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How should often be pronounced in formal speech? "off-ten" or "of-fen"?

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I have noticed off-ten becoming somewhat more common but I have no idea why. People don't say soft-ten and I hope they never will. –  user50802 Aug 29 '13 at 22:35

5 Answers 5

up vote 10 down vote accepted

"Should" is inappropriate in the question. Both pronunciations occur.

In the 19th century /ɔ:fn/ ("aufn") was the normal pronunciation, so in The Pirates of Penzance, there is an elaborate joke on the confusion of 'often' and 'orphan'.

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Which, of course, cannot easily be confused in American English. (Reminds me of a Where's Waldo? book in which one of the funny things to find was "Guy Forks". Took me a little while to figure out it was supposed to sound like Guy Fawkes.) –  mmyers Oct 28 '10 at 15:59
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@mmyers: I think you mean Where's Wally? ;-) –  psmears Feb 5 '11 at 8:22
    
I am still curious which form is considered more "literate" nowadays? At school (in Russia) (where very conservative form of British English was intended to be taught) we were taught to say it [ɔfn], but at the college we were told that [ɔfn] pronunciation is of "kitchen junk language" sort and we should pronounce it as [ɔften] if we don't seek to be considered illiterate. –  Ivan Oct 18 '12 at 20:46
    
Your college are wrong. There really is very little social status riding on this particular distinction (I use both pronunciations), but if pushed I would say that [ɔfn] is the more literary pronunciation. –  Colin Fine Oct 23 '12 at 12:14

The T-less pronunciation is preferred in American English. You don't pronounce the T in soften, do you? Fowler had a famous quote about 2 types of people who pronounce the T in often one being the "semiliterate" who like to "prove they can spell." LOL Ts often get silences in mid-word after other consonants-- listen, mortgage, whistle.

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I've seen the common pronunciation change in my region (American English) in the last 20 years or so. As a kid, we never pronounced the "t", but this has become much more common.

Current dictionaries will give both pronunciations. An old Funk and Wagnall's I have from the early 90s lists only the /ɔ:fn/ ("aufn") pronunciation. I also notice that the younger generation is more likely to pronounce the "t". But for some reason, in "soften" the "t" is not pronounced. It gets weirder though because we do pronounce the "t" in both "soft" and "oft", so I would just go with whichever pronunciation of "often" you prefer.

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There's a lot of variation because of the specific sounds involved. "o" in this case can be pronounced as [ a ], [ ɔ: ] or [ ɑ: ]. "en", while usually just a syllabic [ n ], can also be pronounced [ ɪn ]. In Southern American and urban English accents, "en" frequently becomes a syllabic [ m ], especially when followed by a word that begins with a bilabial consonant. In any accent, the "t" is usually elided, but when present it's usually a true sharp [ t ] rather than, say, a flap [ ɾ ]. Of course, not all combinations of these sounds are valid.

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In my dialect, it's "I of-en go to the store." If you say "off-ten" it's like you are enunciating particularly clearly for some reason. It's possible that "off-ten" is normal in other regions, though.

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