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I've always been taught that a vowel before a double consonant following another vowel should have a short sound. Conversely, there are many situations where a vowel preceding a single consonant and vowel gets a long sound.

Short Sounds:

Mississippi    - All I's except the last get short sound
Communication  - First O gets short sound
Oppose         - First O gets short sound where second O gets long

Long Sound:

Ape            - A gets long sound
Popery         - O gets long sound
Oppose         - First O gets short sound where second O gets long

Yet, I hear people use a short O in "operator" when using the word. Is this the correct pronunciation?

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Whether it is a short-o or long-o depends on another factor: syllabification. Operator: op-ra-tor; here, the first syllable rhymes with hop. So, you may ask how to syllabify English words? It is a complex question, which was tackled by many folks like Kahn, C-J. Bailey, etc. – RainDoctor Aug 20 '12 at 22:24
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Indeed, it is. 'Operator' is pronounced ˈɒpəreɪtə (IPA), with the o- sound of 'offense' or 'orange'.

Most spellings as we use them today were standardized in the late 18th century on a fairly arbitrary basis. Most choices were based in common transliteration habits, but others followed historical convention. In this case, 'operator' had been historically spelled with a single p thanks to its root the Latin 'operari', and so the habit stuck.

Edit: I'm aware our American cousins have some regional variations, but these accents evolved more recently.

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I guess commonality will always trump phonetics. – hydroparadise Aug 20 '12 at 17:08
I have to disagree with the "offense"/"orange" comparison; for me the "o-" in "operator" is like the o in "hop", while "offense" starts with "aw" and "orange" is clearly an "or". – Hellion Aug 20 '12 at 17:14
Southerners in the US tend towards "Awringe". – hydroparadise Aug 20 '12 at 17:21
@Hellion I've heard both very often, and I suspect they're both originally eye-readings which have achieved broad idiolectal support across many dialects—*offense* through analogy with off, sustained by the accent shift, and orange through analogy with or. – StoneyB Aug 20 '12 at 17:24
@Mitch Fifty years ago I could have told you where a Southerner came from within fifty miles or so. Not any more; my ear's destroyed from living in Missouri, and I doubt that degree of regionalism prevails any more. – StoneyB Aug 20 '12 at 19:27

In America, most dialects don't distinguish between RP /ɒ/ and /a/, so operator is normally pronounced with [a]:


Standard American is rhotic, with [ɹ] instead of [r] and final [ɚ] instead of [ə]; and the /t/ is reduced to a tap [ɾ] between a preceding stressed vowel [ei] and a following unstressed vowel [ɚ].

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isn't the first vowel [ɑ]? I thought that vowel belongs to the LOT set. – RainDoctor Aug 20 '12 at 22:19
There's only one low back vowel in American English; I use "a" for it because it's on my keyboard. In any event, it is not the same vowel as the one in orange or offense, which is /ɔ/ for most Americans, at least East of the Mississippi. Except on the West Coast, where the two phonemes merge so that Don with /a/ and Dawn with /ɔ/ are homophonous. – John Lawler Aug 20 '12 at 22:28

The phonetics rules of thumb can be useful, but there are always exceptions. This is one of them.

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