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I was raised to pronounce "potential" with a long o (ō). This makes sense where the syllables are divided. Yet, the online dictionaries I have checked say it is "puh". Can you comment?

  • Well, I'm British, and I definitely wouldn't give it a long o. However it is noticeable that Americans tend to use the long o for all sorts of things where we hardly pronounce the o at all. Most embarrassing of all was when President Reagan, at the time of the ending of the Berlin Wall, kept referring to Poo-land. I don't suppose the Poles noticed, but it sounded a bit silly to the British. – WS2 Jan 19 '16 at 0:14
  • What's the question? "Can you comment?" Yes. My comment is that there is no question here, or it is too broad - it should be closed. – Drew Jan 19 '16 at 0:17
  • @Drew It sounds a fair question to me - how do you pronounce potential? – WS2 Jan 19 '16 at 0:18
  • @WS2: So is it a poll of those who answer? – Drew Jan 19 '16 at 0:21
  • Maybe Kelly should investigate "schwa" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schwa – GEdgar Jan 19 '16 at 1:13
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It would be too prescriptive to say it is pronounced one way or the other. I looked into some dictionary IPA spellings and they have the shwa for that 'uh' sound. Vowels are tricky things though. It might be shwa in the dictionary, but that's not a strict guideline. You might not notice it, but even you might say is as p'uh'tential if you are talking really fast...vice versa for other users (I tend to say p-oh-tential if I'm saying it slow).

Just don't pronounce it as 'carrot' and you won't raise any eyebrows.

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It is normal in the majority dialect to make the first syllable of "potential" unstressed, since the second syllable is stressed, and the first syllable has a lax vowel and is open. And generally, unstressed non-high vowels reduce to schwa. All the same, I often hear tense and unreduced "o" and "e" in such initial syllables in American English. Apparently, the vowels are tensed for clarity. The words where tense and unreduced "e" (i.e., [i:]) seems to be an option are words like "eliminate", "electricity", "deliver".

  • Why do you say the first syllable has a lax vowel? Like the OP, I would pronounce it as tense /o:/ or /ou/ if I didn't reduce the vowel. – herisson Jan 19 '16 at 2:09
  • @sumelic, if it were phonologically tense, in the SPE treatment, it would be stressed, and could not be reduced. Evidently, it can be phonetically tense (which is what I said). – Greg Lee Jan 19 '16 at 2:31

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