When S Says Z and F says V

By Maeve Maddox

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Browsing the comments attached to a previous post, I came across this lament about two changes in pronunciation that seem to be catching on with younger speakers:

I can’t keep track of how many words are being pronounced differently than when I was taught them. To me, the first “s” in “houses” has a “z” sound and the plural of “life” is “lives” and pronounced that way.

Like the reader, I was taught that the s in house is pronounced as z in the plural /howziz/ “because it is between two vowels.” I was also taught that in words like knife and life, the f becomes v in the plural: knives, lives.

Those of us who sound the s in the plural of house are in good company.

Charles Elster (The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations) says this:.

HOW-ziz, not HOW-siz or HOW-sis
Houses is pronounced like how’s + is. In the singular house the s is pronounced like the s in mouse, but in the plural houses the middle s changes to a z sound, as in busy and rouse…

The Oxford English Dictionary gives a British and American pronunciation for houses, both of which end with -zəz. The same goes for the Cambridge dictionary.

Merriam Webster cites the non-z houses, but only as an “also” pronunciation.

The only common nouns ending in –ouse that I can think of are house, spouse, blouse, grouse, mouse. and louse.

Of these six, two of them—mouse and louse—have irregular endings: mice and lice. One of them,—grouse—(like deer) does not change in the plural: one grouse, many grouse.

When it comes to blouse and spouse, I’ve always pronounced their singulars with the s sound and their plurals with the z sound. My go-to dictionaries do not always offer pronunciation for plurals, so I went to Howjsay and Forvo to see what their verdict is on houses, blouses and spouses. Here are the audio responses:

Howjsay
houZes
blouZes
spouZes or SpouSes

Forvo
spouSes
blouZes
houZes, not houSes (spoken in a disapproving tone)

NOTE: When house is used as a verb, meaning “to provide with a house or living accommodations,” the s is pronounced as a z.

The second part of the reader’s lament regards the plural of words like knife and life.

As plurals of the nouns meaning “sharp pointed instrument for cutting” and “the condition of being a living creature,” the correct spellings and pronunciations are knives and lives.

Here are some surprising examples that disregard the f to v convention:

Which will in turn have right wing Tory backbenchers sharpening their knifes.— The Guardian

The complaint says that Grigsby cut her throat, using two different knifes.—The Boston Herald

Kullander and Essen aren’t the sharpest knifes in the drawer.—Forbes

My favorites heroes are people who begin their lifes, with nothing.—BBC

That is just the difference in the way these two manage their professional lifes.— Forbes

They die for their freedom, meaning they feel oppressed to a point where they sacrifice their lifes.—Economist

EXCEPTIONS
Yes, there are a couple of exceptions that permit the forms knifes and lifes.

The verb to knife keeps the f sound in the third person singular:

He says one thing, then knifes you in the back.

The art term “still life” has the plural “still lifes”:

In San Francisco some artists use the plastics for models in their still lifes.

The aspersion “lowlife” usually takes the plural “lowlifes.”

These characters are lowlifes, the sort who’d steal a tip off a dinner table.

Here are some other nouns that—like knife and life—change f to v when forming the plural.

calf/calves
elf/elves
half/halves
leaf/leaves
loaf/loaves
self/selves

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1 Response to “When S Says Z and F says V”

  • venqax

    Of course. Where this S gaffe comes from, I don’t know. It reminds be of saying like stoo-DENTS and di-INT. Is it a dialectical thing that is becoming a general infestation?
    While we are touching on my favorite subject– pronunciation– something that has recently been burning my ears is the pronunciation of the verb combat the same as the noun– KOM-bat– with stress on the first syllable. The verb is pronounced kəm-BAT, with the second syllable stressed. This is a general rule in English for noun vs verb forms of the same basic word. You play a RE-cord that some re-CORDed, buy PRO-duce from those who pro-DUCE, it. You pre-SENT someone with a PRES-ent, in-SULT someone with an IN-sult. I mean, how hard is this?. It is by no means a “new” standard. Yet, all of the sudden– not on accident, I’d guess– the mangling has become universal among those whose only job is to speak. You’d think they’d be embarrassed of it, but nope.

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