How Do You Pronounce “Often”?

By Maeve Maddox

background image 112

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):

Want to improve your English in five minutes a day? Get a subscription and start receiving our writing tips and exercises daily!

Keep learning! Browse the Spelling category, check our popular posts, or choose a related post below:


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

  • shel lynn

    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. =)

  • jeannie p

    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.

  • Mike

    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.

  • M. Milton

    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.

  • Mary Fietsam

    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

  • Mathonwy

    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.

  • Ed

    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.

  • Karel

    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’]

  • Seven Eightnine

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • P

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

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Winifred Neville

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

  • Michele

    When I was in school during the 60s and 70s we were taught that it was incorrect to pronounce the “t” in often. I went to school in both the Midwest and Southwest. 🙂

  • Zijian Liu

    In China, we taught Often with silent t, either UK or US way. However in recent years from movies, especially those from UK, I heard Of Ten. Then I came with a doubt that t should be spelt? In Oxford Dictionary and Bing Online dictionary, t is always silent. I think English-Spoken countries should give a united spoken way. The word should not be spelt casually because it makes nonsense.

  • Maeve

    Alas, Zijian Liu, when it comes to the oldest words in English, the spelling does not always match the pronunciation.

    The word “often” comes from an earlier word, “oft” or “ofte.” In front of certain words, “ofte” became “often.” Over the years, the “t” became silent in speech. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), for example, did not pronounce the” t”. The “offen” pronunciation became associated with the upper classes. Nowadays, I think English speakers of all classes are split about 50/50 as to pronouncing or not pronouncing the “t.” I grew up in a family that does not pronounce the “t,” so “offen” sounds right to me.

    Your wish that English-speaking countries speak English with the same pronunciations is unrealistic. I would guess that in China, pronunciations vary from region to region. A language belongs to the people who speak it. English pronunciations will differ from country to country. Who knows? Perhaps some day English will evolve into entirely new languages, the way Latin did.

  • Rick Pritchett

    Just came across this today, and I love all the comments. Count me in one who has never pronounced often with an audible “t”. [AWF-in] it is, and [AWF-in] it shall ever be.

  • Reinier

    One doesn’t say oftentimes, pronouncing the t, so why would one pronounce it in often.

  • Lucas

    It’s interesting how things change over time.

    I’m very young (I turned 18 in March 2020) and I was taught that the “t” in often should be pronounced in careful speech.

  • John Bresnik

    Sorry – t is silent..! At least around these parts – for natives (California). But I think it’s an east coast thing.

Leave a comment: