Long time listener, first time caller.

I was chatting with some friends, and GIF and nuclear came up. GIF is pretty unique, we considered, as we allow both /dʒɪf/ and /gɪf/ for its pronunciation. Both are interchangeable, and I would say we hear both of them rather evenly distributed in my tech company.

Nuclear shares the same trait of multiple "allowable" pronunciations /ˈnukliəɹ/ and /ˈnukjulɚ/ . However, some speakers ascribe a certain undesirable quality to the latter pronunciation.

This made me wonder. How many other words are there for which we allow distinct pronunciation in English? Are we more likely to find that these examples are largely devoid of stigma, as with GIF, or the opposite, as with nuclear?

I realize this may be regional, but I'd like to eliminate questions of accent (cot-caught, sit-set etc), and limit it to places of articulation and orthographic interpretation leading to the pronunciation differences for a single word.

Thanks for the help!

  • M-W includes the non-yod-dropped variant: nu·cle·ar adjective \ˈnü-klē-ər, ˈnyü-, ÷-kyə-lər\ (for which I'm grateful). Aug 15, 2014 at 18:03
  • @Edwin: I never noticed this before, but except for the substitution of ə for ɪ, i.e., one reduced vowel for another, \ˈnju.klɪ.ər\ and\ˈnu.kjə.lər\ have the same phonemes in a different order. I wonder if that's significant. Aug 15, 2014 at 18:18
  • Well GIF isn't a word, so it isn't an example of a word with alternate pronunciations.
    – Oldcat
    Aug 15, 2014 at 20:29
  • @Peter One that fascinates me is aubrieta. Aug 15, 2014 at 22:11
  • It's always fun to ponder what qualifies as a word. "GIF" can be spoken between two people and distinguished as a sound that imparts meaning (semantic or pragmatic content), separate from other parts of speech within a given utterance. It is very much a word.
    – Bmur
    Aug 16, 2014 at 1:02

2 Answers 2


Nine thousand, seven hundred and forty-nine

How many other words are there for which we allow distinct pronunciation in English?

The answer to your question is not 42 but 9,749 — insofar as the OED2 contains 9,749 head words with multiple allowable pronunciations.

Glad to clear that up for you.

However, you may want to reconsider your position that /ˈnukjulɚ/ is a permissible pronuncification of nuclear.

Which appears to answer your second question as well.

  • 1
    How did you count them so quickly! Aug 15, 2014 at 18:04
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth Ask and ye shall receive: oedgrep '<IPR><IPH>.*?</IPH>(?:,\s*)?<IPH>' | wc -l
    – tchrist
    Aug 15, 2014 at 18:05
  • @tchrist assuming of course that you have that in the appropriate format :-) Did you write oedgrep? Aug 15, 2014 at 18:15
  • @MattGutting A dirty job, but somebody had to do it.
    – tchrist
    Aug 15, 2014 at 18:23
  • Thanks for the insight! How would one go about viewing your results? What a tool! And yes, same sentiments; it grates on the nerves every time I hear it. "Descriptive and not prescriptive," right?
    – Bmur
    Aug 15, 2014 at 20:06

The one that really bugs me is the letter aitch. For some reason, people insist on adding an aitch at the beginning and turning it into haitch.

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