My son is learning English as a second language. Of course the phonetic alphabet is something they have to learn. Now he keeps telling me that it is a completely pointless endeavour, because he knows how to pronounce English words by instinct.

Of course, I want to prove him wrong. How do I find words which are hard to pronounce if you have never heard them ?

closed as too broad by Drew, Brian Hooper, deadrat, Benjamin Harman, JEL Jan 16 '16 at 20:59

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    This question will probably be closed since it is list-based. But to answer your question, I propose the word, colonel. – Kyle Jan 14 '16 at 18:29
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    sword, salmon, Worchestershire (sauce). Those are my favorite oft-mispronounced words! :-) – Kristina Lopez Jan 14 '16 at 19:07
  • Gerard Nolst Trenité's poem The Chaos is full of good examples. – jejorda2 Jan 14 '16 at 19:13
  • "epitome" might be such a word. to tear and a tear. Courage and courageous. Archbishop and architecture. South and southern. How old is your son to be so cocksure that he thinks to know the pronunciation of all words by instinct. – rogermue Jan 14 '16 at 20:04
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's asking for advice about pedagogy, not English usage. – deadrat Jan 16 '16 at 5:46

Any word with silent letters is likely to be a trap.

  • Answer is one such; there are differences between tongue and plague; there is a difference between timeline and Bakelite. In fact, many names can be awkward — the classic example is Featherstonehaugh (pronounced Fanshaw).

Words where the verb has the same spelling as the noun.

  • Process, record, recess. However employ has the stress on the second syllable for both cases, just to be difficult.

Words where a collection of phonemes is compressed or omitted.

  • The p in raspberry disappears; goose in gooseberry is not the same as the bird.

Words where a largely-obsolete pronunciation is retained.

  • Bagged, gagged, nagged, sagged, tagged, wagged, but compare ragged. Where that means "untidy" the separate -ed is retained; where it means "joshed, teased", it isn't.
  • Featherstonehaugh = Fanshaw? Well then let's trot out Monty Python's "My name is spelled Raymond Luxury Yacht but it's pronounced Throatwarbler Mangrove!" :-) youtu.be/tyQvjKqXA0Y – Kristina Lopez Jan 14 '16 at 19:11
  • I pronounce the "p" in "raspberry", and I can detect no significant difference between "goose" and the first part of "gooseberry" when I pronounce them. – Hot Licks Jan 15 '16 at 1:07
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    @HotLicks That rather proves the point, I think. What I wrote is certainly the case for modern BrE. There will always be those who are far more careful about diction. I've never heard a long -oo- in gooseberry, though. – Andrew Leach Jan 15 '16 at 10:22
  • I've never, to my recollection, heard "gooseberry" pronounced any other way. How do you pronounce it? – Hot Licks Jan 15 '16 at 13:51
  • My IPA isn't up to Araucaria's but I think the words are /gʉzbᵊrɪ/ or /gʊzbᵊrɪ/ and /gu:s/. – Andrew Leach Jan 15 '16 at 14:01

ðɪs ɪz ə letə ɪn fəni:mɪk skrɪpt ‖ ɪts wʌn θɪŋ tə bi eɪbl tə seɪ ə wɜ:b | bət ɪts ənʌðə tə bi eɪbl tə bi ʌndəstʊd

pəhæps | ju dʒəs ni:d tə meɪk ðə həʊl θɪŋ ə bɪp mɔ:r ɪntrestɪŋ | fə jə sʌn

fər ɪgzæmpl ‖ ju kʊd gɪv ɪm səm rɪdlz | ɔ: sm dʒəʊks

hɪəz ə dʒəʊk fə ju ‖

waɪ wəz sɪks efreɪd əv sevn?

bɪkəz sevn eɪt naɪn!

ɔ: ju kʊd dʒəs raɪt ɪm səm letəz ɪn fəni:mɪk skrɪpt ‖

aɪ həʊp ðæt helps ‖ gʊd lʌk

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    What's /wɜ:b/ ? word? /bɪp/ bit? Did you write that out without a software programme? Without using a dictionary that would take me years to rite – Mari-Lou A Jan 15 '16 at 12:50
  • I believe the p in /bɪp/ is an approximation of the glottal-stop symbol /ʔ/. But /wɜ:b/ got me too. – Andrew Leach Jan 15 '16 at 13:18
  • @AndrewLeach That's anticipatory dealvoelar assimilation! /t, d/ and /n/ have a habit of assimilating to the place of articulation of the following consonant (not, of course if the /t/ is realised as a glottal stop though). So the /d/ in word is quite likely to change to a /b/ because of the following /b/. Same thing with the /p/ in bit because of the following /m/. So, you're right that a glottal stop is equally, if not in fact more likely than a /p/ there - but it's less fun ;) – Araucaria Jan 15 '16 at 13:45
  • @Mari-LouA No! I did it all myself on ipatypeit.org! That /t/ in bit is changing because of the oncoming /m/. See my comment to Andrew above (I saw his comment before I saw yours). It's just practise. It's fun, you should try it :) – Araucaria Jan 15 '16 at 13:53

Some native speakers may say that they can pronounce any new word they see, but they can't. And so if us native speakers can't, neither can anyone else! A simple way to show that this claim isn't true even for native speakers is to take the letter cluster : -ough

This can have nine different pronunciations in English. Here are some example words and pronunciations:

  • though /əʊ/
  • through /u:/
  • thought /ɔ:/
  • tough /ʌf/
  • thorough/ə/
  • bough /aʊ/
  • trough /ɒf/
  • hiccup/ hiccough /ʌp/
  • lough /ɒx/

So lets imagine that a native speaker sees a new word crough. How would they pronounce it? It's not possible to predict what a word like crough would sound like! It would be impossible!

Another fun thing is to look at heteronyms. These are word with the same spellings but different pronunciations. Here's a list of five heteronyms. Each written word corresponds to two different actual words with different pronunciations! If you see the word out of context, you can't know how to say it:

  • read, read
  • wind, wind
  • lead, lead
  • Polish, polish
  • close, close

Get your son to try saying these words in the following phrases:

  • I read the book yesterday
  • I'll read the book tomorrow
  • The wind, the sun and the stars
  • Wind down the window
  • lead piping
  • lead a horse to water
  • Polish food
  • Polish the table
  • close the door
  • it's very close

If you can't say them differently from reading them, then you'll need to learn how these words sound!


There are thousands. Just off the top of my head ...

  • lead (v), led (past tense of lead), lead (n), lede (n)
  • bedridden, bedraggled, bedroll
  • house (n), house (v), lose (v), loose (adj)
  • retake (n), retake (v), remake (n), remake (v)
  • smooth (adj), smooth (v), thesis, these, theses

Afterthought: I've found that kids can sometimes get motivated to learn phonemic notation
when they find out that most adult English speakers are totally clueless at it. In effect, it's a
secret language that kids are smart enough to learn, but adults pretty much are too dumb to learn.
For instance, consider Good Night Moon, which most American kids know by heart.

  • Your afterthought is absolutely spot on. – Araucaria Jan 15 '16 at 1:55

For starters, how about all the words with 'ough' that can be pronounced half a dozen different ways? TOUGH, THROUGH, COUGH, DOUGH, THOUGHT, PLOUGH...

For the record, I believe learning phonetic pronunciation can be helpful, but it should be taught in conjunction with etymology so there is a fuller awareness of why things happen the way they happen in English.

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    And those with ow: bow, to bow, row, row etc. – rogermue Jan 14 '16 at 22:17

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