I was recently in a discussion with a friend about the pronunciation of "attribute" as either a noun or a verb. I resorted to OED's authority to back up my own suspicions, and found the pronunciations:

Noun: /ˈatrɪbjuːt/

Verb: /əˈtrɪbjuːt/

For the most part, particularly with regard to the syllable that carries emphasis, this makes sense to me, but I was somewhat surprised at the noun. I'm rather new to the study of pronunciation, but my understanding is that /ˈatrɪbjuːt/ would sound like "Ah" + "Tribute." The first syllable, if I understand correctly, would rhyme with "Rot."

As a native American English speaker, I think of the first syllable of the noun form as rhyming with "Cat," and so it seems to me that there should be an AmE transcription as well, along the lines of:

ætrɪbjuːt/ (bold emphasis mine)

My question is twofold:

  1. Is my understanding of the OED pronunciations accurate, that its given noun transcription would rhyme with "rot," at least in BrE?

  2. Should there be a separate pronunciation notated for American English? And would /ˈætrɪbjuːt/ be the common accepted form?

I will note that a similar question was asked here (Pronunciation of "Attribute") but it does not address what I am asking (and it has no answers).

For a little extra clarification based on comments, here is what I am seeing in the noun entry for "attribute" in Oxford English Dictionary:

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  • Related/possible duplicate: english.stackexchange.com/questions/333707/…
    – user66974
    Jun 30, 2017 at 22:25
  • @Josh I don't think that's a duplicate, I included it in my question because it doesn't address what I'm asking. Jun 30, 2017 at 22:26
  • Attribute (noun): - "quality ascribed to someone, distinguishing mark (especially an excellent or lofty one)," late 14c., from Latin attributum "anything attributed," in grammar, "predicate," noun use of neuter of attributus, past participle of attribuere "assign, allot; ascribe, impute" (see attribute (v.)). - Distinguished from the verb by having stress on the first syllable. etymonline.com/index.php?term=attribute
    – user66974
    Jun 30, 2017 at 22:32
  • 2
    Attribute BrE/AmE pronunciations: dictionary.cambridge.org/pronunciation/english/attribute
    – user66974
    Jun 30, 2017 at 22:37
  • 1
    ODO has the same pronunciation as the OED, but as can be seen in their pronunciation guide (en.oxforddictionaries.com/key-to-pronunciation), this a is pronounced as the one in cat. ODO transcriptions do not contain æ, it would seem. Jun 30, 2017 at 23:39

3 Answers 3


IPA symbols are discrete, but the vowel space is continuous. IPA transcriptions always have a large amount of arbitrariness.

The IPA contains the following three distinct symbols that you should not confuse: <ɑ>, <a>, and <æ>. However, even though you shouldn't confuse them, you should be aware that certain pairs may be interchangeable in certain contexts.

There are two general types of transcription: phonetic and phonemic. Despite the fact that "IPA" stands for "International Phonetic Alphabet", it is not based purely on phonetic principles and it is not only, or even mainly, used for pure phonetic transcription.

It is very often used for phonemic transcription: only noting the contrasts that are relevant for a particular language, but not ones that aren't.

Phonemic transcriptions tend to become conventionalized, which in the case of English means that the same vowel symbols continue to commonly be used for certain vowels that have shifted phonetically.

Major examples are the vowels of "trap", "strut" and "goose". The conventional way to transcribe these phonemes of English in IPA is as /æ/, /ʌ/ and /uː/. In fact, "trap" in a usual contemporary Southern British accent is more like phonetic [a], "strut" is more like [ɐ], and "goose" is more like [ʉ] or [ɵu̯].

See http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/ipa-english.htm, http://englishspeechservices.com/blog/british-vowels/

The vowel of "rot" is traditionally transcribed /ɑ/ for an American English accent (more or less [ɑ] phonetically, usually, but perhaps closer to [a] or [ɒ] in certain accents) and /ɒ/ for a British English accent (often closer to [ɔ] phonetically). It isn't the same as the vowel of "attribute" in either of these accents.

IPA symbols that are frequently interchangeable in practice (in some, but not all contexts) include a/ɑ, e/ɛ, o/ɔ, ɔ/ɒ, ɒ/ɑ, ə/ʌ/ɐ, i/ɪ, ɪ/e, u/ʊ, ɨ/ɯ.


OED is a great tool... for some jobs. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to do very well with American pronunciation. Yes, they should list both, but they don't always do that. (Earlier editions were BrE pronunciation only, so maybe they haven't updated everything.) I've run into this same problem before with "title": OED only lists /ˈtʌɪt(ə)l/ (the British pronunciation) while the American pronunciation is /ˈtaɪdl/.

The solution is simple: use another dictionary that has American pronunciation. For example, Oxford Living Dictionary (US) lists /ˈætrəˌbjut/. You can listen to the audio and compare it to the British pronunciation here.


The OED may not use IPA for its phonetic transcriptions. ODO certainly does not, instead using its own phonetic alphabet, which is MUCH less complicated. This page shows /a/ being pronounced as the vowel in cat, not as that in top, as it would be in the IPA.

Of course, this could be a British pronunciation with the IPA /a/, but seeing as the audio pronunciation is in a British accent, I think this unlikely.

EDIT: In my Compact Edition of the OED, the pronunciation /æ·tribiut/ is given, which is how I have always heard it pronounced and how you think it should be. Check for a pronunciation guide in yours, I guess.

  • The page you linked to shows phonemic IPA transcriptions.
    – herisson
    Jul 1, 2017 at 0:31
  • Not quite. The /a/ given there is the equivalent of the IPA /æ/. Jul 1, 2017 at 2:51
  • IPA doesn't correspond perfectly to the phonemes of English, so a dictionary transcription system needs to make some arbitrary choices about how to represent certain sounds. Whatever choice is made still counts as the IPA, though. See what John Wells has to say about IPA transcription systems for English for an explanation of the situation
    – herisson
    Jul 1, 2017 at 3:16

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