You may be scratching your head and asking yourself why I would choose such a common, easily-understood word as the focus of today’s blog posting. I don’t blame you.
But the reason I chose the word often is that it may well be one of the most mis-pronounced words in American English. It is listed in the site, 100 Most Often Mispronounced Words and Phrases in English.
The most commonly accepted pronunciation of often is [OF-uhn.] Despite it being that easy, many people (lots and lots of them!) continue to pronounce the “t” that is meant to be silent. They say [OF-tuhn.] I understand that choice. If you have never had a teacher inform you of what (he) considered the “proper” way to say the word, and if you are someone who doesn’t really pay attention to grammar and the way it is used in our culture, it would make sense to pronounce it the way it’s spelled. There is, after all, a “t” right in the middle of the word.
Garner’s Modern American Usage has this to say about the pronunciation differentiation:
The educated pronunciation is /OF-en/, but the less adept say /OF-ten/. “
Thus, by his identification of the difference as being education and ignorance, Garner makes the distinction a cultural one. Many of those who write about language agree with him.
But there are those who don’t. For instance, Dictionary.com has a different take on the issue.
Often was pronounced with a t -sound until the 17th century, when a pronunciation without the [t] …came to predominate in the speech of the educated, in both North America and Great Britain, and the earlier pronunciation fell into disfavor. Common use of a spelling pronunciation has since restored the [t] for many speakers, and today [aw-fuhn] and [awf-tuhn] [or [of-uhn] and [of-tuhn] ] exist side by side. Although it is still sometimes criticized, often with a [t] is now so widely heard from educated speakers that it has become fully standard once again.”
And, in the above-cited article about the 100 words or phrases most often mispronounced in English, even they speak to the conflict surrounding the “proper” way to pronounce the word.
Don’t say: off ten | Do say: often
Comment: The [t] was silent in the pronunciation of the word “often” until circa 19th century English when more people became able to write and spell. Today the [t] is widely pronounced in England, the British Isles, Australia and in some regions of the U.S. Most U.S. dictionaries show both pronunciations, frequently showing the unspoken [t] as the most preferred.”
So, what’s a person to do? I would suggest that it is a matter of personal choice, depending upon your inclination to speak with a knowledge of formal linguistic norms. If that is important to you, and you try very hard to be consistent with the norms put forth by linguists, you may want to drop the “t”.
If, however, that is not of concern to you and you are more comfortable including the “t” when you use the word…go ahead and use it.
There are no “language police” out there who will handcuff you and “take you in” for breaking their idea of what is proper and what is not.
But, if you regularly make formal presentations to crowds who pay attention to such issues, you may want to attune your choice to the one which drops the “t.” Again, you won’t be stoned or hung by your heels if you pronounce the “t”. They won’t throw rotten tomatoes at you. But you may find that there is an inappropriate amount of criticism of the choice which detracts from the primary purpose to which you are speaking in your presentation. You don’t need that distraction.
Graphic Credit: Sean McCabe