How Do You Pronounce “Often”?

By Maeve Maddox

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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69 Responses to “How Do You Pronounce “Often”?”

  • Winifred Neville

    To those morons who say “Off-ten” – do you say “fabric Soff-tener” too?

  • Curious 1

    My grandparents and my parents were raised in Northern and Central Missouri. They never pronounced the “t.” I grew up in and lived in Illinois near Chicago, in Carbondale, IL and Galena, IL. Grade School and High School (1950’s) taught a silent “t” and during college and law school (1960’s) no one pronounced the “t.” Somewhere in the 1980’s advertisers on radio and TV began pronouncing the “t” and I hear it more often today. Every time I hear it mispronounced I forget the product advertised, but I remember the violation of High School grammar rules. I feel sorry for any adults learning English as a second language – the rules are complicated and even after you learn them they change.

  • Emily

    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)
    Correct: AWF-in.
    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.

  • Josh

    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.

  • Terry

    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.

  • English American

    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?

  • P

    Hey guys, chill out.
    Mr.Maddox just wants to watch the world burn.

  • Brandon

    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.

  • QA

    @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.

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