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, 2016 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, 2016 at 0:17
  • @Drew It sounds a fair question to me - how do you pronounce potential?
    – WS2
    Jan 19, 2016 at 0:18
  • @WS2: So is it a poll of those who answer?
    – Drew
    Jan 19, 2016 at 0:21
  • Maybe Kelly should investigate "schwa" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schwa
    – GEdgar
    Jan 19, 2016 at 1:13

2 Answers 2


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.


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, 2016 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, 2016 at 2:31

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