Either One: Words with More than One Pronunciation

I was asked recently to explain the pronunciation of “comfortable.” It took a moment of reflection to decide which pronunciation to teach. I actually taught both the 3- and the 4-syllable variation. I’ve heard and used both myself, and I was able to find dictionary entries acknowledging both. Why not prepare learners by presenting two common ways of saying the word? That was my line of thinking.

I’ve posted ideas before on heteronyms and homographs, but now I’d like to focus specifically on words that can have a different pronunciation without a change in meaning, for instance either and neither. How confusing it is for learners not only to learn a new word, but also to deal with variations in pronunciation!

Please consider my Either One_handout. It’s a collection of short texts for you to make use of how you see fit. I’ve contextualized words (and names of geographical places) with tricky pronunciation. The common theme is tourism, mainly within the U.S., so there are obvious springboards to conversation should you need a warm-up or a follow-up discussion about traveling within the 50 states.

Considerations when offering explanations:

1. Sometimes pronunciation differences are geographical, for example, the U.S. may favor /ˈhɑs tl/ while the U.K. may prefer /ˈhɑs taɪl/. How do you say “hostile”?

2. Sometimes slow, careful speech allows for a fuller pronunciation. Not everyone accepts the omission of a sound as acceptable. “Actually” is a good example: /ˈækt ʃueli/ vs. /ˈækt ʃeli/.

3. Sometimes a difference in pronunciation is with stress, not sounds, as seen with “absolutely”: /ˌæbsəˈlutli/ vs /ˈæbsəˌlutli/.

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