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English words that have two possible pronunciations

by Jakub Marian

Tip: Did you know that the plural of “sheep” is just “sheep”, not “sheeps”? Learn more about the most common grammar mistakes in English (PDF version).

Note: This article is based on my detailed book about pronunciation mistakes in English (PDF version).

There are many English words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently. Such words are called heteronyms (more loosely also homographs, but homographs can also be pronounced the same; they just mean different things). The widest class of heteronyms are words that change their meaning depending on where the stress is placed. In this article, we shall learn about heteronyms that are not of that kind.

read/riːd/ (the same as “reed”) means to perceive information provided in a written form; /rɛd/ (the same as “red”) is the past tense of the verb “to read”.
live – to /lɪv/ (rhyming with “give”) is a verb meaning “to be alive” /əˈlaɪv/; /laɪv/ (rhyming with “dive”) is an adjective meaning “being alive”.
wind/wɪnd/ (rhyming with “pinned”) is a movement of air (it can also be a verb meaning “to blow to a wind instrument”); to /waɪnd/ (rhyming with “kind”) is a verb meaning “to turn, especially something around something else”. For example, a river or a way can “wind” /waɪnd/, or you can wind /waɪnd/ a wire around a coil.
wound – a /wuːnd/ (rhyming with “spooned”) is an injury; /waʊnd/ (rhyming with “sound”) is the past tense of the verb “wind” (/waɪnd/, see above).
tear – to /tɛə/ (UK), /tɛr/ (US) (rhyming with “fair”) means “to rip a solid material” (a /tɛə/ (UK), /tɛr/ (US) is a hole caused by tearing /tɛrɪŋ/); a /tɪə/ (UK), /tɪr/ (US) (rhyming with “dear”) is a water drop coming from someone’s eyes.
bow – a /bəʊ/ (UK), /boʊ/ (US) (rhyming with “snow”) is a medieval weapon or a device used to play the violin and other bowed /bəʊd/ (UK), /boʊd/ (US) (like “boat”) instruments (it can also be a verb meaning “to become bent” or “to play a bowed instrument”); to /baʊ/ (rhyming with “cow”, pronounced the same as “bough”) is a verb meaning “to bend oneself in a gesture of showing respect”.
row/rəʊ/ (UK), /roʊ/ (US) (rhyming with “low”) is a line of objects (or a verb meaning “to propel a boat in water a using oars”); a /raʊ/ (rhyming with “cow”) is a noisy argument (to /raʊ/ means “to argue noisily”). (Also, J. K. Rowling is pronounced /rəʊlɪŋ/)
sow – to /səʊ/ (UK), /soʊ/ (US) (the same as “so”) means “to scatter plant seeds” (you can sow a field, for example) and it is pronounced exactly the same as “to sew” (i.e. as “so”, not as “Sue”) meaning “to use thread and a needle to join two pieces of fabric”; a /saʊ/ (rhyming with “cow”) is a female pig.
sewer – a /ˈsuːə/ (UK), /ˈsuːər/ (US) (rhyming with “newer”) is a pipe used to remove liquid human waste; a /ˈsəʊə/ (UK), /ˈsoʊər/ (US) (rhyming with “lower”) is someone who sews (/səʊz/ (UK), /soʊz/ (US), see above).
close – to /kləʊz/ (UK), /kloʊz/ (US) (rhyming with “doze”) is the opposite of the verb “open”; /kləʊs/ (notice the “s” at the end) is an adjective meaning “near”.
Polish – to /ˈpɒlɪʃ/ (UK), /ˈpɑlɪʃ/ (US) (begining like ”pot”) means “to make a surface smooth”; /ˈpəʊlɪʃ/ (UK), /ˈpoʊlɪʃ/ (beginning like “Poe” (Edgar Allan, the writer)) refers to the language or the nation based in Poland /ˈpəʊlənd/ (UK), /ˈpoʊlənd/ (US).
lead – to /liːd/ (rhyming with “seed”) means “to guide or conduct” (/liːd/ can also be a noun meaning “the act of leading”); /lɛd/ (rhyming with “red”) is a chemical element with the symbol “Pb” (“plumbum” in Latin).
graduate – a /ˈɡrædʒuət/ (with “oo-ət” at the end) is a person holding an academic degree; to /ˈɡrædʒueɪt/ (rhyming with “late”) means to obtain an academic degree. Notice that although the pronunciation is different, there is no difference in stress position.
does/dʌz/ (rhyming with “fuzz”) is the third person of the verb “to do”; /dəʊz/ (UK), /doʊz/ (US) (the same as “doze”) is the plural form of the noun “doe” (a female deer).
bass – a /beɪs/ (like “phase” but with “s” at the end, not “z”) is the lowest voice in a harmony (/beɪs/ is also an adjective meaning “low sounding”); a /bæs/ is a member of a certain species of fish.
number/ˈnʌmbə/ (UK), /ˈnʌmbər/ (US) (rhyming with “lumber”) is a mathematical object, such as 1, 65536, 3.1415; /ˈnʌmə/ (UK), /ˈnʌmər/ (US) (rhyming with “summer”) means “more numb” (numb is pronounced /nʌm/).
dove – a /dʌv/ is a bird related to pigeons; /dəʊv/ (UK), /doʊv/ (US) is a non-standard form of the past tense of the verb “to dive” used in some dialects (the standard one is “dived”).

This article was based on my book about English pronunciation and commonly mispronounced words which contains also other heteronyms. Why don't you check it out now? There's also a downloadable PDF version, if you prefer.

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