144. Words that are Often Heard Wrongly



Some common grammar mistakes result from mishearing English words



When we listen in a language that is not our mother tongue, we will inevitably misinterpret some of the sounds we hear, thinking that they represent different words from those intended by the speaker. The consequence of this is not always harmful: we might still understand the intended message. However, harm will often occur. The most obvious type is simple misunderstanding of what has been said. Less obviously, we might understand the right meaning but learn the wrong grammar. This will happen if we misinterpret a particular word so often in the same way that the incorrect word we think we heard becomes established in our memory and we start to produce it in our speech and writing.

This post is about errors of both kinds that I have noticed in an academic context. I wish to present a small number of them not so much in order to highlight them as to raise awareness of the importance of pronunciation study and accurate listening in the learning of English.

Pronunciation is, of course, just one among many causes of English errors. Alternative causes can be read about in various other Guinlist posts. In particular, 10/140. Words with Unexpected Grammar 1/2 are about the influence of similar-meaning words, 133. Errors that Combine Similar Structures considers the influence of similar-looking grammar structures, and 142. Reasons for Passive Verb Errors explains the role of skill deficiency.



1. Misunderstanding of “Can’t”

People whose mother tongue is not English quite commonly hear can’t as can. Pronunciation is probably the sole reason. Two different points tend not to be appreciated. Firstly, the final “t” is unimportant: it is hardly pronounced at all because it undergoes “consonant reduction” as a result of being a “plosive” placed at the end of the word (see 91. Pronunciation in Reading Aloud).

Secondly, the letter “a” is pronounced differently in the two words. In can, it is pronounced /Ə/ most of the time (but /æ/ for emphasis), while in can’t it becomes either /æ/ or (in some British English accents) the slightly illogical /ɑ:/ (see 29. Illogical Vowel Spellings). This difference is the main clue to a correct identification.

The most likely reason why the difference tends not to be appreciated is that learners of English very often believe English vowel letters always have to be pronounced more or less as they are spelt, as in most other languages, and both are spelt with “a”. The idea that many English vowels must change their pronunciation to either /Ə/ or /i/ when pronounced weakly – as can usually is – is hard to remember, if learned at all (see 125. Stress and Emphasis).

To sum up, what seems to happen when can’t is misunderstood is that the /t/ is not heard and the /ɑ:/ is believed to signal can, since the normal vowel of can /Ə/ is not easily appreciated or remembered.


2. Misunderstanding of “… and eight(y)”

In a number-dictation exercise that I once used to do with Economics students, I noticed that many would write 482 as 492. I surmised that pronunciation was the second of two different causes. The first was the students’ ignorance of the need for and after the word hundred in spoken numbers (see 67. Numbers in Spoken English). The second was my pronunciation of and in an abbreviated way that was new to the students but typical of English: /әn/ or /nd/ or simply /n/. These causes meant that I was saying “four hundred n’eighty two” and the students were understanding n’eighty as ninety, despite the obvious phonetic differences.


3. Wrong Preposition after “Reason”

The correct preposition for linking reason with a following consequence noun is for (see 111. Words with a Typical Preposition). An example is:

(a) There are numerous reasons for grammar errors.

The incorrect preposition that is sometimes used in such sentences is of. Part of the reason for it is probably transfer from another language. In French, for example, (a) would have the equivalent of of instead of for (cf. raison d’être – “reason of being” – in 135. French Influences on English Vocabulary). However, English pronunciation probably plays a part too, reinforcing the mother tongue influence.

In order to understand the role of English pronunciation in the error, it is necessary to examine the normal spoken forms of of and for. There is not so much difference as the spellings suggest. The phonological representations /Əv/ and /fƏ/ show that both words comprise just a vowel and a consonant. Two features appear to differ: the consonants (a surprise, given their identical spellings) and the consonant positions. However, in fast spoken speech, the position difference virtually disappears because the /Ə/ vowel is so weak as to be hardly heard. Therefore, the main difference between of and for is that one sounds like “v” and the other like “f”.

Now these two consonants are very similar – /v/ is just more “voiced” than /f/. As a result, they must be easily confusable, making it easy for someone expecting of after reason to think that that is what they heard and what they should always say.


4. Wrong Preposition before “Consideration”

After the verb BE, it is normal to say under consideration (see 111. Words with a Typical Preposition), but after TAKE, into consideration. A common error is to use under instead of into. As with the previous error, pronunciation is probably not the only cause (the very variability of the preposition is confusing), but it does seem to be a factor. To see why, we must again look at the normal pronunciation of these two prepositions.

Under is pronounced /ʌndƏ/ and into /intƏ/. Once more, a greater than expected similarity is revealed: the same number of sounds in each word, the vowels in the same positions (beginning and end), and two of the four sounds /n, Ə/ identical. Moreover, the /d/ of under and /t/ of into are as close to each other as /f/ and /v/ are. This means that the main difference between the two prepositions is their first vowels. It is surely not impossible that a learner of English might ignore this slight difference and believe under has been said when in fact it was into.


5. Confusion of “Increasing” and “Increase in”

The pronunciation difference here between -ing /iŋ/ and in /in/ involves two very similar-sounding consonants. It will trouble speakers of any language that does not clearly distinguish them. The main grammar error that can result may be illustrated as follows:

(b) *There is increase in doubt about the value of jogging.

The error is the absence of a word like an or some before the singular countable noun increase (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”). A very likely cause of the error is the fact that increasing could correctly replace increase in, and it does not need a word like an or some before it because it is not a noun like increase but a participle describing doubt. This change makes doubt the main noun, and it needs no a or some because it is uncountable.

My hypothesis is that English users whose mother language does not clearly distinguish /ŋ/ from /n/ could easily, on hearing increasing in sentences like (b), think that they had heard increase in, and hence believe that it was alright to use this noun without an article before it.


6. Omission of -ed Endings

Failing to put a necessary -ed on a verb may sometimes show a confusion of grammar rather than pronunciation (see 142. Reasons for Passive Verb Errors). However, a case can be made for the involvement of pronunciation in at least some instances. The problem is that the /d/ and /t/ pronunciations of -ed are “plosive” consonants, and hence are often only half pronounced in their word-final position. This makes them likely not to be heard, and their perceived absence can be taken as correct and copied in speech or writing.

Word-final plosive consonants are pronounced most clearly when the next word begins with a vowel (e.g. dropped out, removed everything). They are especially likely to be reduced before another (different) plosive (e.g. passed behind, argued convincingly) or at the end of a sentence.


7. Wrong Article after “with”

The difference between with the and with a is not as great as it seems. The underlined vowels are both pronounced /Ə/. The difference would then appear to be just the number of times the “th” sound is pronounced. Even here, however, the real difference is smaller: in both phrases “th” tends actually to be pronounced just once, the only variation being the length of time taken to do so (longer in with the). This way of pronouncing repeated consonants is quite widespread in English (see “consonant lengthening” in the post 91. Pronunciation in Reading Aloud).

The pronunciation of with the with only a single (prolonged) “th” must sometimes mislead learners of English into thinking that they heard with a, thus building up a misconception that with a is correct in places where it is not. There might even be wider damage to the understanding of a versus the.


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