In my work as an accent instructor, people often ask me which of two pronunciations of a certain word is correct. This confusion is very understandable. You may have encountered more than one pronunciation of a certain word – perhaps you looked it up in the dictionary and two alternate pronunciations were listed, or perhaps you heard two native speakers of American English pronounce the same word differently. So: which is the right way to pronounce the word, which is the wrong way, and how do you know which is which? Of course, everybody wants to speak the “right” way, but sometimes with pronunciation, there are multiple right answers!

Language is alive, constantly shifting and changing. Languages, including English, constantly shed old archaic words, meanings, and pronunciations from everyday usage, and develop new words and pronunciations. Dictionaries have existed for the past few hundred years so that we can all look to the same frame of reference if we need to figure out the pronunciation, spelling, or meaning of a word. Most people agree that language resources such as dictionaries need to strike a balance between being “descriptive” – describing how people speak and use language – or being “prescriptive” – which means giving guidance on how words should be used in standard English. There is ongoing, lively debate regarding which words, spellings, and pronunciations should be included in the dictionary and why, but that argument is beyond the scope of this blog post. The main thing to remember for the purposes of this article is that pronunciations evolve, and sometimes these changes branch off into different directions depending on location and context.

This post will give a guide to common words that have more than one standard, accepted variant in American English. The pronunciation of most of these words varies based on where you are in the United States. Some of these words represent regional dialects of various areas of the country, and some simply have more than one acceptable pronunciation no matter where you are within the US. The pronunciations for each word are listed in the order of decreasing popularity.

Here are some of the most common words with more than one pronunciation within the United States:

 

WordPronunciationsPopularity and areas of the US used
almond1. “ALL-mund” – the “L” is pronounced and “al” sounds like the word “all”Most common pronunciation overall, particularly in the western half of the US
2. “AH-mund” – the “L” is not pronounced and “a” sounds like the “a” in fatherLess common pronunciation overall, but when it does occur, it’s more likely to be found in the eastern half of the US
3. “AW-mund” – the “L” is not pronounced and “a” sounds like “aw” in awesomeThis pronunciation is far less common overall than the first two pronunciations and does not have a stronghold in any region, but when it does occur, it’s more likely to be found in the Northeast Corridor1
apricot1. “APP-ri-caht” – first syllable rhymes with “map”Most common pronunciation overall, especially dominant in the Northeast, East Coast, Midwest, and the Northwest near the Canadian border
2. “APE”-ri-caht- first syllable rhymes with “cape”Less common pronunciation overall but is dominant in California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, and the area stretching from the Appalachian region to Texas
aunt1. “ant” – sounds like the insectMost common pronunciation overall
2. “ahnt” – rhymes with “want”Less common pronunciation overall, but when it does occur, it’s more likely to be found in New England
broom1. /brum/ – The “oo” sounds like the vowel in “food”By far the most common pronunciation overall
2. /brʊm/ – The “oo” sounds like the vowel in “foot”A significantly less common pronunciation overall, but when it does occur, it’s more likely to be found in the Midwest and Northeast
caramel1. “CAR-mel” – 2 syllables, first syllable sounds like “car”Slightly more popular pronunciation overall, and is especially dominant in the Midwest and in the western half of the United States
2. “CARE-uh-mel” – 3 syllables, first syllable sounds like “care”A close second in overall popularity of usage, and is especially dominant in New England, on the East Coast, and in The South (east of Louisiana).
There are some speakers throughout the US who use both pronunciations interchangeably
cauliflower1. “COLL-ih-flower” – The “i” sounds like “ih” in “bit”By far the most common pronunciation overall
2. “COLL-ee-flower” – The “i” sounds like “ee” in “bee”Less common pronunciation overall
crayon1. “CRAY-on”- 2 syllables – rhymes with “rayon”This pronunciation is the most common overall, and is especially dominant in The South (east of Texas), The Great Lakes Midwestern States, and on the East Coast (except far Northeastern New England)
2. “CRAY-awn” – 2 syllables – last syllable rhymes with “pawn”This pronunciation is not far behind the 1st pronunciation in overall popularity, and is especially dominant in the western half of the US, and in far Northeastern New England
3. “cran” – 1 syllable – rhymes with “ban”This pronunciation is far less common overall than the others and does not have a stronghold in any region, but when it does occur, it’s more likely to be found in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern States
cot/caught1. The two words sound different. The vowel in “cot” sounds like the “a” in father and the vowel in “caught” sounds like “aw” in “awesome”This pronunciation pair is slightly more common overall and is especially dominant in the eastern half of the US, except for Northeastern New England and the Pittsburgh metropolitan area
2. The two words sound the same. The vowel in both “cot” and “caught” sound like the “a” in fatherThis pronunciation pair is slightly less common overall and dominates in the western half of the United States, Northeastern New England, and the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. This is known as the “cot-caught merger”
coupon1. “KOO-pon” – first syllable rhymes with “too”Most common pronunciation overall, and is especially dominant on the East Coast, and the areas west of the Rocky Mountains including the West Coast
2. “KYOO-pon” – first syllable sounds like “queue”Less common pronunciation overall, but when it does occur, it’s more likely to be found in the Midwest and in the Appalachian region
data1. “day-tuh” – first syllable sounds like “day”Most common pronunciation overall
2. “da-tuh” – first syllable has the “a” sound like in catLess common pronunciation overall
don/dawn1. The two words sound different. The vowel in “don” sounds like the “a” in father and the vowel in “dawn” sounds like “aw” in “awesome”This pronunciation pair is slightly more common overall, and is particularly found in the eastern half of the US
2. The two words sound the same. The vowel in both “don” and “dawn” sound like the “a” in fatherThis pair of pronunciations is slightly less common and is particularly found in the western half of the United States. This word pair falls under the category and is an example of the “cot-caught merger” (see cot/caught further up in this chart)
either1. “EE-ther” – first syllable rhymes with “bee”Most common pronunciation overall
2. “AYE-ther” – first syllable rhymes with “hi”Less common pronunciation in all parts of the US, but when it does occur, it’s slightly more likely to be found in New England
There are some speakers throughout the US who use both pronunciations interchangeably
horrible1. “HOR-uh-bul” – first syllable rhymes with “more”This is by far the most common pronunciation overall
2. “HAR-uh-bul” – first syllable rhymes with “car”This is a significantly less common pronunciation that can be found in the New York metropolitan area and Boston
lawyer1. “LOY-er” – first syllable rhymes with “boy”Most common pronunciation overall, especially dominant in the Northeast, Midwest, Northwest, Southwest, and West Coast
2. “LAW-yer” – first syllable rhymes with “saw”Less common pronunciation throughout the US, but this pronunciation has a stronghold in The South (east of Texas)
marry/Mary/merry1. All 3 sound the same and rhyme with “very”This is by far the most popular pronunciation pattern overall, particularly in the Midwest and in the entire western half of the US. This is known as the “merry-mary-marry merger”
2. All 3 sound different – the “a” in “marry” sounds like the “a” in cat, “Mary” rhymes with “fairy”, and “merry” rhymes with “very”This pronunciation pattern dominates only in the Northeast Corridor1, particularly in the New York metropolitan area
3. “Mary” and “marry” sound the same and in them, the first syllable rhymes with “fair”, and “merry” rhymes with “berry”This pronunciation does not dominate in any region, but can be found in the Northeast Corridor1, particularly in the New York metropolitan area
neither1. “NEE-ther” – first syllable rhymes with “bee”Most common pronunciation overall
2. “NAI-ther” – first syllable rhymes with “hi”Less common pronunciation in all parts of the US, but when it does occur, it’s slightly more likely to be found in New England
There are some speakers throughout the US who use both pronunciations interchangeably
pajamas1. “jam” rhymes with “Tom”This pronunciation is only slightly more popular in terms of total number of speakers in the US, and is by far the most common pronunciation in The South (east of Texas), and in the Northeast Corridor1
2. “jam” sounds like the fruit spread “jam”This pronunciation comes a close second to the 1st pronunciation in terms of overall popularity, and enjoys more popularity on the West Coast, in the Northwest, and in the Midwest
pecan1. “pee-KAHN” – rhymes with “see Ron”This pronunciation is most popular on the West Coast, in the Northwest, and in the Midwest
2. “pick-AHN” – sounds like “pick Ron” minus the /r/This pronunciation is most popular in the southern states not on the east coast
3. PEE-can – sounds like a tin full of small round vegetables- “pea can”This pronunciation is most popular in New York and New England
poem1. “po-em” – two syllables – “po” rhymes with “go” and “em” rhymes with “them”Most common pronunciation overall
2. “pome” – one syllable – rhymes with “home”Less common pronunciation overall
quarter1. “kwor-ter” – starts with /kw/ soundMost common pronunciation overall
2. “kor-ter” – starts with /k/ sound, no /w/Less common pronunciation overall
roof1. /ruf/ – The “oo” sounds like the vowel in “food”This is by far the most common pronunciation overall
2. /rʊf/ – The “oo” sounds like the vowel in “foot”This is a significantly less common pronunciation in all parts of the US, but when it does occur, it’s more likely to be found in the Midwest and Northeast
room1. /rum/ – The “oo” sounds like the vowel in “food”This is by far the most common pronunciation overall
2. /rʊm/ – The “oo” sounds like the vowel in “foot”This is a significantly less common pronunciation in all parts of the US, but when it does occur, it’s more likely to be found in the Midwest and Northeast
root1. /rut/ – The “oo” sounds like the vowel in “food”This is by far the most common pronunciation overall
2. /rʊt/ – The “oo” sounds like the vowel in “foot”This is a significantly less common pronunciation in all parts of the US, but when it does occur, it’s more likely to be found in the Midwest and Northeast
route1. /rut/ – The vowel sounds like the vowel in “food”Most common pronunciation overall
2. /raʊt/ – The “ou” sounds like the vowel in “house”Less common pronunciation overall
Some speakers throughout the US use both pronunciations, either interchangeably, or say /rut/ when discussing a highway and /raʊt/ for computer networking
syrup1. “SIR-up” – First half of word sounds like “sir” which rhymes with “burr”Most common pronunciation overall except in the Northeast Corridor1
2. “SIHR-up”A close second in popularity, this variant is also heard throughout the US except in the Northeast Corridor1
3. “SEAR-up”Least common pronunciation throughout most of the US, however this is the most common pronunciation in the Northeast Corridor1
Thanksgiving1. “thanks-GIV-ing” – stress on the second syllableThis is by far the most common pronunciation throughout the US
2. “THANKS-giv-ing” – stress on the first syllableThis is the less common pronunciation throughout the US
A minority of speakers throughout the US who use both pronunciations interchangeably

1The Northeast Corridor is the densely populated area spanning from Washington D.C. to Boston, including all cities in between such as New York City and Philadelphia

 

apricot almond pecan caramel pronunciation

There may be regional disagreement on the pronunciation of these words, but fortunately, there is one thing we can all agree on: their deliciousness

 

The website of the Harvard Dialect Survey, http://dialect.redlog.net/, was helpful in the creation of his blog post. Please check it out for more interesting information, such as differences in word usage and vocabulary within the United States.

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