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(First question ever.)

Fellow friends,

I've stumbled upon a weird quirk in this language whose spelling-pronunciation correspondence at times works in mysterious ways.

How am I to know for sure when the final [s] in English words is to be pronounced /s/ or /z/? For instance, "house" (as a noun) is pronounced with an unvoiced /s/ at the end, whereas the verb with the same spelling has a voiced /z/ sound in the same place. Yet words like "pause" seem to retain the /z/ sound; and "increase" keeps its /s/ (only changing the stress), regardless of their role as nouns or verbs.

I have attempted to find an answer elsewhere but my quest so far has not come to fruition.

I fear that, as with many aspects of this language, it needs to be memorized by heart. If it is so, can anyone be so kind as to send me a link to some sort of list? Or at least a resource with some guidelines to predict the pronunciation changes?.

I humbly await your response.

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    Houses the noun and houses the verb are pronounced the same way. – Lambie Apr 17 '18 at 16:35
  • @Lambie: yes, but the verb form can be pronounced with either "z" or "s". And, to make matters worse, the plural for "house" can be pronounced either way as well! It is only the singular form of house which demands a final "s" and the simple present tense of the verb house which demands a final "z". – James Jensen Apr 17 '18 at 16:49
  • They are both pronounced the same way in AmE if there is an s on the end. – Lambie Apr 17 '18 at 17:00
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    My experience with AME is the noun takes "s" and generally takes "z" as a verb, as does housing. – J. Taylor Apr 17 '18 at 17:06
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    Sorry, Diego A, English is not a phonetic language. That means that even though native speakers grow up with suggestions learned at their mothers' knees, there are no real rules about how any spelling should be sounded. – Robbie Goodwin Jun 24 '18 at 23:30
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Unfortunately, there isn't any good rule as far as I know for whether "-se" after a vowel is pronounced as /z/ or /s/ ("-se" after a consonant is almost always /s/, with only a few exceptions like cleanse).

Nouns, verbs and adjectives spelled with "-se" may end in either /s/ or /z/. As you have observed, there are some noun-verb pairs where the noun has /s/ and the verb has /z/ (e.g. "excuse") but this is not a consistent pattern, even for words that come in such pairs: "base" is pronounced with /s/ as both a noun and a verb, and "pose" is pronounced with /z/ as both a noun and a verb. (A side note: some noun-verb pairs have a spelling change as well as a pronunciation change, like advice/advise and device/devise.)

Nouns

Nouns with the "-Vse" spelling pattern seem to me to be almost evenly split, or maybe even a bit more likely to have /z/ than /s/: we have /s/ in abuse base caboose case chase crease dose excuse goose grease grouse house lease louse moose mouse noose release use and vise (a US variant spelling of vice, in the sense "clamp") and /z/ in applause bruise cause cheese clause cruise demise disease disguise ease fuse guise hose muse noise nose pause phase phrase poise pose praise prose raise rise rose ruse surprise tease. A few "-Vse" nouns can be pronounced with either /s/ or /z/: spouse, blouse, and vase.

Verbs

There are more "-Vse" verbs ending in /z/ (like braise lose choose diffuse infuse peruse amuse devise advise revise comprise rise arise excise close transpose propose expose impose oppose please ease appease cause (a)rouse) than there are ending in /s/ (chase debase encase/incase cease release crease grouse loose) but either sound is possible. A few verbs can be pronounced with either /s/ or /z/: erase douse dowse grease.

In British English, the spelling -se is used for more verbs than in American English. The verb practise (American English practice) corresponds to the noun practice and is typically pronounced the same, despite the spelling difference: /ˈpræktɪs/, with /s/. Verbs ending in the suffix -ise, such as realise (American English realize) are pronounced with /z/.

Adjectives

For adjectives with the spelling "Vse", /z/ occurs in wise, but I think most others have /s/ (like loose close obtuse diffuse obese concise).

I wasn't aware of this before Mitch left a comment, but apparently adjectives ending in the suffix -ese (such as Japanese, Portuguese) can be pronounced with either /s/ or /z/.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that adjectives ending in the suffix -ose also show some variation between /s/ and /z/: "The traditional pronunciation has /s/, but /z/ is frequently heard in the commoner words of this type, especially where the stress is not on the termination."

Additionally, there are some adjectives from nouns ending in -se /z/ that also end in /z/: rose and turquoise.

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  • I agree with the general idea 'no good rule', but disagree in a handful of instances: for me, 'spouse', 'erase', 'douse', 'Portuguese' only /s/, 'dowse' only /z/. – Mitch Jun 24 '18 at 16:44

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