Why is "substituent" transcribed in different ways?

Generally, it is transcribed as /sʌbˈstɪtʃuənt/ (As Wiktionary does) But the phonetic transcription given by Merriam-Webster is /səbˈstɪtʃəwənt/.

Which is 'correct'? /sʌbˈstɪtʃuənt/ or /səbˈstɪtʃəwənt/?

On How to Pronounce, it sounds like there are two variants; should there be a /w/?

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amai is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • The full OED gives /səbˈstɪtjʊənt/ and /səbˈstɪtʃʊənt/ as BrE pronunciations, and /səbˈstɪtʃ(əw)ənt/ as AmE (in all cases the first vowel is reduced to a schwa). Which apart from that initial syllable is exactly the same phonetic transcription as that for constituent, so why ask about this obscure domain-specific borrowing from German? May 25 at 15:37
  • 2
    Because pronunciation varies? I doubt that there's any one word that is pronounced identically by everyone. May 25 at 15:46
  • Exactly. And how does one tell whether a sequence is [ʃuə] or [ʃəwə]? Have you got your recordings and wave forms? May 25 at 16:51
  • 1
    @Heartspring: Thank you for editing my question to make it better.
    – amai
    May 25 at 17:08
  • @FumbleFingers: Sorry for putting the question not clearly. I meant to ask about the end part /...tʃəwənt/, the "w" sound, not about the first vowel.
    – amai
    May 25 at 17:18

3 Answers 3


Merriam-Webster transcribes as /əw/ what the vast majority of other lexicographers transcribe as /u/ or /əʊ/ (or /oʊ/ or /o/) in an unstressed position before another vowel. Jack Windsor Lewis wrote:

In the new 1961 edition of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary the leading American pronunciation lexicographer of his day, Edward Artin, included an innovatory style of transcription for words like obstruent and strenuous etc. He explained in that work (at p. 37a) that he favoured transcriptions like \ˈstrenyəwəs\ because he felt ...“a very strong conviction that ... such pairs as” silhouette/Scylla wet were “exact rhymes” and that this clearly indicated in consequence that his new transcriptions of such items were more satisfactory representations of the normal pronunciations of such words.

In writing silhouette in a phonemic transcription one’s choice is essentially between /sɪl.u.`ɛt/ and /sɪl.ə.`wɛt/. Most lexicographers have preferred to use the former type no [doubt] because it correlates more satisfyingly with the orthography. Yet it can hardly be denied that it tends to suggest a slightly slower and/or more deliberate enunciation than the word ordinarily receives and that the latter version, despite its containing a suggestion of a schwa which can’t be straightforwardly correlated with the word’s orthographical form, satisfies the criterion of sounding not unduly deliberate and producing an effect that probably anyone would regard as normal. Of course it [would] be possible ideally for lexicographers to show both versions of such words [e.g.] strenuous as /`strenjuəs/ and /`strenjəwəs/ but it’s simpler and space-saving to choose one alternative with the understanding that the other is not being simply rejected.

  • Thank you. It's informative and very interesting to me.
    – amai
    May 27 at 5:07

There are several issues here.

The vowel of the first syllable:

  • When a syllable comes at the start of a word and ends in a consonant, it usually isn't pronounced with /ə/. Instead, it is pronounced with what is called an "unreduced" vowel. An example of this is the word trombone. Prefixed words are an exception to this rule (see Greg Lee's answer here: Can foreign words be reduced into English morphemes?), but some of them can optionally be pronounced with an unreduced vowel. So for some speakers, /sʌb/ and /səb/ are variant pronunciation options.

  • Separately from that, some speakers don't distinguish the sounds /ʌ/ and /ə/. In this case, there would be no meaningful difference between /sʌb/ and /səb/.

The last two syllables:

  • When the vowel sound /u/ comes before another vowel, we may hear what is called a "linking semivowel" after it, meaning, it sounds kind of like /uw/ or, if unstressed, it might sound like /əw/ or /ʊw/. There is no contrast in this context between a pronunciation with or without a "w" sound. Since it is not contrastive in terms of meaning, it makes sense not to include it in a phonemic transcription (which is what slashes technically are used for), so I would prefer the transcription /uənt/. That does not mean that you need to avoid using a /w/ sound here: it's fine as long as you don't overdo it by making it sound as strong as the /w/ found at the start of a syllable in words like "went". The phonetician John Wells writes

Syllable-final sonorants are shorter, more lightly pronounced, than the longer, more deliberate, syllable-initial ones.

(linking semivowels (ii), John Wells’s phonetic blog):

  • Thanks a lot. Your answer thoroughly addressed my question.
    – amai
    May 26 at 2:57

There are different pronunciations for the same word in American and British English dictionaries. Meriam Webster is a American dictionary and Wiktionary is mostly a British one. That might be the reason of the variation. An example from Britannica is given below: "The most obvious difference is the way the letter r is pronounced. In British English, when r comes after a vowel in the same syllable (as in car, hard, or market), the r is not pronounced. In American English the r is pronounced."

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Shayan Biswas is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    May 25 at 16:31
  • @Community I edited the answer accordingly. May 25 at 16:43
  • I really don't see how last sentence of your answer is relevant, given that there are no 'r's in substituent. May 25 at 17:39
  • Except in New England, where we pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd.
    – Barmar
    May 25 at 22:41
  • @PeterShor that was just an example to show how pronunciations can be different in AmE and BrE May 26 at 3:43

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