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I know how to pronounce less. But in words with the suffix -less, it sometimes sounds like /lis/, other times like /les/. Which is true?

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    This is the kind of pronunciation that varies widely between dialects and between sociolects, so I would urge caution if you are trying to find a "true" or "correct" answer. Jun 17, 2012 at 20:34

5 Answers 5

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It seems to depend on the word. The OED gives the pronunciation of less as /lɛs/ (rhyming with stress). However, it gives the final syllable of regardless as /ləs/ (rhyming with the final syllable of virus) and the final syllable of timeless as either /lis/ (rhyming with kiss), or /ləs/.

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    I really wouldn't read too much into this -- I think all you're observing is that the OED phonetics compiler working on the "R" section had a slightly different opinion to the compiler working on the "T" section. I seriously doubt there's any such consistent difference that depends on the individual word in question. Apr 12, 2012 at 8:02
  • (At a detailed phonetic level, the final vowel of "timeless" may incidentally be slightly more "ɪ"-coloured under influence of the ɪ portion of the initial diphthong -- but the broad transcriptions in question certainly aren't intending to show this level of analysis -- I think it's just an anomaly.) Apr 12, 2012 at 8:05
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    @ Neil Coffey: I can't accurately reproduce here the symbol which the OED actually uses in the case of ‘timeless', but it is one which ‘represents free variation between /ɪ/ and /ə/’. Apr 12, 2012 at 8:12
  • That makes sense, only I think I would extend it to all instances of the suffix -less (in the absence of contrary evidence). Apr 12, 2012 at 19:13
  • It may persist as regional dialect, or it may simply be a broader trend. The observation that either is possibly acceptable seems to stand true for now. I generally only enunciate suffixes carefully when in formal settings or when I'm trying to clarify something. It depends on how fast I'm talking and how excited I am, as well.
    – user19589
    Jun 17, 2012 at 20:47
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I think what you're observing is a change in progress. If you were to survey (UK) speakers a few decades ago, you'd probably find that most had /lɪs/. If you survey speakers today, you'll probably find most have /ləs/. (Except in the actual word "less", of course.)

A trend in English seems to be that, at least in the southern UK pronunciations, the language is moving towards having schwas instead of /ɪ/ in unstressed syllables generally.

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    One more way in which New Zealand leads the world.
    – user16269
    Apr 12, 2012 at 9:15
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The LPD-3 (Wells 2008) says the following:

-less ləs, lɪs. In singing, a strong-vowelled form les is usual.

Preference poll, BrE (for the word careless, disregarding votes for -les and from respondents who do not distinguish ɪ from ə in this position): -ləs 74%,-lɪs 26%."

Alan Cruttenden (2008) reports that /ləs/ is preferred by the younger generation in the UK.

cf. EPD-11 (Jones 1956) gives /lis/ only (e.g. for "careless") vs. EPD-15 /ləs/ as primary and /lɪs/ as secondary (Roach, Hartman, and Setter 2006).

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It is better to pronounce it as /les/ , rhyming with mess.

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    Mmmmm only if you mean "better" as in "not the way that most native speakers pronounce it". Not sure that's necessarily "better"... Apr 12, 2012 at 8:00
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The variation with this is very colloquial, so /les/ is more correct.

On a few minutes thought, so dont take it as gospel, it seems that the pronunciation is /les/ if preceded by a consonant e.g. regardless is more often /les/.

And the pronunciation is /lis/ if preceded by a vowel e.g. timeless is more often /lis/

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  • But "m" and "d" are both consonants. The "e" in "time" is not pronounced. Jun 17, 2012 at 23:33
  • Yes m is a consonant but the e is there, as such the less on timeless is preceded by a vowel, pronounced or otherwise. As I said, it has very colloquial variation (as we can see by the accepted answer) and even has contextual variation. Maybe I should have said "immediately preceded by a vowel".
    – Toby
    Jul 14, 2015 at 12:43

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