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Spelling and Pronunciation Woes

picture of dominoes

Although the following is not news to long-time ivman readers, it may help newcomers to understand a little more about the guy who does this blog. After teaching French as a foreign language for 32 years and German for 16 years, I found out what it's like to teach English as a foreign language when my wife and I taught summer school at a university in China in 2005 and 2006. English is not easy, even if you grow up speaking it, but trying to explain some of the oddities of English to non-anglophones makes you realize just how quirky English spelling and pronunciation can be. With that in mind, I've put together several things from my files that highlight some of those difficulties of the English language.

The combination of letters "ough" at the end of various words has seven different pronunciations, as shown in the following poem:

'Tis not an easy task to show
How o-u-g-h sounds; since though
An Irish lough (lok) and English slough
And cough and hiccough (hik'kup) all allow,
Differ as much as tough and through,
There seems no reason that they do.

The following could really make you say "Hmmm..."

If GH can stand for P as in Hiccough,
And if OUGH stands for O as in Dough,
And if PHTH stands for T as in Phthisis,
And if EIGH stands for A as in Neighbor,
And if TTE stands for T as in Gazette,
And if EAU stands for O as in Plateau,
Then an alternative spelling of POTATO could be GHOUGHPHTHEIGHTTEEAU,

No wonder the English language is so hard to learn and master, huh? I sometimes wonder how we manage to communicate at all! We have many homonyms – words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same, as illustrated in the picture at the beginning of this post – ate/eight, weigh/way, eye/aye/I, etc. But worse yet, we have words whose spellings are exactly the same and yet whose pronunciations differ, based on how the words are used!

One of my pet peeves is the mispronunciation of one of the sayings of Dr. Bob Sr. — "Duties never conflict." I often hear people say it using the pronunciation of conflict as if it were a noun, with the emphasis on the first syllable. But since conflict is a verb in the saying, the emphasis should be on the second syllable. I'm not sure where that mispronunciation began ... I certainly hope it wasn't Dr. Bob Sr. himself. 🙂

Below are some fine examples for your analysis. (It's more effective if you try to read the following sentences aloud.)

We must polish off the Polish sausage before it spoils.

He could lead if he got the lead out.

The farm was used mainly to produce produce.

The dump was so full that they had to refuse more refuse.

Sometimes I progress without making any real progress.

The soldier decided to desert in the desert.

There's no time like the present to present the present to the birthday boy. (Whoa! Two pronunciations, but three uses!)

Even though I read it last year, I will read it again this year.

Instead of a trout, a bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.

When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.

I did not object to the object he offered me.

The insurance was invalid for the invalid.

The bandage was wound around the wound.

His teacher was content with the content.

There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.

The two of us were too close to the door to close it. (Not only does this one use "close", but it also contains the dreaded to-too-two homonyms.)

The buck does funny things when does are nearby.

With her needle and thread the sewer could not fix the tear in the sewer line, she reported later with a tear in her eye. (A double whammy in this one.)

To help with the planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.

The wind was so strong we couldn't wind the sail.

If you were in the slough of despond could you just slough it off?

After a number of injections my jaw finally got number.

The king had to subject his subject to a series of trials.

How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

If someone resent an e-mail to you, would you resent it?


We are having a lot of fun with our German house guests, each supplying for the other the English word or German word that the other person would like to say but won't come to mind. In the process we've all learned many words, idioms, and slang in each other's language. The other evening I learned a word I didn't know before. What was funny about it was that I immediately figured out what the word had to mean from the knowing the two root words and hearing it in its context. The word is Staubsauger, which literally means "dust sucker." From what Diana was saying, I knew right away that it has to be the German word for vacuum cleaner. I'll have to do a blog post sometime on German compound words!

I hope your week is off to a good start. I'm looking forward to what will be added to this post through readers' comments.


"True worship is never stingy." - Dr. Drew Conley

=^..^= =^..^=

Anger is only one letter short of danger.

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9 Comments on “Spelling and Pronunciation Woes”

  1. #1 David McGuire
    on May 11th, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    “The dump was so full that they had to refuse more refuse.”

    Reminds me of one of the best lines that I ever read in a research paper. One of my students in Baptist Heritage wrote the following: “The Anabaptists were seeking refuse in the countryside.” I knew that the Anabaptists were considered a bit out of the religious mainstream, but I just never knew that they were also garbage collectors. A classic to be sure!

    David McGuire’s last blog post..Transition

  2. #2 Carol 'Ro'
    on May 11th, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    I’ve printed this one out for when my kids complain about English spelling! I look forward to your post about German compound words! I remember loving that aspect of the German language! Unfortunately, about all I can say in German is, Ich spreche ein bichen??? Deutche! and that’s an exaggeration!

    Carol ‘Ro’’s last blog post..RSS

  3. #3 Kathy
    on May 12th, 2009 at 7:39 am

    You know, Rob, the scary thing is that I read all of those sentences without even a second thought. The brain just knows how to make the pronunciation fit the context! And if I had more time this morning, I’d answer you back with a cleverly written sentence! As it is, the grandkids are coming, and I need to fix breakfast. Blessings on your day.


  4. #4 Vikki
    on May 12th, 2009 at 8:34 am

    The crazy thing is that, as you’re reading these, the brain automatically chooses the correct pronunciation. You don’t have to stop each time and try to figure each one out. Not unlike proofing your own writing. The brain will automatically correct your misspellings and wrong words so you never notice them. Want proof? Just look at my post from last week! Sighhhhhhh . . .

  5. #5 Kris Stephens
    on May 12th, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    “number” is not a word, if you are attempting to describe the comparative of “numb.” interestingly enough, my 3rd-grade daughter and i had a conversation about that fact just yesterday! we were noting the discrepancy between dumb and dumber with numb and number – noting that the “b” is silent in the former but pronounced in the latter. you gotta love the English language!

  6. #6 Sharon Klenk
    on May 12th, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    The blog title caught my eye. I seem to remember that you were a fan of saying “proNOUNciation” – !

  7. #7 Rob
    on May 13th, 2009 at 6:37 am

    @David – You comment reminds me of a sign I saw one time in a restaurant, “We reserve the right to serve refuse to anyone.” I believe it must have been intentional.

    @Carol Ro – I hope your kids like those. My son was telling me last night that he read these to his fifth graders, and while he thought they were hilarious, this kids were missing the humor completely.

    @Kathy and Vikki – You’re right, for us English speakers. I pity foreigners trying to figure out how to pronoun many English words as they come upon them. Many such things in our language are not terribly intuitive or user-friendly, in today’s parlance.

    @Kris – I wondered about that too, wondering if it’s number or more numb – yet another lovely feature of English! We are told that shorter adjectives form the comparative by adding -er, such as short/shorter, fast/faster, etc.; and longer adjectives form the comparative with the addition of the word more, such as beautiful/more beautiful, wonderful/more wonderful, etc. So dumb/dumber, but numb/more numb?!

    @Sharon – Whaddya mean I was a fan of saying proNOUNciation?! Some things never change, they just improve as they age, like cheese. So would the comparative be cheesier??? 😀

  8. #8 Mark Pennington
    on Aug 2nd, 2009 at 11:59 pm

    Check out these Top 40 Pronunciation Pet Peeves, but warning… you may cringe on a few that you mispronounce.

    .-= Mark Pennington’s most recent blog post … Top 40 Pronunciation Pet Peeves =-.

  9. #9 Rob
    on Aug 3rd, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    @Mark – Wow! That’s quite a list of mispronunciations (not mispronounciations!) you have there! Some may dispute you on several of them, though. 🙂