Have you noticed that when you say certain words, even ones that appear to be “simple” words, like “live”, “work”, and so on that you consistently get confused looks from English speakers? In fact, not only do they not understand you, but maybe worse yet, they think you said a different word entirely?
As an English teacher, when I misunderstand what a student has said because of a mispronunciation they made with a similar but incorrect sound, I can see how it can have a huge impact on my students’ confidence. In this blog post, I’m going to go through FIVE commonly confused word pronunciations that maybe you didn’t even know you were making and I am going to walk you through HOW we say them correctly to improve your English fluency and pronunciation!
#1: LIVE VS. LEAVE
These two words can be incredibly tricky for many English learners to distinguish. Not only does the long /i:/ sound very similar to the short /ɪ/ sound to most foreign speakers, but many sentences can be mixed up if you use the wrong word. For example, saying “I leave here” and “I live here” are both perfectly acceptable sentences, and can sometimes lead to confusion if you aren’t sure about how to differentiate them.
If you’d like detailed guidance about how to make these two sounds, along with the other commonly confused vowels æ and ɛ, check out a previous post we made about these sounds here.
For practice, try and say these common words, with the words on the left having a long /i:/ sound and the words on the right having an /ɪ/ sound.
- Leave vs. live
- Steal vs. still
- feel vs fill
- feet fit
- These vs. this
- (A quick note for this last one too… these and this can be very commonly confused not just based on their vowel, but also notice the last sound. If you listen carefully, you will notice that “these” ends in a /z/ sound and “this” ends in a /s/ sound. )
#2: LONG VS. SHORT “O”
Now for #2, we have what we call short and long “o”, which is found in words like “John” — a man’s name vs. “Joan” — a woman’s name. This is clearly one you don’t want to mix up, as you may confuse people about whether you are talking about a man or a woman. Students learning English often pronounce both of these names like Joan, which is correct as a woman’s name using the /oʊ/ sound, but not as the man’s name John.
Many of my students will tell me that in school they learned a more British pronunciation, which is this vowel /ɔ/. In American English, this vowel is either much less exaggerated than the British pronunciation OR is replaced altogether by the vowel /ɑ/, like in “father”.
In fact, a recommendation I make to many of my students is to think of the short “o” sound as less of an “o” and more of an /ɑ/, and it makes a huge difference in making a clear difference in similar-sounding word pairs. Try this trick with some other commonly confused pairs. Say the first one with an /oʊ/ sound and the second one with an /ɑ/ sound.
- Joan vs. John
- Boat vs. bought
- Note vs. not
#3: CUT VS. CAUGHT
So for #3, we have words like “cut” and “caught”. Many of my students have a hard time distinguishing these two, usually pronouncing both essentially the same with the vowel /ɑ/. You can imagine with a sentence like “I cut it” vs. “I caught it” can have drastically different meanings that are confused if you don’t distinguish the vowels correctly.
So how do we do it? A key thing I would practice is focusing on jaw height. /ɑ/, in words like “caught”, is a low vowel, so your mouth should open to its lowest position, whereas /ʌ/, in words like “cut”, is a mid vowel, meaning that it doesn’t open as much.
Another difference is that/ʌ/ is often pronounced as a shorter vowel, while /ɑ/ is held out for longer.
Let’s try it in some words. Words on the left use the short, mid jaw height vowel /ʌ/, and then words on the right use the long, low jaw height vowel /ɑ/.
- Cut vs. caught
- wonder vs wander
- duck dock
- Dug dog
- Luck lock
#4: WALK VS. WORK
#4, we have words with -ER in them. A prime example are words like “work” vs. “walk” or “hurt” vs. “heart” vs. “hot”. If you don’t have a good mastery of the -ER sound, these words can be a bit confusing. For example, if you, like many languages do, drop the R, these two sentences would sound almost exactly the same (on screen: “are you hurt?” “are you hot?”). If you’d like a step-by-step guide on how to make the -ER sound, check out our post on R here!
Let’s practice, and pay close attention to my mouth for each one:
- Work walk
- Hurt heart hot
I have many students come to me and say they have such a difficult time distinguishing teen numbers like thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and the similar-sounding numbers thirty, forty, and fifty. I have TWO TIPS to help you with these SUPER IMPORTANT words.
My first tip to distinguish these two is stress. For the teen words, we put stress on the second syllable, meaning that this syllable is slightly longer and louder. Meanwhile, the larger numbers starting from twenty put stress on the first syllable. Let’s try it with thirteen-fifteen and thirty-fifty.
- thir.TEEN THIR.ty
- four.TEEN FOR.ty
- fif.TEEN FIF.ty
My SECOND tip to distinguish these two is about the letter /t/. For the teens, we use a true /t/, whereas, for the bigger numbers, we do more of a /d/ sound. Compare the pronunciation of the “t” for the numbers sixteen-nineteen with a true t and sixty-ninety with more of a /d/ sound.
- sixTeen sixDy
- sevenTeen sevenDy
- eighTeen eighDy
- nineTeen nineDy
With these tips, you will be able to speak so much clearer.
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