I hope this question fits the group.

As a teacher of EFL I have come across this question several times:

Question: Does "/kləʊðz/" provide the right phonemic representation of the final sound in the word "clothes"?

"Oxford Learner's Dictionaries" gives four variants. In both BrE variant recordings, what I hear is a final unvoiced /s/ sound, and this is also the way I pronounce it. The dictionary seems to transcribe the final sound in both cases of BrE as voiced /z/-sound. (see Oxford Learner's Dictionaries, "Clothes")

Collins Dictionary, explicitly states that their phonemic representions follow Received Pronunciation:

The accent represented by the pronunciations in this dictionary is Received Pronunciation.

gives the same transcription of "clothes".

It seems practically impossible to me (let alone to my students) to actually realise the pronunciation suggested by the phonemic representation provided.

  • 1
    That depends a lot on dialect. Jul 13, 2017 at 12:11
  • 3
    It's not a phonetic transcription but a phonemic representation. Instruments won't tell you anything relevant. Jul 13, 2017 at 13:24
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    I (in the US) would voice the s in clothes. Speaking quickly, it may even sound like close (with s voiced).
    – GEdgar
    Jul 13, 2017 at 15:06
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    Possibly related: Are “whores” and “horse” homophones?
    – herisson
    Jul 13, 2017 at 18:02
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    @GEdgar it doesn't just sound like close when speaking quickly in some US dialects. The /ð/ is just omitted. In fact, that's what I thought the question was going to be about from the title.
    – trlkly
    Jul 14, 2017 at 10:59

3 Answers 3


You need to keep a couple of things in mind:

  • The glyphs employed in the pronunciations you find in dictionaries are not "phonetic transcriptions" but phonemic representations (note that they are enclosed in //, not []). That is, they do not represent actual, infinitely variable acoustic phenomena but elements in the finite set of structurally categorized entities onto which hearers map what they hear. /z/ is the 'meaning' of the phone uttered, not its physical realization.

  • Pronunciation—physical realization—is environmentally conditioned: actual acoustic output of any phoneme is determined by the context in which it appears. With clothes, for instance, the voicing of the terminal /z/ will be sustained if the /z/ liaises with a following voiced phoneme but will slide off into /s/ if it liaises with a following unvoiced phoneme:

    I have clothes in my closet → /kləʊð zɪn/
    I took clothes from my closet → /kləʊð sfrɒm/ (sorta—it's actually more like .../zsf/...

    But what is heard in both cases, by a Real Hearer attending to the discursive meaning rather than the acoustic actuality, is the phoneme /z/.

The recorded pronunciations you find in dictionaries are artificially abstracted from context, like the wretched example sentences in grammarbooks and exams. But in practical terms there is no such thing as a 'null context' in Real Speech; the actual context of these pronunciations is a by-definition-voiceless silence following the phoneme /z/. So the Real Speaker slides off into the patent voicelessness which concludes these utterances.

  • Thanks for your answer! I see and agree that the environment of the word needs to be taken into account. And what about "clothes" then at the end of a sentence, where no sound is following the word immediately? (to get back to my question) What you at one point say is that when I don't attend to the sound as much as to the discursive meaning, I will hear the phoneme /z/. Need to try that, put on my Platonic meditation gear and think of the meaning of "clothes" while listening to the audio! Or is that meaning not discursive anymore? Jul 13, 2017 at 13:33
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    I'm not sure what the question is. Are you asking if the real pronunciation is /kləʊðz/, /kləʊðs/, /kləʊz/, or /kləʊs/?
    – Mitch
    Jul 13, 2017 at 13:42
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    @AshwinSchumann It's unlikely to be discursive, since there's no discourse context. --It's a matter of what you're attending to rather than what you're hearing. As Polanyi says "[W]e attend from the subsidiary particulars to their joint focus". Jul 13, 2017 at 13:44
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    Hi. I can't work out how I took clothes from my closet → /kləʊð sɪn/ works. "Clothes from" (for me) is bound to have something labiodental going on in there even if said rapidly. The pronunciation you give doesn't seem to work with "from". Jul 13, 2017 at 16:03
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    @FrancisDavey Oops, I didn't finish changing in to from in the phonemic rep -- I'll fix. Jul 13, 2017 at 16:12

In words like grieves, clothes, many speakers stop the voicing of the final /z/ earlier than you might expect from the phonemic transcription. Most English speakers still hear the phonemes /vz/ anyway, because at the end of a word, /vs/ is a combination of phonemes that does not appear in English. We only need to distinguish between griefs and grieves: /griːfs/ versus /griːvz/. We do this on the basis of whether the penultimate consonant is voiced.

Thus, the two pronunciations [griːvz] and [griːvs] represent the same underlying phonemes, which dictionaries represent as /griːvz/.

I'm not a trained phoneticist, so I don't entirely trust my ears. But I think you're right in that the Oxford dictionary's British speaker for the pronunciation /kləʊðz/ is actually saying [kləʊðs]. In the Collins dictionary, for this pronunciation, I think the voicing stops part way through the final /z/.

I can't say whether the "correct" pronunciation for RP is [griːvz] or [griːvs] or somewhere halfway in between, or all three possibilities. To decide that, you would have to collect recordings from a lot of RP speakers and examine the statistics for when they stop voicing the final consonant. Quite possibly, somebody has already done this.

The dictionaries give the phonemic transcription, which is /kləʊðz/ (and which is consistent with both phonetic transcriptions [kləʊðz] and [kləʊðs]).

  • 3
    Actually, we mostly distinguish between griefs and grieves on the basis of whether the preceding vowel is lengthened or not. The /v/ can (and does sometimes) get pretty much fully unvoiced as well and the word is still recognisable. Jul 14, 2017 at 12:29

Marcellothearcane gets it right - the IPA transcription of the pronunciation of a word is highly dependent on the dialect of the language. Certainly, my reading of the transcription you provide isn't wrong - but in the dialect(s) in my home city, it's just as likely that the /ð/ would be omitted, and I wouldn't guarantee /əʊ/ for the vowel; /ou/ is quite common, perhaps more so than /əʊ/.

  • My question is not whether the transcriptions are right or wrong as such, but whether they correctly transcribe the given audio samples that are provided by the dictionary and are supposed to represent the standard of Received Pronunciation. Jul 13, 2017 at 12:25
  • Unfortunately, the quality of the speakers on my computer are such that I can't say conclusively whether that last sound is /s/ or /z/; it really could be either. You might want to try to compare with "ozone" - but (on my computer) I still can't tell whether the /z/ is really /z/ or /s/. Jul 13, 2017 at 12:30
  • Do you mean the pronunciation of the word "ozone"? But that's clearly a /z/-sound! Jul 13, 2017 at 12:31
  • There seems to be no controversy sounding the transcription of "clothes". At least, I haven't found anything on the internet yet. But maybe, sometimes, we believe so strongly in what we read - and maybe this is not only true of reading letters but also of reading phonetic transcriptions -, that we might not have noticed that it actually belies what we perceive?! Jul 13, 2017 at 12:36
  • And I suspect that on better speakers than mine, I'd also hear a /z/ at the end of 'clothes' from that source. I chose 'ozone' more-or-less with malice aforethought; it has the same vowel before the /z/ that 'clothes' does - and I wanted to hear it without the intervening /ð/, since that consonant is most often omitted in my dialect, and the /z/ is quite distinctly a /z/ in common conversation. Jul 13, 2017 at 12:36

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