English words most commonly mispronounced by foreigners

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my guide to the Most Common Pronunciation Errors in English. It will teach you about commonly mispronounced words, pro­nunci­ation patterns, and the basics of English phonology.

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The list below contains some of the most commonly mispronounced words (mostly by foreigners) in English. Pronunciation is given in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and in a notation that uses just three IPA symbols (ə as in ”again” or ”a book”, æ as in “cat”, and ʌ as in “but”) and should be quite intuitive to read. The stressed syllable is indicated by a bold typeface.

height /haɪt/ (haayt); the pronunciation is as if it were written “hight”. The “e” is there just to confuse foreigners.
fruit /fruːt/ (froot); the same situation as in the previous word; simply ignore the “i”.
subtle /ˈsʌtl/ (sʌ-tl); “btle” simply doesn’t sound good. Don’t pronounce the “b”.
queue /kjuː/ (kyoo); if you want to pronounce this word correctly, just think about the Q at the beginning; “ueue” is not pronounced at all.
draught /drɑːft/ (draaft); this is just the British spelling of “draft”, and is also pronounced the same. It is not spelled this way in all of the meanings of “draft”; for example when it is a verb (i.e. when someone drafts something), it is spelled “draft” in British English as well.
chaos /ˈkeɪɒs/ (kei-oss); the pronunciation of this word is actually quite regular, but people tend to pronounce it as the same word in their own language, which usually differs from its English pronunciation.
albeit /ˌɔːlˈbiːɪt/ (aw’l-bee-it); this fairly formal word, meaning “although”, is not used much in speech, but is still quite common in literature. Once you remember that it is actually a composition of three words “all be it”, you will no longer have any problem with its correct pronunciation.
mishap /ˈmɪshæp/ (mis-hæp); the word is mis-hap, meaning mis-happiness, i.e. misfortune or bad luck.
recipe /ˈrɛsəpi/ (res-ə-pee); “cipe” in this case doesn’t rhyme with “ripe”; it consists of two separate syllables.
lettuce /ˈlɛtɪs/ (let-iss); remember that lettuce doesn’t grow on a spruce; and it also doesn’t rhyme with it.
womb /wuːm/ (woom), tomb /tuːm/ (toom); people tend to pronounce “o” as in “lot”. Think about “tomb” as about “to”+”mb”. “Mb” may sound nice in Swahili, but not so much in English, so the “b” is silent. The same applies to the other words in which “mb” is a part of the same syllable, such as numb /nʌm/.
caveat /ˈkæviæt/ (-vee-æt) (UK), /ˈkɑviˌɑt/ (kaa-vee-aat) (US); meaning “a warning”, it is not so common in speech, but still appears in literature or official documents. Just remember that you can’t eat a caveat.
colonel /ˈkɜːnəl/ (kə-ə-nl) (UK), /ˈkɜrnl/ (kər-nl) (US); is there a kernel inside a colonel? Well, at least in pronunciation, there is.
comfortable /ˈkʌmfətəbl/ (kʌm-fə-tə-bl) (UK), in US also /ˈkʌmftəbəl/ (kʌmf-tə-bl); if you “come for a table” to a furniture shop, it will hopefully be comfortable, although it doesn’t rhyme with it.
lieutenant /lefˈtenənt/ (lef-ten-ənt) (UK), /luˈtɛnənt/ (loo-ten-ənt) (US); the American pronunciation poses no problem here; just notice the British one.
hyperbole /haɪˈpɜːbəli/ (haay-pə-ə-bə-lee) (UK), /haɪˈpɜrbəli/ (haay-pər-bə-lee) (US); don’t confuse this word with a hyperbola, a geometrical shape. Hyperbole is a form of exaggeration, and it doesn’t rhyme with a bowl.
antipodes /ænˈtɪpədiːz/ (æn-tip-ə-deez); a word describing two points which are directly opposite to each other on a sphere. For some reason, it doesn’t rhyme with an “antipode”, which is the singular form of it and which does rhyme with words like “mode” or “code”.
gauge /geɪdʒ/ (geydzh); this word is especially useful to guitarists that speak about string gauges (i.e. how thick they are). It is pronounced as if the “u” were not there.
Greenwich /ˌgrɛnɪtʃ/ (gren-itch); you probably know this word from the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) time standard. Just remember that there is no green witch in Greenwich.
Yosemite /joʊˈsɛmɪti/ (yoh-sem-it-ee); Yosemite National Park is well known around the Globe. Although there certainly is at least one mite somewhere in the park, there is none in the name.
Boolean /ˈbuːlɪən/ (boo-li-ən); every programmer knows this word, but many pronounce it wrong.
Bayesian /ˈbeɪziən/ (bey-zee-ən); if you are a mathematician, like me, you may be pronouncing this word incorrectly, as I used to.
paradigm /ˈpærədaɪm/ (pær-ə-daaym); the pronunciation is quite natural, but some people are ‘digging’ this word a little bit too much. There is no ‘dig’ sound inside it.
elite /ɪˈliːt/ (ih-leet); elite people are certainly not a “lite” version of the population. Don’t rhyme them with it.
debris /ˈdɛbriː/ (deb-ree) (UK), /dəˈbri/ (də-bree) (US); this words has retained its original French pronunciation, so the final “s” is not pronounced.
infamous /ˈɪnfəməs/ (in-fə-məs); although the word is just “famous” with the prefix “in-” stuck in the front, it is not pronounced so.
epitome /ɪˈpɪtəmi/ (ih-pit-ə-mee); this somewhat less common word means “someone who is a prototypical example of a group of people”. Although you could fill a tome with a list of epitomes, you cannot rhyme it with them.
facade /fəˈsɑːd/ (fə-saad); this word, meaning the front of a building, originates in French, and the pronunciation is still close to the French one.
awry /əˈraɪ/ (ə-raay); this word shares a common root with “wry”, which means (among others) “abnormally bent or turned”. Awry means also “with a turn or twist to one side” or also “away from the expected or proper direction” (for example in “Our plans went awry”).
quay /kiː/ (kee) (UK), in the US also /keɪ/ (kei) or /kweɪ/ (kwei); quay is the part of a harbour where ships can dock; it is therefore one of the ‘key parts’ of a harbour.
niche /niːʃ/ (neesh) (UK), /nɪtʃ/ (nitch) (US); this word, meaning a shallow recess or simply a nice place or position, is also often used in the marketing business to describe the field of interest of a website (and that’s how I met it). Its pronunciation can be somewhat unexpected.

This article was based on my guide to English pronunciation mistakes, which explains many similar topics. Why don’t you check it out?

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