I use to pronounce this word so that it rhymes with 'her', but recently I've been told to pronounce it like "air". Which pronunciation was it originally, and which pronunciation was correct?

up vote 6 down vote accepted

There are two pronunciations:

/ɜr, ɛr/

  • 3
    (And both are correct) – Daniel Oct 21 '11 at 20:27
  • Erroneous (first part sounds like "air"). Error (first part sounds like "air"). Seems like more precedence for that pronunciation. – Anssssss Nov 5 '13 at 16:58
  • 1
    @Anssssss: the first part of "erroneous" and "error" only sounds like "air" to those with the Mary-merry merger. – sumelic Jul 1 '15 at 1:08
  • 1
    This answer would be improved by the explicit mention of orthoepic authority – nohat Jul 1 '15 at 1:57

Based on Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics in Ruddigore, in London in the late 19th century it was pronounced to rhyme with "her":

If I had been so lucky as to have a steady brother
Who could talk to me as we are talking now to one another —
Who could give me good advice when he discovered I was erring
(Which is just the very favour which on you I am conferring),

Webster's 1892 Dictionary agrees: err has the vowel of her.

However, nowadays, in the U.S. Northeast at least, I usually hear it pronounced "heir". Both pronunciations should be considered correct.

  • Gilbert & Sullivan lyrics are contrived to be humorous. I recall in Iolanthe that somewhere within the same song the same word is pronounced in two different ways, to rhyme with two different things. – GEdgar Oct 22 '11 at 1:49
  • If you examine the libretto of Ruddigore, it appears that often, when a word is to be pronounced unusually for the sake of a rhyme, it is also misspelled. idyll/indiwiddle, accurst/worst, first-rater/theyater, reply/enjye, – Peter Shor Oct 22 '11 at 4:02

As others have mentioned, err has multiple accepted pronunciations: one with the same vowel as "her," one with the same vowel as "air". This variation seems to be confined to certain accents of North American English, though: in some other accents, only the pronunciation with the vowel of "her" is possible.

The pronunciation with the vowel of "her" is earlier. In Middle English, this was pronounced more or less as /ɛr/ (this was different from the vowel sound used in "air"). The "short e" sound shifted in quality to /ɜ/ (the same vowel sound as "fur" and "stir") in almost all accents due to a historical sound change that affected short vowels before /r/ followed by another consonant or by the end of a word (Wikipedia describes this under the name of the "Nurse merger"; it references John Wells's Accents of English). For example, consider the pronunciation of the word "verse": for nearly all English speakers, it rhymes with "nurse." This pronunciation with the vowel of "her" is used worldwide.

The pronunciation with the vowel of "air" seems to be more recent. As far as I can tell, it only became common after the merger in some North American accents of /ɛər/ with /ɛr/ (the Mary-merry merger). In non-merged accents, it is not possible for a word to end in /ɛr/. But in merged accents, it is, so apparently some people with the merger began pronouncing "err" as /ɛr~ɛər/ by analogy with the pronunciation of "error" /ˈɛrɚ~ˈɛərɚ/.

In non-rhotic accents (including most varieties of British English and Australian English) the pronunciation /ɛr/ is not phonologically possible, and I haven't heard of anyone using /ɛə/ (the vowel of "air").

  • Interesting. I still find it hard to believe that the earlier pronunciation was /ər/, because the supposed etymology starts from Latin errare then Norman French errer, both of which are much much closer to /ɛr/.What is this 'historical sound change' of short e before r? Link? – Mitch Sep 29 '16 at 3:09
  • @Mitch: Oh, added. It's described lower down on the same Wikipedia page. It's the same reason we use /ɜr/ in "prefer," "infer," "deter." I don't know why "err" retained a double-r spelling while these verbs didn't – maybe the so-called "three letter rule" is responsible. – sumelic Sep 29 '16 at 3:15

When used as a verb ("err on the side of caution"), those of my accent pronounce it [eɪɻ], homonymously with "air."

When used as an interjection, it is usually pronounced [ɚ], [əɻ], or [əɹ], to rhyme with "her" or "purr".

  • 4
    The interjection is "er", and it's a British stall word. The American equivalent (which is pronounced almost the same) is "uh". The only Americans who stall by saying "rrrrrr" are those who read "er" somewhere and think that's what you're supposed to say. – Spoxjox Feb 3 '12 at 21:13
  • @Spoxjox I did realize last night after writing that that I would usually spell the interjection with only one "r," but I would spell it with two if it were very drawn out. Also, there are a number of stall words, none of which are actually words, and all of which are subconsciously verbalized (except in satirical cases), so I don't think any of them are particularly "regional." Even if they were, I don't care if it's British, because I never said it wasn't. – Tortoise Feb 3 '12 at 22:28

protected by RegDwigнt Dec 2 '13 at 23:26

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