I've always been taught that a vowel before a double consonant following another vowel should have a short sound. Conversely, there are many situations where a vowel preceding a single consonant and vowel gets a long sound.

Short Sounds:

Mississippi    - All I's except the last get short sound
Communication  - First O gets short sound
Oppose         - First O gets short sound where second O gets long

Long Sound:

Ape            - A gets long sound
Popery         - O gets long sound
Oppose         - First O gets short sound where second O gets long

Yet, I hear people use a short O in "operator" when using the word. Is this the correct pronunciation?

  • 2
    Whether it is a short-o or long-o depends on another factor: syllabification. Operator: op-ra-tor; here, the first syllable rhymes with hop. So, you may ask how to syllabify English words? It is a complex question, which was tackled by many folks like Kahn, C-J. Bailey, etc. – RainDoctor Aug 20 '12 at 22:24

Indeed, it is. 'Operator' is pronounced ˈɒpəreɪtə (IPA), with the o- sound of 'offense' or 'orange'.

Most spellings as we use them today were standardized in the late 18th century on a fairly arbitrary basis. Most choices were based in common transliteration habits, but others followed historical convention. In this case, 'operator' had been historically spelled with a single p thanks to its root the Latin 'operari', and so the habit stuck.

Edit: I'm aware our American cousins have some regional variations, but these accents evolved more recently.

  • I guess commonality will always trump phonetics. – Chad Harrison Aug 20 '12 at 17:08
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    I have to disagree with the "offense"/"orange" comparison; for me the "o-" in "operator" is like the o in "hop", while "offense" starts with "aw" and "orange" is clearly an "or". – Hellion Aug 20 '12 at 17:14
  • Southerners in the US tend towards "Awringe". – Chad Harrison Aug 20 '12 at 17:21
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    @Mitch Fifty years ago I could have told you where a Southerner came from within fifty miles or so. Not any more; my ear's destroyed from living in Missouri, and I doubt that degree of regionalism prevails any more. – StoneyB on hiatus Aug 20 '12 at 19:27
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    Concur: remove "orange". The first syllable is commonly pronounced like the word "or", as well as the word "are". – MetaEd Aug 21 '12 at 6:55

In America, most dialects don't distinguish between RP /ɒ/ and /a/, so operator is normally pronounced with [a]:


Standard American is rhotic, with [ɹ] instead of [r] and final [ɚ] instead of [ə]; and the /t/ is reduced to a tap [ɾ] between a preceding stressed vowel [ei] and a following unstressed vowel [ɚ].

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    isn't the first vowel [ɑ]? I thought that vowel belongs to the LOT set. – RainDoctor Aug 20 '12 at 22:19
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    There's only one low back vowel in American English; I use "a" for it because it's on my keyboard. In any event, it is not the same vowel as the one in orange or offense, which is /ɔ/ for most Americans, at least East of the Mississippi. Except on the West Coast, where the two phonemes merge so that Don with /a/ and Dawn with /ɔ/ are homophonous. – John Lawler Aug 20 '12 at 22:28

The first "o" in "operator" is pronounced with the "short o" sound found in the word "lot" (typically transcribed in the IPA as /ɑ/ in American English, and /ɒ/ in Southern British English.)

It is indeed the case that a single vowel letter tends to be pronounced as a "short vowel" before a double consonant.

But the inverse is not true: it is not uncommon for a single vowel letter to be pronounced as a "short vowel" when it does not precede a double consonant. Actually, there isn't any one rule that tells you how to pronounce a single vowel letter that comes before a single consonant letter and another vowel letter. Before certain common vowel-initial suffixes (such as -ing, -ed, -er, -est and -y) a stressed vowel tends to be "long" before a single consonant letter (note that words like fading, closest, biker, stony have as their bases words that end in "silent e": fade, close, bike, stone) but there are a number of endings that show the reverse pattern (e.g. verbs ending in -ish, such as famish, perish, vanish, finish, or adjectives ending in -id, such as livid, placid, intrepid) as well as miscellaneous words that just happen to have a short vowel before a single consonant, like camel (in contrast to e.g. label).

In operator, what's relevant is that there are more than two syllables after the stressed syllable. In this context, all single vowel letters except for "u" tend to be pronounced as "short" vowels. This tendency has been given various names, e.g. "Luick's law". It can be seen as related to the phenomenon of "three-syllable shortening" or "trisyllabic laxing", but there are different theoretical analyses that deal with the details in different ways (e.g. "trisyllabic laxing" is often specifically used to refer to a rule about the pronunciation of derived words, and while "operator" is etymologically derived from Latin opus, operis, it seems very doubtful that it should be analyzed as being synchronically derived from the English word "opus").


The phonetics rules of thumb can be useful, but there are always exceptions. This is one of them.

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