How Do You Pronounce “Often”?
The word often is a good example of the way our language goes round and round.
Old English had the word oft, meaning “frequently.” It also had the word seldan, which meant “rarely,” and is the source of our word seldom.
It is thought that oft morphed into often by analogy with seldan. Then seldan changed to seldum by analogy with another time word, hwilum, which meant “sometimes” or “once”. Over time, seldum came to be spelled seldom.
The t in often continued to be pronounced until some time in the 15th century when a consonant simplification occurred in some words that had two or more consonants in a row. It was at this time that speakers stopped pronouncing the d in handkerchief and handsome, the p in raspberry, and the t in chestnut and often.
John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, published in 1791 and still available in a 2001 reprint of the 1838 edition, stipulates that “in often and soften the t is silent.”
By 1926, enough speakers were pronouncing the t in often to provoke this testy comment from H. W. Fowler in Modern English Usage:
[the pronunciation of the t in often] is practised by two oddly consorted classes—the academic speakers who affect a more precise enunciation than their neighbours…& the uneasy half-literates who like to prove that they can spell….”
In 1996, an editor of the OED2, R. W. Burchfield, avoided censuring the “t” pronunciation in this conciliatory comment:
Nowadays…many standard speakers use both [AWF-in] and [AWF-tin], but the former pronunciation is the more common of the two.
However, writer on language Charles Harrington Elster, in The Big Book Of Beastly Mispronunciations: The Complete Opinionated Guide For The Careful Speaker(1999), rejects such compromise:
I would caution those who might be consoled by the comments of … Burchfield to heed the admonitions of the past and avoid pronouncing the t.
Elster supports his position with an appeal to analogy:
analogy is entirely unsupportive: no one pronounces the t in soften, listen, fasten, moisten, hasten, chasten, christen, and Christmas—so, once and for all, let’s do away with the eccentric AWF-tin.
For the fun of it, let’s poll DWT readers (if you are reading this via email you’ll need to visit the site to cast your vote):
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67 Responses to “How Do You Pronounce “Often”?”
Analogy cuts both ways, and is not “entirely unsupportive” as Elestr opines.
Consider just a few examples:
codebeard, I think you neatly make the point that analogy is entirely irrelevant in this debate.
In England, the pronunciation of “often” can be as much of a class marker as a regional one, with the voiced “t” is often regarded as inferior.
This brought much delight today. Although, where I currently reside, both the illiterate and educated pronounce the ‘t’ rather clearly. I always thought of it like the ‘t’ in water. When I lived in the US, the t sound was enunciated like a dull ‘d’ sound, but now that I am in South Africa, it is a sharp ‘t’ sound. Who knew that even within the same accent base the pronunciation could be so vastly different?!
a pox on the ‘t’ which t me sounds uppity
Well, it appears that I am one of “the uneasy half-literates who like to prove that they can spell.” Actually, because of public education, I spell very poorly. I rely much too heavily on Microsoft for that. And, having developed my vocabulary through the written word, rarely hearing many words pronounced, I often do not say the fancy words correctly. I empathize with the way George Bush pronounces words because do the same. I still don’t remember the correct way to say nuclear. I continue to learn. Perhaps for me, part of the problem is dialect. I have a Pecos accent. You might call it West Texas except I’m from southeast New Mexico.
Elizabeth is right. The poll isn’t entirely accurate as in the US we usually pronounce the “t” but with a “d” sound like “OFF-den”.
Oddly enough I cannot think of anyone who pronounces “often” without the T being heard. Could this be a regional thing, or simply that British Columbians like to keep their language succincT and tauT? 🙂
Excellent post! Until reading this, I don’t think I have considered whether I pronounced the ‘t’ in often. Now, however, I realize that I have pronounced ‘often’ both ways. I do not pronounce the ‘t’ when I am speaking as an educated professional. I will sometimes pronounce the ‘t’ when I slip into colloquial style speech. Interesting. I am from the Midwest and now live on the east coast of the US.
Good post! I often wonder how to pronounce the word “often.” I’m curious to see the results of the surveys.
I must confess that I’m one of those snobs who has AWFtin pronounced AWFin incorrectly, but when I was growing up that’s the way I heard it pronounced. Strangely, it’s the only word with the silent ‘T” that I mispronounce – go figure.
I didn’t vote, because this post made me realize I pronounce it both ways. I USUALLY say it without the t sound, but I thought it was more an tolerated variant rather than the predominant standard.
Perhaps because I still use and encounter the word “oft” I just assumed that when enunciating clearly, it should be pronounced with the t sound.
I wonder what’s the correct pronunciation of “Wednesday?”
The OED gives these pronunciations:
/ˈwɛnzdeɪ/ , /ˈwɛnzdi/, /ˈwɛnzˌdeɪ/ , /ˈwɛnzdi/
I don’t know anyone who pronounces it Wed-nes-day in speech. That’s its spelling pronunciation.
@david logan: I was always taught to agree with you but one look at the polls tells me that the decision is almost split (right now 54% do not pronounce the T, 46% do pronounce it). In keeping with my own personal credo of tolerance, I must believe that it is a regional thing and not a matter of education vs ignorance, class vs lack thereof, or snootiness vs humbleness. For a comprehensive and ear-opening discussion on this and other matters of regional differences in pronunciation, check out “How We Talk,” a book by Allan Metcalf.
I don’t pronounce it. I think there’s some esoteric rule governing whether or not certain consonant sounds are pronounced, explaining why we hear the “t” in after but not in hasten. I couldn’t tell you what that rule is, but it sounds more correct to put “often” in the same category as the latter.
shirley in berkeley
Before I hooked up with a mess of highbrows when I was in my ‘teens, I was quite comfortable with saying “offen,” as my forebears had always pronounced “often.” Hoping to mask my woefully hick talk, I tried hard to add the “t.” It never came trippingly off my tongue, so I had to abandon that pursuit and go with just plain old “offen.”
I have always said “wensday,” and putting in the “day” may sound like an affectation, but “wensdi” always seems like — well — hick talk, to me.
“Wensdi” makes me think of Edith on “Last of the Summer Wine,” when she’s in “high class” mode.
Geoffrey Talbot – Seven Creative Sentences
As a New Zealander I often say quite a strong “t” in often. I think I say a strong t when I am passionate about what I am saying? Where as if it is more casual and less important I say it without the t
I guess I am just a rough colonel from the end of the earth, very far away from mother England?
It is fascinating how language differs all around the world, I guess it is the “same language” when the majority of people who speak that language can understand the reader.
There really is no right or wrong way of speaking English anymore is there?
Once I bumped into a man from Northern Ireland on a train in London and I swear I understood less than 30% of everything he said. He was drunk and excited, that was all about all I caught.
I agree that this is regional – in keeping with nearly every discussion regarding usage and spelling, I am literally in the middle. As a Canadian, I proudly use both “ofTen” and “offen”, depending on the context of audience, formality, and speed of delivery. In my case, however, I would certainly pronounce the T in a more formal setting, as a way of more clearly articulating my words.
Thank you for the list of analogous words – consistency in either spelling or pronouncing the English language is seldom supported by looking at other words (see -ough as an example).
I enjoyed mentally trying this out, though!
Offun. Wensday. But is it Toosday or Tewsday?
I don’t pronounce the T, because when I was growing up I never heard anyone pronounce the T.
On the other hand, when I was growing up, no one pronounced the L in calm or palm either, but as the silent-L pronunciation became less favored, I changed my pronunciation.
I was always a bit uncomfortable with the silent-N pronunciation of kiln, and so, apparently, was everyone else, since you always hear the N pronounced now. (I don’t think I’ve ever actually used the word in a conversation, however.)
Finally, I remember when the preferred US English pronunciation of advertisement placed the stress on the second syllable. When I went to college in the early ’70s, a woman laughed at me for pronouncing it that way, but that didn’t make me change my pronunciation — it only made me think less of her.
I just thought of something else. I cringe whenever I hear the word coupon pronounced as kyoopon.
shirley in berkeley
My dictionary identifies coopon as British English, and kyupon as American, so I guess I dodged that bullet. And who hasn’t heard chewsday as the middle of the week? Brrrr.
“Tewsday,” of course.
But then, I say a “sewt” of clothes and the “Dewk” of Wellington.” (Although for John Wayne, I would say the “Dook.”
With the use of technology nowadays, I feel that we are in danger of producing a whole generation of illiterates who rely on spoken word for texts and e-mail messaging. They are taught, in schools, to write it as they hear it spoken and so fall into the trap of not knowing how a word should be spelt. I have great conversations with my partner on this subject as she is New Zealander and I am from Welsh – Italian origin.
Surely this is a good subject for debate for many a year, in light of the way children spell words when texting – will this become the common language of tomorrow ?
shirley in berkeley
Tried that out, and found I said the same re clothes and royalty, except of course that snappy ’40s suit rhymes with zoot.
I’m Australian and do pronounce a soft ‘t’ in ‘often’. I’d never really noticed it before but am now going to listen out for how my compatriots pronounce it.
Silent t here.
Offun. Wensday. But is it Toosday or Tewsday?
Is there any word in standard English beginning with “tu” that’s pronounced “too”? (Other than foreign words not fully assimilated into English?)
On the other hand, when I was growing up, no one pronounced the L in calm or palm either, but as the silent-L pronunciation became less favored, I changed my pronunciation.
There are people who pronounce the ‘l’ in calm and palm? So, like “kalem” and “palem”?
Growing up the word ”often”was always pronounced with a silent ”t”, and my father considered the accented ”t” an affectation.
However, at the moment I am doing a play ”The Importance of Being Earnest”, by Oscar Wilde. One of the lines is..”There can be no good in any young man who eats so much and so often”. I have taken to saying the t in its hard form, and wonder if this is considered right by anyone out there? The play was written in 1895, so if that helps……?
shirley in berkeley
Peter, I pronounce tumor “toomer,” (though I’d rather not have to say that at all), and I think people give alms to the poor, and that rhymes with palms and calms, doesn’t it? Or to you say ahms?
I almost hesitate to mention it, but where do people ring in on the “almonds,” “ahmonds,” “am-monds” controversy?
There’s at least one option missing from your survey: I SOMETIMES pronounce the T in often (or perhaps I OFTEN pronounce the T in often!)
Peter, I pronounce tumor “toomer,”
American, I presume? I don’t think there are any (native English) words starting with “tu” that are pronounced “too” in not-American English. I know Americans pronounce it that way (play a toon, eat a toona sandwich, etc.) … I don’t know since when. Standard pronunciation is /tju/.
and I think people give alms to the poor, and that rhymes with palms and calms, doesn’t it? Or to you say ahms?
Yes, it’s “ahms”, and it rhymes with palms and calms (and arms, for that matter. And almonds!)
(There are certainly “alm-” words where the “l” is pronounced, though: almanac, alma mater, …)
Elizabeth and Holly,
I’ve been keeping a log on the pronunciations of “often” for some time now, but I’ve yet to hear “often” pronounced with a “d” sound. Where in the US is that common?
Although American, I too eat tjuna fish,sing tjuns, and dread tjumors. But then, I also pronounce the plural of house as houzes, (not houSes). And for me a tourist is a “toor-ist,” not a “tore-ist.”
Some of the differences in pronunciation are regional; some generational.
And there’s a third factor.
Several readers have pointed out that the poll should have had a third option: “sometimes with/sometimes without.” That makes an interesting point. Even the same speaker doesn’t pronounce the same word the same way all of the time.
As a child, I did not pronounce the t in often. As an adult, I do. I simply don’t like how the word sounds without the t –seems like only a toddler should be allowed to skip it.
Ranjith (SR) | A light hearted talk
I thought that many people do not pronounce the t in often. But I’m surprised seeing the result of the poll.
I often say often, but often I don’t.
[Read it either way you wish and it remains true for me. Sorry for the late post, I am catching up.]
Actually, I like the spelling Wendseday better, and it makes more sense too..
I asked the question about often when I realized that my partner sounde the t quite emphatically and I cannot. I think I have become obsessed!
As an American from the Northeast, the “t” is always silent, as is the “l” in “calm” and “almond”.
Jimmy Carl Black
Are there actually people who pronounce the L in words like “calm” and “palm”??? Who are these people and where are they from? Do they pronounce “walk” like the first syllable in “Walcott” as well? I’ve never heard this, and I’ve lived everywhere from the UK to NY to California to Hawaii.
P.S. The T in “often” is silent.
Don’t pronounce the “t” in often, or you are a communist.
I was born in Montana in 1956, moved to California in 1966 where I lived until 1983. Since then, I have lived mostly on the East Coast. I never heard the “t” pronounced in “often” until 1986 (That’s right, 30 years old before EVER hearing the “t” pronounced). The first time I heard it I was astonished that someone would pronounce the “t”. That person was from New Jersey and was born in the 60s. Through the 90s, I noticed an increasing frequency of the “t” pronunciation. I first heard the “t” pronounced on the radio after the year 2000 (2002, I think). It seems that the two pronunciations are now interchangeable, at least in my experience on the East Coast. I believe that the “t” pronunciation was conserved on the East Coast among certain dialects (perhaps the Chesapeake Bay watermen, or West Virginia backwoodsmen) who are known for conserving their 17th century pronunciation. That is why many people consider it to be a “hillbilly” or uneducated pronunciation. On the other hand, my high school students often believe that “off-ten” is the preferred pronunciation. I also remember when there were proposals to change the spelling to “offen” to reflect the “universal” pronunciation – at least it was universal until the 1980s.
What’s so hard about pronouncing nuclear correctly? It’s NEWclear, just as it looks. Not new-cyu-lar.
Is there a technical term for a pronunciation that changes to match the spelling? The recent (last 50 years) morphing of “offen” to “often” seems to be a classic case. The English pronunciation of “Paris” is another. Lord Byron in his famous poem even had “Don Juan” rhyming with “true one”!! So illiterate (or, actually, OVERliterate) teenagers are not the only ones who do this.
People will even SWEAR that they pronounce the days of the week with a final “-day”, although audio recordings show that in real life we almost ALWAYS pronounce them “-dee”. Apparently we trust spelling more than our own ears.
Growing up in Australia in the 60’s, I was taught to say offen and would be quickly corrected by my parents if I slipped in a T or said awfen. I was sent to Speech&Drama lessons which I actually enjoyed for the poetry and endless Shakespeare. It seemed to me that offen was pretty much the way to go. Now I live in Singapore and the English that I hear is from every corner of the globe both locally and in the expat community. I can deal with and accept that the English language is no longer a standard. It has taken on a unique nature for each country who owns it. I worked with a woman who pronounced Wednesday with three syllables, drove me crazy, Brits who say offTen, Singaporeans drop verbs, educated Indian English is wonderfully correct, I hear strong Aussie and Kiwi accents in Singapore and I do not believe the number of diphthongs in every word (Speech&Drama lessons). I vote for offen but don’t care if others can not agree.
An interesting and surprisingly passionate discussion! What I have learnt from teaching English is that it is a language which is complex, flexible and fluid. The poll on this page is revealing. There must be a good reason why the T in ‘often’ has persisted despite the best attempts to eradicate it. It’s likely that the reason is one of sentence rhythm – often beginning with a vowel sound unlike the other words using FT listed above.
Despite the best attempts of my parents (I come from NZ) to eradicate the T in ‘often’ from my speech, I realise that I use both pronounciations depending on the placement of the word in a sentence.
I cherish these popular and regional variations in the English language (as long as they haven’t arisen from political or corporate double speak).
I pronounce the t if it’s at the beginning or end of a sentence, but not in the middle.
“Often, you’ll find that…” “That doesn’t happen very often”
“Well it’s not very offen that this happens.”
And that’s not really set in stone. Sometimes it just depends on how fast I’m talking.
I don’t pronounce the T in often for the same reason I don’t say “sof-TEN, glis-TEN, wres-TLE or lis-TEN, they are not pronounced. I actually never heard anyone pronounce the T in often until I moved to the east coast, assuming it to be a regional affectation, but I always was told that pronouncing the T labels someone as an illiterate, in the same way as people who pronounce preferably as pre-FER-ably.
I have always pronounced “often” with the “t” being silent. I am from the Midwest (WI) and this is how we were taught in school to pronounce it, but that was back in the 60’s. I searched for the correct pronunciation because I so frequently hear “often” with the “t” pronounced, that I was beginning to wonder if I was remembering incorrectly. I am fascinated (and relieved) to see so much discussion on this subject. Thank goodness for all of you who care about language!
I realize this is such an old piece that probably no one will ever read or reply to this comment…
I was taught here in MI, USA 7th grade English class that the “t” in often is silent (as in soften & other words listed above). Oddly enough my mother was taught the same in elementary school in the UP. So, being the literalistic, perfectionist-type people we are, we have never pronounced the “t.” Having typed that, however, I also can’t remember anyone else in American NOT pronouncing the ‘t”, though I’d like to. =)
I was born in 1961 in Massachusetts and never heard a hard T spoken in the word often. A younger co-worker (about the year 2000) always emphasized the T and it sounded so odd that I looked it up while we were talking. I showed him that the dictionary showed a silent T. He said that he was taught in school to pronounce the T. I asked if he also pronounced it in the word soften, he didn’t know!! He kept saying soften over and over with and without the hard T. The language keeps morphing, like the word herb with a silent H now being pronounced like the man’s name, Herb.
I am from California and I have traveled a large part of my life and have always pronounced “often” with the T. I teach English to Asian students and always ask them to pronounce the T. I was surprised when I saw that so many westerners say, offen. I think it is pronounced differently by region.
Excellent post! Just to chime in: I was taught to leave the “t” silent in “often” just as I was to never admit an “l” in “salmon.” My aunt reared me in a rural, poverty-stricken area of south Louisiana. I have lived in Kansas City and other places (Wales) and many (most) pronounce the “t” and that still tees me off! We live in North Carolina now. I went to university in Britain and my son goes to University of London, Goldsmith’s, where he, also, speaks English in our colonial American (most “often” correctly).
I enjoy your blog.
As a New Englander, I not only didn’t pronounce the T in often, but dropped the ‘R’s’ in words that had them and put ‘R’s’ into words that didn’t have them. I still cringe when I hear the T enunciated in often. I would especially shirk listening to any of our Presidents (example: Bush) who would add the T. President Kennedy’s accent sounded quite natural to me. I might have voted differently if I’d listened to each of them speak more often before the elections. lol
Some of these comments are disturbing to me. I’m sorry, but if you’re willing to call someone “illiterate” because s/he pronounces the T in “often”, you’re a pretentious fool. There is nothing prescriptivist about language use. If people have been pronouncing “often” with the T in some dialects or registers for over a century, it’s time to get over yourselves and accept that this is now a legitimate pronunciation (as apparently the publishers of most major dictionaries have even conceded this). After a century you can give up the battle, for goodness’ sake.
There is no single proper way to speak any one language. I’m sure some of you say “shejyool” and some say “skejual” and a variety of things in between for “schedule”. Some of you may stress the first syllable in “controversy” and others the second, and so on and so forth. If any of you had the audacity to call each other illiterate for these differences I’d equally call you a pretentious fool.
It is indeed pretentious to try to correct someone’s regional pronunciations or their choice of speaking register, and it’s also completely asinine. It’s not a verbal crime to speak with an accent, and even if it were, which accent or dialect would be the “proper” one, hmm? Does recent history win out? Present history of usage? Majority usage? Don’t be an asinine prescriptivist about language. It actually makes you look less educated and horribly ethnocentric when you are.
Secret Agent Paul
All very interesting arguments but often has a silent T. No further discussion required.
I think the best comment was from Jim. I too did not hear the “t” in Massachusetts until the 90’s or so. I would say that TV has helped in spreading language changes. I had to do a double take when a Chicago friend asked me if I wanted to “go with”. “With whom?” I asked. She looked at me funny. This was a midwest thing I had never heard before. Now I hear it all of time on TV and am starting to hear it in MA. I wonder if something similar is happening with the “t” of often because my young daughter is using it and my wife and I have never. I cringe everytime she says off-ten. I think TV is influencing the younger generations, including teachers. As one MA poster mentioned they were TAUGHT to use the “t”. That was shocking to me. There is no way to sof-ten the blow, people. Change is coming.
Stumbled upon this thread through Google after getting in an argument with some people from school (I’m Dutch, one was English (but speaks (awesome) Manchester gibberish no-one ever understands), one from New-Zealand and a Russian who always went to British School). As we were all convinced of being right, this still doesn’t settle much (neither did Webster, nor Collins nor the Oxford), though from now on; I will just skip the tea and be done with it.
[btw, the girl from NZ and the guy from Russians were most ‘right’]
With so much contention, one might think there is no right answer. Whether or not one pronounces the t seems to delineate where one has been raised. It will, by some, be a point of judgement upon whatever else the speaker says. For those who pronounce the t, it might seem as if there is a lack of proper education. While those who choose not to pronounce the t will seem “snooty” or “snobbish” to some listeners.
@Simon Marler, in response to: “There must be a good reason why the T in ‘often’ has persisted despite the best attempts to eradicate it.”
My theory is that it persists because the voiced ‘t’ is slightly less ambiguous. In U.S. English if we say “often on” without pronouncing the ‘t’ it sounds nearly identical to “off and on”. Pronouncing it as it looks not only eliminates any doubt about what word you said – it spares you from having to remind yourself that the pronunciation is separate from the spelling. For some people this may be an issue of how they were taught to say it, but for others I believe it is an issue of preference for phonetic spelling (or phonemic orthography if you want the official term), and the desire to adhere to it when possible. Some silent letters and letter combinations, like the ‘e’ in home, are consistent and even purposeful, while others offer no benefit. As @codebeard brought up, the word ‘after’ uses a hard ‘t’, so the argument can be made in that direction as well. Personally I have switched to voicing the ‘t’ because it feels more substantial, more definitive, and more satisfying. It feels like the logical thing to do, and in alignment with standards. I don’t mean ‘standards’ snobbishly as in “holding high standards”, but practically as in “compliant with web standards”. It would be interesting to see statistical data on how the pronunciation of ‘often’ varies by country and region. Since the trend toward pronouncing the ‘t’ appears to be on the rise regardless of country, I have to wonder if how we view and type text in a digital era has played a significant part in this. Or maybe us t-pronouncers just like the uttering of a nice hard consonant. ***k if I know.
I grew up in Northern California, United States. My teachers throughout school never pronounced the “t”, and told us that without a doubt it was the incorrect pronunciation. However in everyday speech i hear most people pronounce it. So, since my kids are in home school, being taught by my wife, I wanted to give my kids an advantage and try to teach them correctly and have them avoid many of the mispronunciations that have seemingly littered everyday english speech (at least where I live). I have to admit I was a bit disappointed when I came across this article, which basically leaves the decision up to the individual. i can only imagine in the “text based” society we are building, what English will be like in the next 50 or 100 years.
Hey guys, chill out.
Mr.Maddox just wants to watch the world burn.
I pronounce the ‘t’ in ‘often’. My wife is a High School English teacher- she doesn’t pronounce the ‘t’- viva la difference! I pronounce the ‘t’ in ‘water’ properly, she doesn’t. / -:
I can’t stand it when people say “warder” for ‘waTer’. Viva la difference, eh?
Ah, then there are people who say ” Woden’s Day.”
In Michigan we say offen, caLm, paLm, wader and ledder–but more educated people are very careful to say water and lettert.
Super old but I’m just going to throw some of my pronunciations out here.
I’m from Seattle, Washington by the way.
-Often is OffTen (soft t)
-Similar words like soften, moisten, etc. have a silent T
-Calm and paLm are CaLm, paLm (not calem or palem, kind of like the word call, just with a less pronounced L and an M)
-Almond is ALLmond (super common here, only heard ahmond once and it blew my mind)
-Walk and talk both have a silent L
-Wednesday is WensDAY (again, super common here to pronounce the days of the week with DAY at the end, never heard -dee here)
-Salmon has a silent L as well
-Coupon is coopon (definitely have heard it as kyupon though)
And I hate to admit it but most “tu” words come out as “too”.
I think a lot of these pronunciations just come down to where you’re from.
I just came across this because I was bored & playing around on the Internet (I was waiting to be called back to see my Dr & forgot my book)
Think of the word oftentimes-how stupid it would sound if it was pronounced AWF-tin-times!
Is the “K” in knife, know or knob pronounced? No! You’d sound like an idiot.
Our language has been evolving for as long as humans have been evolving. Sometimes there are those silent letters in words, often being one of those words.
The “T” is silent folks.