I was just watching a show where someone said "awry". I have noted this numerous times before and wondered, but now I just have to understand: Why is it pronounced as "aww-rye" [low tone on the aww] instead of "aww-ree" [high tone on the aww]?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 18:36
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    Are you asking why the word is pronounced the way it is, or why it's spelled the way it is? Spelling does not dictate pronunciation. People learn to speak well before they learn to read/write ;-)
    – DanielSank
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 19:20
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    While awry is not rare, it does't come up in common speech a lot. And I've never heard it with the first syllable drawn out as in your example "aww-rye." The first syllable is usually de-emphasized into a schwa: uh-rye. Those three things make me wonder if you're hearing the exclamation "all right!" When used as an exclammation, it's common to draw out the first syllable in order to increase the emphasis on the second, to raise pitch on the 2nd syllable, and to barely pronounce the ending "t." Is is possible you're hearing "all right!" used as an exclamation? Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 3:03
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    I'm trying to think of a wry answer, but nothing's coming to mind.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 21:21

2 Answers 2


PLEASE NOTE: English is not a tonal language like Cantonese, so I’m going to assume you are simply talking about stress, a phonemic property of English words which speakers of tonal languages may hear in terms of tones.

Exactly why awry sounds like the beginning of “a rye sandwich” with the stress on the second syllable is a longer story than just that observation alone can explain on its own. English awry has its origin in two separate words that have since fused together: from a + wry, with a meaning the preposition “on” combined with the adjective wry meaning “twisted”. OED, Wiktionary

The first OED citation is from 1380, back in Middle English when it was still used as a prepositional phrase:

John Barbour The Bruce (St. John's Cambr.) iv. 705
As thair bemys strekit air Owthir all evin, or on wry.

By 1490, we began to see the current one-word version appear, first in Caxton.

So here the w is not part of the vowel before it. It is not an /aw/ diphthong; rather, it’s part of the consonant after. You should train your eye to spot wr- as a two-letter consonant cluster in English that represents phonemic /r/, sometimes written [ ɹʷ ] or [ ɻ ] phonetically. If you had realized it was a consonant cluster, you would not have thought it was aw + ry but rather as the a + wry that it is. Plus if it were aw + ry it would be pronounced with a different vowel because aw ends up being the /ɔ/ of awkward and awesome.

English has a huge number of words starting with wr- that are all of them about something that’s been “twisted” in some way: wraggle, wrangle, wrangler, wrap, wrapper, wrath, wraw, wreath, wreathe, wrench, wrest, wrestle, wrick, wrig, wriggle, wring, wrinkle, wrist, writhe, writhen, wrong, wroth, wrung, wry, wrythening. This is one of those words.

(Curious conjecture: When he worked on and for the Oxford English Dictionary, JRR Tolkien posited that wraith was also one of those sorts of words, probably coming from a Scottish past-tense inflection of a word like our writhe and wreathe. See The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, pp 223–224.)

English has a whole bunch of modifier words (adjectives and adverbs) beginning with the letter "a" which started out as prepositional phrases: aback, abed, ablaze, abroad, abuzz, across, afield, afloat, afoot, afresh, again, aglitter, ahead, akimbo, alive, aloft, anew, ashore, asleep, awry and really many, many more.

All of these started out life with an unstressed “function word” such as of, in, and, or as in our current case, the preposition on (formerly spelled an) which got worn down into just a simple a.OED The OED says that this represents a

Variant of on prep. with loss of the final consonant -n, reflecting an unstressed pronunciation of the word in proclitic use

Because prepositions are “function words” not “lexical words”, they are “never” stressed, so the stress cannot be on the start of the new, fused word. It still acts like a prepositional phrase in that regard, with the stress still falling on the former prepositional-object portion. For example, on FOOT > aFOOT.

These curious words retain one other property of their former lives as prepositional phrases: they cannot be used attributively before the lexical word they’re modifying, only predicatively after it (or occasionally as a rare postpositive attribute).

The versions marked with a ✻ are therefore ungrammatical:

  1. I saw that the boy was asleep.
  2. I saw the ✻asleep boy.
  3. I saw the boy asleep in bed.
  4. He landed so hard, his legs were all akimbo.
  5. He landed hard with ✻akimbo legs.
  6. He landed hard with legs akimbo.
  7. The crew went ashore for a few hours.
  8. The crew ✻ashore went for a few hours.
  9. The plan had gone awry.
  10. The plan ✻awry had gone.
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 18:36
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    I don't know if this comment belongs in the chat. But your examples 8 and 10 don't seem like examples at all of the rule that these words cannot precede their nouns. And by the way, I believe that in Star Trek Voyager the dialog often refers to "the away team," which you would apparently censure.
    – Chaim
    Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 19:45
  • > The crew ✻ashore went for a few hours. Would this be a valid sentence if you 1. replaced went with walked and 2. had two teams, one on the shore and the other on the sea?
    – Cacambo
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 12:17
  • Related.
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 23 at 2:04

awry is not a word in itself but a modification of the work wry, much like asleep is a modification of the word sleep. As such, awry retains the pronunciation of the root word with a long a put in front of it.

In the US , these long a prefixed are much more commonly used in regions that were originally settles by Scots sch as eastern Tennessee.

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    with a long a put in front? Perhaps you're confusing He went awry with He went awol. I've never heard anyone (Tennesseans included) pronounce awry with a long a, nor do I think Scottish speakers have any tendency to "elevate" the initial neutral vowel in words such as awry, again, across, ahead, asleep. Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 13:18
  • @FumbleFingers I don't have any experience of Tennessean speech apart from occasional characters in films and television dramas but I can confirm that Scots don't start words like awry with a long 'a' (at least not in my experience). The pronunciation varies with the type of Scots accent but they are all more likely to extend the final syllable than the first one and emphasise the start of the root word giving sounds like awrryyyy, asleeeep or agaaain.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 14:20
  • No, it's not what is ludicrously called a "long a" by elementary school English teachers, but this answer far more to the point. Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 4:49
  • @LukeSawczak Are you saying that initial syllable is held for a while? I'd be curious what dialect you're thinking of. This is just my guess at what you think "long a" means.
    – Grault
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 5:27
  • @Grault In school it means /ej/ as opposed to /æ/, but there's not much you could particularly call "long" in that distinction. And the "a" in awry certainly isn't that. If, on the other hand, Smartgel means that it's held for longer in this word, it isn't that either, since it's really the reduced /ə/. Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 15:27

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