If you are learning American English, then you probably have noticed that there are marked differences in the various dialects of the language. This often leads to mispronounced words.
This is especially true if you’ve been learning under the guidance of a teacher from the UK. You feel like you’ve got your English just right. Then, when you speak to an American, you lose confidence.
But, one thing is clear. Some English words are just difficult to pronounce.
English is a difficult language. The fact that there are so many dialects only adds to the difficulty. Even within American English, the dialect of the language varies from region to region. A person from Boston and a person from Houston are able to communicate, but it often requires keen listening skills as each one processes what the other person is saying.
The author even experiences this herself in Portland, Oregon! Many American English speakers who are not from the Pacific Northwest may pronounce our state as “or-e-gawn”, but in reality, they’re not even close! The proper Oregonian pronounces it as “o-re-gihn“.
It might help you to understand a few of the more difficult to pronounce words. Recognizing why they’re just so hard to say can sometimes help overcome the challenge.
10 Commonly Used Mispronounced Words in American English
#1 Challenging Word – February
How we actually say it: feb-you-air-ee
The first word up is February. Many English speakers, even native English speakers, are challenged when they pronounce that first “r.” So, they reduce the “r” in spoken language and pronounce it as feb-you-air-ee instead of feb-roo-air-ee.
We say this word all the time and you’ll be using this word for the rest of your life. Yet most people don’t know that the first “r’ sound isn’t typically pronounced. Guess what, now you know!
#2 Challenging Word – Wednesday
How we actually say it: wenz-day
Yet another time-bound pronunciation challenge, it’s easy to mispronounce the word “Wednesday” if you say it exactly as it reads. This week-day word is one of many examples of how American English speakers engage in what’s called “syncope“, a process by which multiple sounds within a word are omitted. In the word “Wednesday”, we cut out an entire syllable!
#3 Challenging Word – Probably
How we actually say it: prah-buh-blee
Our next pick for the list is probably. Speakers probably use this word more often than many others on this list.
The mistake made in pronouncing this word is similar to the problem with “February” and “Wednesday”. When you try to pronounce two consonants, separated by a single vowel, you feel awkward. This actually presents a challenge in speech for a lot of people.
However, speakers mispronounce this word in two different ways. Some say “prob-ly,” skipping the “ab.” Others say “prol-ly, skipping the entire “bab” sound altogether.
#4 Challenging Word – Escape
How we actually say it: es-cape (exactly as it’s spelled!)
Escape is the next word on our list. It is pronounced exactly as it appears: “es-cape.” However, some speakers have worked an “x” sound into the word and pronounce it as “ex-scape.”
Some will argue that this is acceptable as the word’s derived from Latin and the “ex” sound was the original spelling. However, others attribute it to the natural flow of how they feel a word should sound. Either way, it is definitely not the correct pronunciation.
I’m also going to give you a “bonus word” here. “Especially” is not pronounced “exspecially,” either!
#5 Challenging Word – Espresso
How we actually say it: es-press-o (also exactly as it’s spelled!)
Similar to “escape,” the word “espresso” catches our attention. It should be pronounced “es-press-o,” but speakers mangle it into “ex-press-0.” Unlike our previous word, there is a very similar English word, “express,” which may the culprit that causes this confusion.
This is particularly true for those who are learning English. It almost feels like one of the many exceptions to the rules that they come across in learning the language. However, this is not such an exception.
#6 Challenging Word – Converse
Mispronunciation: CON-verse (don’t be mistaken, this is the athletic-wear brand!)
How we actually say it: con-VERSE (NOW we’re talking)
Next up, let’s talk about the word “converse.” Let’s be clear that we are discussing the verb form of the word and not the athletic-wear brand.
Therein lies much of the confusion. When you’re pronouncing the verb “converse,” you should place emphasis on the second half of the word (con-VERSE). On the other hand, the athletic brand pronounces their name by placing emphasis on the first half (CON-verse). This can get very confusing.
As advertising from the gigantic athletic wear line permeates social media, it has caused some to second-guess their pronunciation.
While we are on the topic of this word, the correct way to use it is “converse” and not “conversate,” a term which has slipped into the language over the past few years. Adding that extra syllable is the completely incorrect use of the word.
#7 Challenging Word – Prescription
How we actually say it: per-scrip-tion
Let’s talk about the word “prescription.” While we are at it, the same applies to the words “prescribe,” “predict,” and “prevent.”
Some speakers will flip the “pre” for “per.” In fact, English does have many words that start “per.” However, these are altogether different.
Take careful note of whether a word starts “pre” or “per” and enunciate carefully.
#8 Challenging Word – Often
How we actually say it: off-en
“Often” is a word that’s used, and mispronounced, quite often. The problem? Instead of enunciating all the letters in the word, the “t” frequently gets left out of the word. Speakers pronounce it “off-en” rather than “of-ten.”
This is a softening of consonants that was originally attributed to the southern United States. However, the mispronunciation has now made its way across much of the USA.
#9 Challenging Word – Clothes
Mispronunciation: clothes (harsh “th”)
Up next is another very common word. Speakers will frequently soften up the “th” sound in the middle of the word, or even omit it altogether. The result is the word “close,” instead of “clothes.” The “th” is a soft, subtle sound. However, it should be pronounced in proper American English, rather than omitting it entirely as in the alternative pronunciation, “close”.
#10 Challenging Word – Athlete
How we actually say it: ath-lete (also exactly as it’s spelled!)
Finally, we present the last word that we’ll discuss today. “Athlete,” for some reason, gets an extra vowel added smack dab in the middle by some speakers. The mispronunciation is “ath-a-lete” instead of the correct pronunciation “ath-lete.”
Take care not to add in extra sounds where they don’t belong!
The Bottom Line
Why take time to learn how to say these words correctly?
To be perfectly honest, some people associate lack of education with mispronounced words. Yes. That’s an unfair assumption. However, the impression becomes indelible.
It’s better to learn the words, study them, listen to them, and practice using them conversationally than leave a poor impression.
Learning the subtle pronunciations of American English can help you make a great impression. Whether you’re meeting your significant other’s family for the first time, applying for a job, or hosting a business meeting, you always want to put your most polished image out to the world.
If you’d like to learn more about the impact your pronunciation can make on your communication skills, check out this article.