When S Says Z and F says V
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:
spouZes or SpouSes
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
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.
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 Usage Review category, check our popular posts, or choose a related post below:
Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!
- You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
- Subscribers get access to our archives with 800+ interactive exercises!
- You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!