh, as in father, calm, palm, and tomato but not in watch, what, or swap (though \[a']\ does sometimes occur in waft). Especially in southern England and, less consistently, in eastern New England \[a']\ occurs in certain words in which \a\ is the usual American vowel and in most of which the vowel is followed by \f\, \th\, \s\, or by \n\ and another consonant, as in the words after, bath, mask, and slant. The symbol \[a']\ is also used in the transcription of some foreign-derived words and names. This vowel, as in French patte "paw" and chat "cat," is intermediate between \a\ and \\ and is similar in quality to the \[a']\ heard in eastern New England.
\ au \ as in now, loud, out. The initial element of this diphthong may vary from \a\ to \[a']\ or \\, the first being more common in Southern and south Midland speech than elsewhere. In coastal areas of the southern U.S. and in parts of Canada this diphthong is often realized as \&u\ when immediately preceding a voiceless consonant, as in the noun house and in out.
\ b \ as in baby, rib.
\ ch \ as in chin, nature \'nA-ch&r\. Actually, this sound is \t\ + \sh\. The distinction between the phrases why choose and white shoes is maintained by a difference in the syllabication of the \t\ and the \sh\ in each case and the consequent use of different varieties (or allophones) of \t\.
\ d \ as in did, adder. (See the section on \t\ below for a discussion of the flap allophone of \d\.)
\ e \ as in bet, bed, peck. In Southern and Midland dialects this vowel before nasal consonants often has a raised articulation that approximates \i\, so that pen has nearly the pronunciation \'pin\.
\ 'E, "E \ in stressed syllables as in beat, nosebleed, evenly, easy.
\ E \ in unstressed syllables, as in easy, mealy. Though the fact is not shown in this book, some dialects such as southern British and southern U.S. often, if not usually, pronounce \i\ instead of unstressed \E\.
\ f \ as in fifty, cuff.
\ g \ as in go, big, gift.
\ h \ as in hat, ahead.
\ hw \ as in whale as pronounced by those who do not have the same pronunciation for both whale and wail. Most U.S. speakers distinguish these two words as \'hwA(&)l\ and \'wA(&)l\ respectively, though frequently in the U.S. and usually in southern England \'wA(&)l\ is used for both. Some linguists consider \hw\ to be a single sound, a voiceless \w\.
\ i \ as in tip, banish, active.
\ I \ as in site, side, buy, tripe. Actually, this sound is a diphthong, usually composed of \\ + \i\ or \[a']\ + \i\. In Southern speech, especially before a pause or voiced consonant, as in shy and five, the second element \i\ may not be pronounced. Chiefly in eastern Virginia, coastal South Carolina, and parts of Canada the diphthong is approximately \'&\ + \i\ before voiceless consonants, as in nice and write.
\ j \ as in job, gem, edge, join, judge. Actually, this sound is \d\ + \zh\. Assuming the anglicization of Jeanne d'Arc as \zhn-'drk\, the distinction between the sentences They betray John Dark and They betrayed Jeanne d'Arc is maintained by a difference in the syllabication of the \d\ and the \zh\ in each case and the consequent use of different varieties (or allophones) of \d\.
\ k \ as in kin, cook, ache.
\ k \ as in German ich "I," Buch "book," and one pronunciation of English loch. Actually, there are two distinct sounds in German; the \k\ in ich is pronounced toward the front of the mouth and the \k\ in Buch is pronounced toward the back. In English, however, no two words otherwise identical are distinguished by these two varieties of \k\, and therefore only a single symbol is necessary.
\ l \ as in lily, pool. In words such as battle and fiddle the \l\ is a syllabic consonant. (See the section on \&\ above.)
\ m \ as in murmur, dim, nymph. In pronunciation variants of some words, such as open and happen, \m\ is a syllabic consonant. (See the section on \&\ above.)
\ n \ as in no, own. In words such as cotton and sudden, the \n\ is a syllabic consonant. (See the section on \&\ above.)
\ n \ indicates that a preceding vowel or diphthong is pronounced with the nasal passages open, as in French un bon vin blanc \[oe]n-bon-van-bln\ "a good white wine."
\ [ng] \ as in sing \'si[ng]\, singer \'si[ng]-&r\, finger \'fi[ng]-g&r\, ink \'i[ng]k\. In some rare contexts \[ng]\ may be a syllabic consonant. (See the section on \&\ above.)
\ O \ as in bone, know, beau. Especially in positions of emphasis, such as when it is word final or when as primary stress, \O\ tends to become diphthongal, moving from \O\ toward a second element \u\. In southern England and in some U.S. speech, particularly in the Philadelphia area and in the Pennsylvania-Ohio-West Virginia border area, the first element is often approximately \&\. In coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida stressed \O\ is often monophthongal when final, but when a consonant follows it is often a diphthong moving from \O\ to \&\. In this book the symbol \O\ represents all of the above variants. As an unstressed vowel before another vowel, \O\ is often pronounced as a schwa with slight lip rounding that is separated from the following vowel by the glide \w\, as in following \'f-l&-wi[ng]\. This reduced variant is not usually shown at individual entries.
\ o \ as in saw, all, gnaw, caught. (See the section on \\.)
\ [oe] \ as in French boeuf "beef," German Hlle "hell." This vowel, which occurs only in foreign-derived terms and names, can be approximated by attempting to pronounce the vowel \e\ with the lips moderately rounded as for the vowel \u\. This vowel is often anglicized as the \&r\ of bird by those who do not "drop their r's" or as the corresponding vowel of bird used by those who do (see the section on \r\). Where this anglicization is shown, it is represented as \&(r)\.
\ [OE] \ as in French feu "fire," German Hhle "hole." This vowel, which occurs primarily in foreign-derived terms and names, can be approximated by attempting to pronounce a monophthongal vowel \A\ with the lips fully rounded as for the vowel \\. This vowel also occurs in Scots and thus is used in the pronunciation of guidwillie, mainly restricted to Scotland.
\ oi \ as in coin, destroy. In some Southern speech, especially before a consonant in the same word, the second element may disappear or be replaced by \&\. Some utterances of drawing and sawing have a sequence of vowel sounds identical to that in coin, but because drawing and sawing are analyzed by many as two-syllable words they are transcribed with a parenthesized hyphen: \'dro(-)i[ng]\, \'so(-)i[ng]\.
\ p \ as in pepper, lip.

[Continue...]

[Back to Help Topics]


Home / WWWebster Dictionary /
WWWebster Thesaurus / Cool New Stuff /
Word of the Day / Word Game of the Day /
Word for the Wise / Products /
Licensing/ Network Options /
Words from the Lighter Side /
Language Info Zone / Inkwell to Internet /
Customer Service / Site Map

2000 by Merriam-Webster, Incorporated