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I have always assumed that Bill and Hillary Clinton's name is pronounced Clin-tun. But during this year's election coverage, I noticed that a great many people pronounce it as Clin-uhn, with no "T" sound at all.

Is there a correct way?

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    There is a T in the name and that T is pronounced. – Hot Licks Sep 13 '16 at 2:01
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    @HotLicks But it is not pronounced as a [t] by some speakers; it can be pronounced as the glottal stop [ʔ] and often is in certain regions of the anglosphere. This is precisely what the asker is describing. Just because there should happen to be a written ‹t› means nothing; just think about prints for example. There is no ‹t› there either. – tchrist Sep 13 '16 at 2:09
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    The question is, do you want a pronunciation that is "natural" for the speaker, or one which, as exactly as possible, duplicates what the "owner" of the word considers to be correct. So far as I can tell, the Clintons do not pronounce their surname with a glottal stop for the T. Rather the T is pronounced in the "normal" fashion. This is consistent with the name "Clinton" from several other sources (the cities of Clinton in Iowa, Connecticut, Mississippi, and several other states, Clinton engines, Clinton Industries, et al). – Hot Licks Sep 13 '16 at 2:24
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    I am not a native speaker of English. Philippinos consider themselves English experts on very weak grounds. One of them once criticized my pronunciation of the number 20 ("toentee"), and had learnt it was pronounced "twennie". I just told her she had been meeting too many Americans ;) ;) – ycc_swe Sep 13 '16 at 9:20
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    @ycc_swe Or you could have told her that there is more than one acceptable pronunciation and that they are prevalent in different places. PS. Filipino has been preferred to 'Philippino' since the late 80s and Filipina is commonly the feminine. english.stackexchange.com/questions/49101/… – Spagirl Sep 13 '16 at 11:11
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The English language has incredibly many different regional accents, leading to the same words being pronounced differently by different people, sometimes in different places and other times in the same place.

What’s happening here is that some people say [ˈkʰlɪntən], such as Mrs Clinton herself, but others say [ˈkʰlɪ̃ʔn̩] with a glottal stop where the /t/ is phonemically. Those are not the only possibilities, either.

You cannot say that one accent is right and another wrong. They are simply different. It would be unnatural for someone whose accent requires one of those pronunciations to use the other one.

We aren't talking about some people pronouncing a word Fred and other people pronouncing that same word Wilma. Both [ˈkʰlɪntən] and [ˈkʰlɪ̃ʔn̩] use the same underlying abstract phonemes. Those two ways of saying Clinton are just alternate and perfectly valid phonetic realizations of the same phonemes as expressed in two different accents.

Phonemic /t/ has allophones of [tʰ], [t], [ɾ], and [ʔ], depending on a whole lot of factors. Native speakers will not hear a different word if you use a different allophone, because they won’t perceive a phonemic change just because an alternate allophone was used. It’s like did you coming out as didju when spoken rapidly.

Think of these three equivalent scenarios:

  1. Imagine a Scottish speaker named Rory who for /r/ uses a flapped [ɾ] or a rolled [r]. You wouldn’t expect speakers of other accents to reproduce those allophones. It would still be the same word without the fancy /r/.

  2. A name like Norbert or Bernard is always going to be pronounced differently by rhotic speakers as it is by non-rhotic speakers.

  3. A name like Betty is always going to be pronounced differently by speakers who tap that /t/ as a [ɾ] compared with those who put a [t] there.

So both pronunciations of Clinton are perfectly normal ones in their respective dialects. The underlying abstract phonemes are the same; only the allophones are different, which means they are the same words.

Lastly, I would be very leery of expecting folks to reproduce an accent that is not their own. It will easily sound inauthentic, and may well be wrong. You just have to learn not to hear changes to allophones as being changes to the phonemes these represent. This can be especially hard for non-native speakers, because their brains work under different rules.

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    @StoneyB Certainly! The /t/ phoneme is realized as [ʔ] by those folks in that position. It is not dropped. It is just not [t]. – tchrist Sep 13 '16 at 2:07
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    @PeterA.Schneider So if you met two people called Jörg (I'm guessing you're German by the website in your profile), one from Hamburg and one from Vienna, you would pronounce the former’s name as [jɶɐk], but the latter’s as [jœɾk]? After all, the two Jörgs will undoubtedly pronounce their names differently. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 13 '16 at 8:50
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    @PeterA.Schneider It is frequently impossible to pronounce someone's name as they would themselves, because they are aware of distinctions in pronunciation of which you are not aware, and so you can't reproduce their accent. Just for example, many Americans pronounce "marry", "merry" and "Mary" the same, and so can't tell that they're referring to someone called Mary as "merry". – Mike Scott Sep 13 '16 at 12:09
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    @Peter: generally people reach a sort of compromise, where there's a "correct" way to pronounce someone else's name in your accent. So if I'm speaking to French people in French I accept /ʒ/ for the J in my surname and I don't consider that at all offensive. In German though I do expect usually to get /dʒ/ rather than /j/ unless maybe they're reading it off a card. I can't say for sure why this is what I expect. And I would pronounce the name of an English person called Hugo and a Portuguese person called Hugo differently, since I perceive that as as significant difference. – Steve Jessop Sep 13 '16 at 12:47
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    ... It's possible to overshoot when trying to pronounce someone's name correctly. Dropping into an English accent to say my name "correctly" in the middle of a French sentence is weird even when I'm the one doing it! I think that someone with the English accent of my childhood (Thames estuary, or rather "escharray"), pronouncing Clinton with a /t/ rather than a /ʔ/ would fall into that uncanny valley. – Steve Jessop Sep 13 '16 at 12:50
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With names of persons it's generally a good idea to use the same pronunciation as the name bearers themselves. They are the only possible authority regarding the pronunciation of their own name. Especially considering that there is no such thing as a general authority for the English language.

As other comments and the great answer of tchrist have already pointed out Mrs Clinton herself uses [ˈkʰlɪntən]. If you want to consider any pronunciation as correct regarding her name, it's how she herself pronounces it.

Of course, it does not mean that all the other people named Clinton consider that as a correct pronunciation regarding their names or the inhabitants of the cities called Clinton.

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    Mind you, she doesn't pronounce it quite the same as her husband does, and he had it first ;-) – Steve Jessop Sep 13 '16 at 13:02
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    The problem here is that to the speakers of these dialects, they actually ARE pronouncing it “the same” in their minds. That’s because the phoneme is the same, just the actual phonetic allophones used vary. And you can't expect someone to follow somebody else's rules that break their own native rules. You wouldn't expect a rhotic and a non-rhotic speaker to pronounce Norbert the same, and you wouldn't expect a flapper and non-flapper to pronounce Betty the same. See the problem? – tchrist Sep 13 '16 at 18:47
  • @tchrist There are certain things all dialects actually should follow the rules of the name bearer for no matter what. One of these is syllable stress, where incorrect stressing of a syllable can drastically skew the name. But I completely agree with your point. – Adam Sep 13 '16 at 19:49
  • @tchrist: I suppose one would have to have the argument about what "pronouncing it the same" means with each of those people in turn on a case-by-case basis. I'd be surprised if less than half of them are capable of hearing the difference, even if more than half of them don't notice the difference if they aren't looking out for it. So taking your surname for an example, "kristyensen" and "krischensen" are two ways I'd pronounce it at different times of my life. I'd say they're "the same word" but that I'm pronouncing it "differently", not "the same". – Steve Jessop Sep 13 '16 at 20:32
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I am a (given name) Clinton, my grandfather was also a Clinton. I am from the Great Lakes area of the Midwest (Detroit), though I've lived in the Northeast (Boston area) and in the Southwest US (southern New Mexico). I have family scattered throughout the US.

Clinton is pronounced both ways. I've heard both, and I don't mind either. In the Southwest I tended to hear the "t", in the Northeast the "t" vanishes. In the Midwest, it really is speaker by speaker but mostly it's gone. Native Spanish speakers say the "t" every time.

My own pronunciation? It depends on who I'm talking to and how much I want to blend. But if I'm on the phone with someone who does not know me, I enunciate everything carefully including the "t". (Also to avoid Quentin and Clifton.)

Just naturally? Clin-uhn.

PS: Friends and family call me Clint.

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  • I think, for my own tounge, it depends on how quickly I'm speaking. If I'm rushed, the /t/ probably gets turned into a quick stop. – TecBrat Sep 14 '16 at 15:14
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In American English it's pronounced /ˈklɪntən/. The schwa is really, really de-stressed, but the t is definitely there.

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    I grew up near a town in the Midwest named Clinton. I at one point travelled by train to a town in West Virginia named Hinton. No one there could understand me because I pronounced the /t/. They did not. – tchrist Sep 13 '16 at 2:04
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I believe speech therapists working with elementary children don't worry about the substitution of a glottal stop for a hard t if it is part of a regional accent. For some children it is a challenge to use the tongue for t in words like kitten and mitten and they may need help if their pronunciation doesn't match family or peers. That said, "Cli-uhn" is jarring to my ears.

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