What rules of the English language allow the first t in patient to make an sh sound?

Why is it /ˈpeɪʃənt/ and not /ˈpeɪtənt/? Are there any other words where t behaves in this way?

  • 1
    I don't know the technical aspects of this, so I'll just comment. "Portion", "Partial", etc. I think it has something to do with the "io", "ia", etc... which I think are dipthongs?
    – Chris
    Nov 4, 2010 at 19:19
  • @Chris thanks, I knew that had to be other words that behaved that way, but I was drawing a blank on them. Nov 4, 2010 at 19:23

3 Answers 3


For the second time today, I feel reminded of ghoti. There's an interesting essay linked from that Wikipedia page, and I humbly direct you to it: "Hou tu pranownse Inglish".

If you don't want to read the entire thing (but I recommend it!), the rule you are looking for is number 14 on that list:

14. ci or ti becomes $ before a vowel: gracious = grä$@s, nation = nä$@n.


Rule 14 shows another reason ghoti is a fraud: ti only fricativizes when it's followed by a vowel.

In fact, the Wikipedia page itself has this linguistic analysis:

The /ʃ/ sound can be spelled eleven ways in English: shirt, sugar, chute, action, issue, ocean, conscious, mansion, schwa, anxious, and special. Some speakers of English do not use /ʃ/ in all of those words. For example, issue may be pronounced as /ˈɪsju/ by some speakers of British English. This phoneme is spelled ti only when the ti comes before a vowel in certain suffixes, as in nation and initial. Thus, this phoneme does not actually occur at the end of English words with the spelling "ti".

  • Thanks for the input, and great article, thanks for bringing it up. And the alternate spelling of fish was a great bonus. Nov 4, 2010 at 19:28
  • 5
    I think it is worthwhile to add that the reason something pronounced [ʃ] would ever get the spelling "ti" is because of palatalization. Basically, the "io" diphthong contains a palatal consonant, which, in certain cases, pulls the place of articulation of other consonants towards it (e.g. t->ʃ). The palatalization process is no longer active in these words spelled with "ti" (nowadays it is just 100% /ʃ/), but palatalization is active in some British dialects, for pronunciations of words like "Tuesday": /tjuzdeɪ/ ("Tyoozday") comes out as [tʃuzdeɪ] ("Choozday").
    – Kosmonaut
    Nov 4, 2010 at 21:47
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    @Kosmonaut, aww I wish you had made your comment an answer. It’s the only relevant information here.
    – nohat
    Nov 4, 2010 at 21:48
  • Okay, I will add it as an answer then :)
    – Kosmonaut
    Nov 5, 2010 at 1:11
  • Also worth noting, is that these pronunciations have their origin in French, which is also full of them.
    – Noldorin
    Nov 5, 2010 at 1:42

The reason something pronounced [ʃ] ("sh") would ever get the spelling "ti" is because of palatalization. Basically, the "io" diphthong contains a palatal consonant [j] ("y" sound), which, in certain cases, pulls the place of articulation of other consonants towards it (e.g. t->ʃ).

The palatalization process is no longer active in these words spelled with "ti" (nowadays it is just 100% /ʃ/), but palatalization is active in some British dialects, for pronunciations of words like "Tuesday": /tjuzdeɪ/ ("Tyoozday") comes out as [tʃuzdeɪ] ("Choozday").

(Note that in most dialects of American English, we just say [tuzdeɪ] ("toozday"), because we don't have a palatal consonant in that context at all.)

  • That's fascinating. Is there a reason why palatalization require[s|d] a diphthong? I'm asking because in many languages, the i palatalizes pretty much everything in pretty much any situation all by itself (and j is considered a short form of i, even though the former is still considered a consonant and the latter a vowel). If you present native speakers of those languages with English, you'll note that for them, whether it's mere or mist, it's a /mʲ/, whether it's leader or lid, it's a /lʲ/, and whether it's teal, typical, spaghetti, letting or party, it's a /tʲ/.
    – RegDwigнt
    Nov 5, 2010 at 9:04
  • 2
    Language-specific features determine what gets palatalized and when. I believe that always palatalizing in front of [i] means the language is simply more sensitive to palatalization; e.g. a language that does that would also palatalize in front of [j]. When you do have [j], you have issues of co-articulation that make it difficult to avoid palatalizing to some degree; you are dealing with two clustered consonants instead of an onset and a vowel. Anyway, a good example of a language with palatalization in front of [i/e] is French (which is why we get e.g. public -> publicity in English).
    – Kosmonaut
    Nov 5, 2010 at 13:37
  • There is no diphthong. There are two vowel letters (which back in Latin were pronounced as separate vowels), but in French and (mediaeval Latin) the first vowel palatalised the 't', and in English it then disappeared altogether in pronunciation.
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 5, 2010 at 16:12
  • For native English palatalisation, as opposed to that imported from French, consider "church" vs. "kirk" and "shirt" vs "skirt". In each case the first was Old English, and then a related word was borrowed from Norse, where it hadn't been palatalised.
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 5, 2010 at 16:15
  • @Coline Fine: "Two vowel letters" is a diphthong. As for the cause of palatalization and its present status in English, isn't your description the same as my answer?
    – Kosmonaut
    Nov 5, 2010 at 19:41

What makes you think it is a rule?

Languages are not designed to a set of rules laid down by a designer. That idea was tried with Esperanto, and it doesn't work.

Language is organic. It grows and shifts with the tides of time and change.

English is an evolving entity, and many of its seemingly strange rules, only exist in the wishful mind of non-native speakers.

I don't know of any native speaker who has ever thought much about Engiish spelling, other than "I am good at spelling", or "I am not very good at spelling".
What many non-native English speakers fail to realize is that English is English. It has not requirement to behave as they may expect! and it doesn't!

Is English spelling hard for a non-native speaker? Yes, but that is just the way it is!

Is English spelling hard for a native speaker? Not especially, but it is a learnt art; learnt over many years.

Many of the quirky spellings come from the pronunciations of the French, German, Latin, Gaelic, etc. root languages... and believe it or not, there is an underlying rhythm; a series of patterns based somehow on the different root languages.

What is the rule? you ask... You have asked the wrong question.

Perhaps a better question is how do I deal with all the unusual spellings?
The answer is: Remember them. Remember each and every one of them!

If you want to learn English, well that is how every native English speaker has learnt them; by memorizing them...
There is fundamentally no other way..
The spelling of words is not an automatic process.. I had to learn each and every word. All native English speakers had to learn each and every word.

It is simply a parallel discipline! ... jus like speaking is discipline.

As as for all that utter nonsense about ghoti, it is an absolute waste of time! You are missing the point, and wasting your time with what non-native speakers see as conflicting spellings.
There is no conflict! ... because the primary rule of spelling English words is MEMORY!

Slowly, slowly, the patterns reveal themselves.. (even if it is unconsciously)

PS: Mathew.. I hadn't noticed that you were in the US... I'm so used to dealing with non-native speakers in language-exchange environments, where many seem to think that Engish spelling is based on a few simple logical rules... Oh well, my answer may be more appropriate for ESL readers of this question..

  • 3
    Nice rant, and I even agree for the most part, except that in the context of this particular question, it seems a bit alien, for three reasons. 1) Matthew is asking the question as a native speaker, 2) nowhere on this page did anybody imply that ghoti were not utter nonsense, and 3) I don't quite follow how you get from "there is an underlying rhythm; a series of patterns" to "there are no rules, just memory". If there is a pattern (and there is a very clear pattern when ti is pronounced as /ʃ/ and when not), aren't we allowed to actually describe it?
    – RegDwigнt
    Nov 4, 2010 at 20:54
  • The "patterns" aren't hard and fast "rules" as most people expect them to be... The patterns refer to the fact that many "odd" spelling recurr, and even though they seem bizzare if you analyze them phonetically (with a contemporay ear-to-letter relationship), they do have their own rhyme an reason... many make sense when you say them with a French tilt or an Irish lilt or a Latin/Italian twist..... And as I have now realized, this site is primarily a Stackoverflow overflow ;) I had the wrong idea of what this site is (currently) about... I thought it was primarily an ESL English learning site
    – fred
    Nov 4, 2010 at 21:20
  • .. and I do tend to rant at 7:00 AM without sleep.. I got caught up in my Italian lessons (Skype).. and then discovered this site... (I guess I missed a few significant points about the site :)
    – fred
    Nov 4, 2010 at 21:27
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    Of course there are rules. They are not universal, and often not nearly as simple as the artificial rules that used to be taught, but they are there. Stephen Pinker's "Words and Rules" is a whole book about the balance of rules vs special cases in a language.
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 5, 2010 at 16:17
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    Laying down the law that there are no rules sounds like declaring that it is bad luck to be superstitious (and reminds me of Paul Newman’s response to this assertion is a certain famous movie fight-scene – can anyone identify it exactly?) Of course there are rules (a rule by any other name – eg, “pattern” – is still a rule), but it is useful/necessary to distinguish between descriptive rules and proscriptive rules.
    – Mike Jones
    Oct 9, 2011 at 1:06

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