Phony Phonetics: How Pronunciation Affects American Spelling

When teaching  children  to read, people  often tell them to “sound it out.” While this works in many cases, English phonetics is so complicated that attempting to “sound out” words can easily lead to confusion.

The problem with English—specifically American English—is our casual pronunciation. Compared to proper British English (“The Queen’s English”), we slur our vowels and cut our consonants short. Americans are known for talking very quickly. The less work your mouth has to do to form syllables, the faster you can speak.

If you are American, say the following sentence out loud:

I didn’t want the little cake.

Did you hear the “t” in “didn’t,” “want,” or “little?” Did you hear a hard “k” sound in “cake?”

If you spoke it quickly and casually, chances are you replaced the “t” sounds with “d” sounds, and cut the “k” short so there was no air behind it. This has to do with the shape your tongue makes in your mouth and if your vocal folds are contracted or relaxed when you make these sounds.

A “t” sound is called a voiceless alveolar stop, while a “d” sound is a voiced alveolar stop. A voiced sound uses the vibrations of your vocal folds to make noise, while a voiceless sound only uses air. Your tongue touches the alveolar ridge on the roof of your mouth when making the “t” and “d” sounds. The “k” sound is called a voiceless velar stop, referring to the way the tongue interacts with the soft palate (velum) to make the noise. The voiced counterpart to the “k” sound is the “g” sound. By saying these sounds out loud, you can clearly hear the difference in the parts of your mouth being used.

If you try saying the sentence about cake with the proper consonants, it will take you considerably longer to say. Your friends will look at you strangely if you start talking like that. They might stop hanging out with you.

Although there are strict rules for written language, spoken language is extremely open to interpretation depending on social standards. There are so many ways to speak the English language. Consider the different accents: Bostonian, American Southern, Californian Valley Girl, Canadian, Scottish, American Midwest, and many more. That doesn’t even consider those who learn English as a second language and bring the speech patterns from their first languages.

Almost all children learn to speak before they learn to write. They are generally taught very basic phonetics to learn how to read: “KUH-AR” spells “car.” Most carry this into their adult lives, enabling them to pronounce complicated words without knowing what they mean. For example, the word antidisestablishmentarianism is one of the longest words in the English language, but you can probably sound it out just by breaking it into syllables: an-ti-dis-es-tab-lish-ment-tar-i-an-is-m.

The following chart shows the phonetic alphabet, a group of symbols used to represent sounds we make while speaking. You will probably recognize most of these symbols from the pronunciation guides in a dictionary.

Unfortunately, our quick American pronunciation of vowels and consonants leads to a slew of common, irritating spelling errors.

“Definately”
Correction: Definitely

Americans sometimes pronounce this word as “def-in-uht-lee” (de•fɪ•nʌt•li). We also occasionally use “def-uhn-it-lee” (de•fʌ•nɪt•li). The pronunciation “def-ehn-it-lee” (de•fə•nit•li) is accepted as correct. Both incorrect pronunciations cause the common misspelling “definately,” because the “a” sounds like it matches the sound better.

“Calender”
Correction: Calendar

We tend to pronounce this word with a hard “derr” at the end, and that is the pronunciation listed in in the dictionary (ka•lən•dər). However, because of the hard “r” at the end, many assume it is an “er” sound. The word ends in “ar,” so sounding out the word does not work in this case.

“Goverment”
Correction: Government

Technically, the “n” in “government” is pronounced, but it’s so subtle that most people either don’t notice it or forget it entirely (gə•vər(n)•mənt). Because we tend to say “guv-er-ment,” trying to sound out this word causes many to leave out the “n,” resulting in a spelling error.

“Seperate”
Correction: Separate

The verb “separate” is pronounced several ways, causing confusion on how to spell it. The formally accepted pronunciation in America is “seh-puh-rait” (sɛ•pə•ret). The most common pronunciation, though, is “seh-per-ate,” leading many to spell it with an “e” in the middle instead of an “a.” I learned how to spell this word in sixth grade when we were dissecting rats in biology class. The teacher told us to “separate” the skin from the muscle, and emphasized that there is “a rat” in the word separate. It it weren’t for that trick, I would probably misspell it often, too.

Could Of
Correction: Could’ve

This also applies to the phrases “should’ve,” “would’ve,” and casual super-contractions like “can’t’ve” and “shouldn’t’ve.” Though spelled with an “f,” the word “of” uses a “v” sound (əv). Contractions like “could’ve” just add the “v” sound to the end of a word, but Americans often add an “uh” sound to make it easier to say: “could-uhv.” So, “of” and “uhv” sound so similar that many people confuse the two, resulting in a phrase that makes absolutely no sense.

Incorrect pronunciation also causes many people to mix up similar-sounding words. 

Your vs. You’re

This mix-up is so common that it begs addressing. Technically, the word “your” should rhyme with “pour” (yor), but many pronounce it to rhyme with “per” (yər). This makes it rhyme with the commonly confused contraction of you are, you’re.  “You’re” should really be two syllables, a quick combination of “yoo-r” (it almost rhymes with sewer). However, we Americans like the convenience of single-syllable words with short vowels, so both words are generally pronounced as “yer.”

Effect vs. Affect

In many English-speaking countries, these words do not sound alike. In America, they are both pronounced “uh-fekt.” Though they mean completely different things, people can’t seem to keep them straight because, when speaking, they only know the difference through the context in a sentence.

Then vs. Than

This mix-up is much like “effect” and “affect.” These two words have very different definitions, but our short American vowels make them sound so similar that people often can’t tell one from the other.

Being from Texas, I completely understand how our relaxed accent can lead to confusing phonetics. I love talking the way I do– it’s easy, fun, and quick. However, sounding intelligent on paper has many advantages, so study up on your phonetics and make sure you’re not making any of these mistakes when writing.