English Usage Topics > Words with Two Pronunciations
Words with Two Pronunciations
Several words have different pronunciations when they are used with different meanings or in different ways. Some of these words are explained in other entries.
The following words also have different pronunciations for different meanings:
- Bow is pronounced /baʊ/ when it is used as a verb or a noun to refer to the act of bending your body. It is also pronounced /baʊ/ when it refers to the front of a boat.
We bowed to one another across the room.
He made a little bow and closed the door.
Soon the canoe was cutting through the water with froth curling at her bow.
Bow is pronounced /bəʊ/ when it refers to a looped knot, a weapon, or the object drawn across the strings of a musical instrument.
He tied a neat bow.
Then she picked up her bow and positioned her cello.
- Buffet is pronounced /bʊfeɪ// or /bʌfeɪ/ when it refers to a meal.
Ruth's got a cold buffet for us later.
It is pronounced /bʌfɪt/ when it means 'to push something violently'.
We splashed back to the jeep, buffeted by the wind.
Note that in words with two syllables which have come from French (other common examples are garage and ballet), the words are pronounced with the stress on the first syllable in British English, and with stress on the second syllable in American English.
- Contract is pronounced /kɒntrækt/ when it is used to refer to a legal agreement.
I did not sign a contract with them.
It is pronounced /kəntrækt/ when it means 'to become smaller'.
Metals expand with heat and contract with cold.
- Recess is pronounced /rɪses/ when it refers to a break from working.
The judge announced a five-minute recess.
It is pronounced /riːses/ when it refers to an area in a room that is set back or hidden.
The bed is in a recess.
- Relay is pronounced /riːleɪ/ when it refers to a race or when it means 'to send on television or radio signals'.
They came second in the 4x100 metres relay.
The dense cloud prevented the BBC from using a helicopter to relay pictures of the event.
It is pronounced /rɪleɪ/ when it means 'to pass on something that was said'.
I have been asked to relay to you a number of messages.
- Row is pronounced /rəʊ/ when it refers to a group of things in a line, or when it means 'to move a boat using oars'.
...a row of parked cars.
He began to row steadily out towards the middle of the river.
It is pronounced /raʊ/ when it refers to an argument or a great deal of noise.
She was very upset after a row with her mother.
- Second is pronounced /sekənd/ when it refers to part of a minute, when it is used as an ordinal, or when it means 'to formally support a proposal'.
Could I see your book for a second?
...at the top of the second flight of stairs.
I'll second that proposal.
It is pronounced /sɪkɒnd/ when it means 'to move someone temporarily to perform special duties'.
I am being seconded abroad for two years.
- Sow is pronounced /səʊ/ when it means 'to plant seeds'.
You can sow winter wheat in October.
It is pronounced /saʊ/ when it refers to a female pig.
- Tear is pronounced /tɪə/ when it refers to a drop of liquid produced when you cry.
A single tear rolls slowly down his cheek.
It is pronounced /teə/ when used with other meanings, for example when it means 'to pull cloth or paper apart' or 'to run somewhere very fast'.
She folded the letter, meaning to tear it up.
I used to tear up the ladder onto the stage with only seconds to spare.
Different word classes
Many words have different pronunciations for different word classes – for example they are always pronounced in one way when they are used as a noun and always pronounced in a different way when they are used as a verb. Various groups of words which have different pronunciations for different word classes are explained below.
A number of words have stress on the first syllable when they are used as a noun or adjective and stress on the second syllable when they are used as a verb. For example, record is pronounced /rekɔːd/ when used as a noun or adjective and /rɪkɔːd/ when used as a verb. Contest is pronounced /kɒntest/ when used as a noun and /kəntest/ when used as a verb.
The following words have this pronunciation pattern:
Similarly, the verb confine is pronounced /kənfaɪn/ and the noun confines is pronounced /kɒnfaɪnz/. The verb proceed is pronounced /prəsiːd/ and the noun proceeds is pronounced /prəʊsiːdz/. Compact is pronounced /kəmpækt/ when used as a verb and /kɒmpækt/ or /kəmpækt/ when used as an adjective.
A number of words have their last syllable pronounced /ət/ when they are used as an adjective or a noun and /eɪt/ when they are used as a verb. For example, delegate is pronounced /delɪgət/ when used as a noun and /delɪgeɪt/ when used as a verb. The following words have this pronunciation pattern:
In the case of alternate, there is a stress change too in standard British English: it is pronounced /ɒltɜːnət/ when used as an adjective and /ɒltəneɪt/ when used as a verb.
Get all volumes of in paperback or eBook.