How Do You Pronounce “Often”?

By Maeve Maddox - 2 minute read

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

  • codebeard

    Analogy cuts both ways, and is not “entirely unsupportive” as Elestr opines.

    Consider just a few examples:
    molten
    after
    destination
    fifteen
    lofty
    ancestor
    astute
    restrict
    chapter
    cryptic
    doubtful
    leftmost
    septum

  • Cecily

    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.

  • Elizabeth

    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?!

  • David Logan

    a pox on the ‘t’ which t me sounds uppity

  • Ed Buckner

    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.

  • Holly

    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”.

  • Brian

    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? 🙂

  • Kathy

    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.

  • Rebecca

    Good post! I often wonder how to pronounce the word “often.” I’m curious to see the results of the surveys.

  • Charles Ray

    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.

  • ApK

    Fascinating.

    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?”

    ApK

  • Maeve

    ApK,
    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.

  • thebluebird11

    @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.

  • David

    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.

  • Maeve

    “Wensdi” makes me think of Edith on “Last of the Summer Wine,” when she’s in “high class” mode.

  • Geoffrey Talbot – Seven Creative Sentences

    Fascinating article…

    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.

    Thanks
    Geoff
    sevensentences.com

  • Sharon

    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!

  • Deborah H

    Offun. Wensday. But is it Toosday or Tewsday?

  • Bob Kaplan

    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.

  • Bob Kaplan

    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.

  • Maeve

    Deborah H,
    “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.”

  • Dave

    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 ?

    Dave

  • 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.

  • Fooje

    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.

  • Cindy Cotter

    Silent t here.

  • Peter

    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?)

  • Peter

    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”?

  • judy

    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?

  • rosbif

    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

    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, …)

  • Maeve

    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?

    Peter,
    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.

  • itsmekikid

    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.
    – Ranjith

  • Emil

    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.]

  • Cassandra

    Actually, I like the spelling Wendseday better, and it makes more sense too..

  • Nolarae

    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!

  • Derek

    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.

  • Sean Nemetz

    Don’t pronounce the “t” in often, or you are a communist.

  • Jim

    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.

  • Carol

    What’s so hard about pronouncing nuclear correctly? It’s NEWclear, just as it looks. Not new-cyu-lar.

  • Dale Fedderson

    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.

  • cmbmcn

    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.

  • Simon Marler

    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).

  • J-Rex

    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.

  • Steven Rodgers

    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.

  • Jeanne Mraz

    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!

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