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Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

Your Pain Is Our Pleasure

24-Hour Proofreading Service—We proofread your Google Docs or Microsoft Word files. We hate grammatical errors with a passion. Learn More

Pronunciation of “often”

As a kid in the ’50s I pronounced the word ‘often’ with the ‘t’ sound until I looked it up and found preferred pronunciation ‘of-en’. Now I always hear it with the ‘t’ pronounced. Did I imagine the change?

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In the US, both Merriam-Webster and American Heritage dictionaries accept both pronunciations, as do both Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries in the UK (but not Macmillans), although not everybody accepts that. According to Wikipedia ' the pronunciation without /t/ is still preferred by 73% of British speakers and 78% of American speakers'.

It is certainly thought that the rise of literacy in the nineteenth centuries led more people to pronounce the T, but I thought the whole idea was that young people couldn't spell nowadays! :) I would be interested on what basis Skeeter bases his rather sweeping statement.

In Britain, another possibility is the weakening of the influence of RP, with other accents (perhaps where the T is pronounced - but I have no hard facts) having more influence on a changing Standard English. For example I pronounce 'ate' as /et/ (short e), which I think used to be standard in British RP, but increasingly it's pronounced /eɪt/ - like hate, even by RP speakers. These things happen, and have been happening for centuries: back in the fifteenth century the T in often was always pronounced. After all, back in Victorian times, the H in words like hotel, historic and hospital was not pronounced. Is our pronunciation of them also 'a fallacious idea"? 'The British Library, which is conducting research into these sort of changes put it down largely to fashion.

I've also seen suggestions the same person might well use both, often unawares. I usually say it without the T, but I can't guarantee that's always the case. One EFL teacher writes: 'Strangely, I get asked about this in class quite a lot, because sometimes I pronounce often both ways.' Linguist Ben Zimmer, who succeded William Safire at the 'On Language' column at the New York Times, was sure he used the T-less version, but was heard pronouncing the T in a radio interview. I imagine quite a few of us do the same.

There's a good article on the subject by Jan Freeman, of the Boston Globe, at her excellent blog:

Warsaw Will Jan-21-2014

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@John Gibson - one or two, just like most other consonants

often, soften
hasten, moisten
glisten, listen
castle, hustle, bustle,
apostle, jostle
nestle, wrestle, trestle
thistle, whistle, gristle
mortgage, Christmas

Common indigenous Britons? Are you talking about the Celts? Aren't RP speakers (the few that are left) indigenous then? I certainly don't remember any member of my family immigrating.

Warsaw Will Jan-31-2014

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'Of'en' is what I generally hear but, yes, 'often' is creeping in. It's based on the fallacious idea that words have to be pronounced as they are spelled.

Skeeter Lewis Jan-21-2014

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The pronunciation awf'n is becoming old-fashioned and of'n or often is now usual. According to the OED the sounding of the t was not then recognized by the dictionaries. But that was before the speak-as-you-spell movement got under way, and as long ago as 1933 the SOED recorded that the sounding of the t was then frequent in the south of England . That would now be an understatement of its currency. The long-drawn-out joke in The Pirates of Penzance - 'When you said orphan did you mean a person who has lost his parents or often , frequently' - will soon be unintelligible to the audience.
Fowler's Modern English Usage. Second edition, revised by Gowers.

Fowler disliked the notion that words must be pronounced as spelled.

Skeeter Lewis Jan-24-2014

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@Skeeter Lewis - Fowler disliked a lot of things which are now common, and liked a lot of things which have fallen by the wayside. He's a very strange mixture of prescriptivist and anti-pedant, seemingly on the basis of what sounded idiomatic to him. As linguist David Crystal says in the introduction to the republished original first edition:

"It is this unpredictability of opinion which makes it difficult to generalize about Fowler"

Which is why both traditionalists and modernists can find something to like in Fowler, as well as things to dislike.

I agree that the original move towards pronouncing the T, pre-Fowler, may have been to do with spelling, (this movement seems to have been strongest in the nineteenth century, probably due to the rise in literacy) but I thought we were discussing its more recent rise in popularity, which I think may have more to do with other factors, which I've already mentioned.

In particular, it doesn't account for those of us who possibly use both. And if it's OK for the pronunciation to change from /ɔ:/ (as in awful) to /ɒ/ (as in clock), what's the problem with sounding the T? The OED quote is from 1904. And seeing we've quoted from the first two editions of Fowler, here's something for the third (1996), edited by RW Burchfield -

"Nowadays many standard speakers use both /ˈɒfən/ and /ˈɒftən/, but the former pronunciation is the more common of the two"

Oxford Online lists both these pronunciations without comment.

One commenter at Stack.Exchange said - "From a UK perspective, I must admit I've never encountered anyone with an opinion about one pronunciation being more "acceptable" than the other. I think they're just ideolectal variants"

It is certainly of interest to those who like to investigate how language changes, but that's all. There's nothing incorrect about pronouncing the T. After all, that's how it was originally pronounced, before the silent T movement got their hands on it.

Warsaw Will Jan-25-2014

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Will - I agree. There are all sorts of variations and changes in the development of language. What was 'fallacious' was the idea that words must be pronounced as spelled, with an emphasis on 'must'. Of course, sometimes pronunciation follows spelling and sometimes it doesn't.

Skeeter Lewis Jan-25-2014

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Hi Skeeter - one reason I'm not so sure about the spelling angle is the rise in the pronunciation of aitch with a preceding H. I'm pretty sure this used to be limited to Cockney and possibly a few other dialects, but we are now hearing it from young people in Britain who speak otherwise absolutely Standard English. When young people pick up a pronunciation feature like this, I think it's simply because that's what they hear around them, rather than a conscious effort based on some fallacy or other.

For example, I've been pulled up elsewhere in this forum for using 'different to'. And I realise that for me it's often my natural first choice. But I have absolutely no idea where I got it from; I certainly never made a conscious decision to use 'to' rather than 'from'. I can only assume I got it from school. On the other hand, I do remember in my hippy days making a conscious effort to adopt certain words (and then get rid of them a couple of years later - a much harder thing to do) - but that was because of the fashion within my peer group.

I'm pretty sure that these two factors: subconsciously picking up what they hear around them, and consciously adopting the language of their peer group; are the dominant ones when it comes to young people using new words or forms of pronunciation.

Warsaw Will Jan-25-2014

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I'v always he(a)rd it said both ways and I hav said it both ways. I don't think that it is anything new.

As for spelling, as most of you know, I back spelling reform. Not in a radical way but to moov towards a better showing of how the word is said and for the letters to be noted in a more consistent, steddier way. Spelling of English words has always been and likely always will be in flux.

There are many and sundry reasons that we should do so but the one that slaps me in the face so often is how many folks I hav met who hav study'd English for four or five years yet will not utter a word to me for fear of saying them wrong ... They are that unsure of how to say the words. My gess (ME gessen) is that for every one that works hard to learn our nearly hieroglyphic way of writing is that two or three ... or more ... throw of their hands in frustration.

The best byspel of this is -ough.

Though the rough cough and hiccough plough me through,
O'er life's dark lough I ought my way pursue.
— 1842, Horace Mann, first Commissioner of Education of Massachusetts, publish'd this to show the problems in putting sounds to spellings in English.

By changing the way of saying the 8 "-ough" words noting their own analogies, this ditty can be said in 8 to the 8th power (16,777,216) nother ways! … Only ONE of which (hwich) is right!

Care to take a guess as to how to say clough and slough? (There are two ways to say slough hanging on the meaning!)

Luckily, sum of these words hav alreddy either chanj'd or hav alternativs. Thru, hiccup, plow, and loch are common. Ruff is gaining sum traction. Coff is still on the frinjes but seen.

AnWulf Jan-28-2014

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@AnWulf - I think many people say it both ways without realising. As for our idiosyncratic spelling, at least it gives us gems like these three poems, the first one quite well-known to EFL teachers and students. I've only shown four lines from each. You can see the rest at the link below:

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?

We’ll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
Then one fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of mouse should never be meese,

Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.

Warsaw Will Jan-28-2014

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Surely this is a case where the RP pronunciation was inferior (less logical) to that of the common indigenous Britons. Are there other cases of silent 't's in British English?

John Gibson Jan-31-2014

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@Warsaw Will

I was merely making the point that RP was always the dialect of a minority - although one would never have guessed this, if one's listening was confined to the BBC up to the 1960s. The few RP speakers left are probably heavily weighted towards descendants of the Norman conquerors of 1066 .... which, if true, makes them pretty indigenous.

John Gibson Feb-01-2014

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Of course RP has always been a minority dialect, but to see RP pronunciation as being inferior to other forms is no better than an RP speaker thinking their pronunciation is superior.

RP only really rose to prominence in the nineteenth century, and the backbone of RP has always been the Public School system of the educated upper-middle class, rather than the aristocracy in particular.

In any case, there had been five hundred years of the possibility of intermarriage since the Anglo-Normans lost their territories in France, and genetic research shows the Normans made very little difference to the general gene stock. What's more, social mobility was much higher in England, than say in France, as the the aristocracy in here learnt early on the benefits of marrying money, and encouraged others to aspire to join them, which in part explains while they have survived more successfully in Britain than in other European countries.

So I think it's very difficult to make generalisations about modern RP speakers' backgrounds. Nowadays at the BBC the purist RP accents tend to come from people like Mishal Hussain, Zeinab Badawi and Kasia Madera, so I don't think indigenous has much to do with it.

Warsaw Will Feb-01-2014

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Loch is the Scottish spelling, lough the Irish. Plough is the British spelling, plow the American - also British further back, as in at least some British printings of the Authorised (King James) version of the Bible.

My personal gripe with RP is that it is non-rhotic, and therefore, to me, states something to be correct which is manifestly slovenly. Despite being born in London, I have spent most of my life in Ross-shire (north of Scotland) and in Bristol (south-west England), so I have an appreciation of rhotic speech even if I am not necessarily consistent in using it.

Peter Reynolds Feb-24-2014

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@Peter Reynolds - I would suggest that no accents or dialects are any more slovenly than any other (it's a typical mistake to call users of certain dialects lazy because they use non-standard verb forms, for example), or inferior to others. They just follow different rules. And in this case RP follows the same rule (non-rhotic) as Cockney. Just as speakers of both say /pɔː(r)/ (paw) for poor, whereas we Scots pronounce it as it's said - /pʊr/ (including many Scots RP speakers)

Are we all slovenly for missing out the T in the words I listed above? Or the S in words like answer and island. Are the English slovenly because they don't pronounce the H in when, where, why etc (unlike some Scots, including me)? Are we all slovenly for pronouncing vegetable with three syllables rather than four.

And then there's the schwa /ə/, the most common sound in English. The whole rhythm of English depends on us NOT fully pronouncing every letter, as we try to teach our EFL students - think about how you pronounce, for example, generation /dʒenəˈreɪʃn/ - one fully pronounced E, a schwa, a dipthong and a sort of 'shn' for 'tion'.

I think where English is concerned you're on a pretty sticky wicket if you're going to make judgements based on pronouncing every letter. :)

Warsaw Will Feb-25-2014

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@ Warsaw Will
What I am really getting at is that if I buy a phonics book for one of my children (such as Letterland's Beyond ABC) it is going to have pronunciations of individual elements in it that make no sense unless you live in certain parts of England - just because that is supposed to be "received". I'm sure you're right - it's just frustrating.

Peter Reynolds Feb-25-2014

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@Peter Reynolds - unless they're going to publish different versions they have to adopt a standard of some sort, but I imagine nowadays it's a fairly soft version of RP. And not all differences follow the same regional patterns. Scotland and the West may be more rhotic, but Scotland is with the South when it comes to long A as in bath, grass etc, and U in cup, as opposed to short A; and pronounce U more like Southerners than in 'oop North'.

I don't know about children's phonic books, but don't children's listening materials include different accents? I teach EFL and ours certainly do. Standard English but in different accents. In a any case kids get lots of exposure to different accents on TV.

I'm sure the child's home environment is going to be much more important than any book. That, after all, is how most of us learn.

Warsaw Will Feb-26-2014

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I have no educational credentials to offer here, but I'm going to give my two cents anyway. I just need to say to Skeeter Lewis that your comment "It's based on the fallacious idea that words have to be pronounced as they are spelled" is highly irritating. I live in an area where people make up incredibly annoying spellings for names because they don't believe things need to be pronounced the way they are spelled. People can't just go around creating new spellings for sounds that already exist in the English language and write it off as "words don't have to be pronounced as they're spelled." Just sayin'.

MrsLovewell Aug-14-2018

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@MrsLovewell The tendency to pronounce as spelled has traditionally been stronger in Scotland and America than in England. In an international world where we need to communicate with people from outside our local community, this tendency will probably gradually become stronger in England too.

Peter Reynolds Aug-15-2018

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