Monday, September 09, 2019


Laura from Kewadin was curious about the word often. Specifically, she wanted to know why most people don’t pronounce the letter –t–, making the word sound like 'off-en.

This is the sort of question that can lead to fisticuffs, as a quick search on the internet will reveal. Those who pronounce the letter –t– accuse the other side of illiteracy, and the –t– suppressors turn around and do the same.

Your favored pronunciation may depend on the style you encounter in your family, your circle of friends, or your geographical region. Letters that appear in print are not always sounded when speaking. Sometimes this is the product of history and evolution. In Middle English, for instance – the time of Geoffrey Chaucer – the word knight was pronounced as kuh-‘nickt. The spelling would have changed as the pronunciation changed, but the spelling was frozen in time when the printing press was invented.

But the most common reason why certain letters are not pronounced is because letters in proximity sometimes require awkward or rapid shifting in mouth formation. In words such as often, soften, moisten, listen, hasten castle, epistle, and nestle, the awkwardness is avoided by suppressing the –t– sound. It is not laziness or illiteracy; it is convenience and comfort.

Take the word often. When you get to the letter –f–, your lower lip is touching your upper teeth as you expel breath, and your tongue is resting at the bottom of your mouth, perhaps just barely touching the lower teeth. To then pronounce the letter –t–, you’d have to move your lips away from the teeth, simultaneously snapping your tongue upward to touch the back of the upper teeth. I know that it sounds like no big deal, but informal speakers tend to value fluidity over rigid meticulousness.

On the other hand, most speakers do pronounce the letter –t– in words such as
after, lastly, justly, mostly, shiftless, and boastful because no oral contortion is involved in moving from letter to letter.

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find some podcasts there under TheRon Jolly Show.


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