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This question below is from my English book exercise:

Choose the word whose underlined part is pronounced differently from that of the other words

a. exactly
b. exist
c. exhaust
d. extinct

(Because I couldn't underline the part of each word in this post, I made it bold)

After trying reading aloud each word a few times, I couldn't notice any differences of the above 'ex' parts. Then I looked it up in Oxford Dictionary and it showed each word's phonetic transciption like this:

a. exactly /ɪɡˈzæktli/
b. exist /ɪɡˈzɪst/
c. exhaust /ɪɡˈzɔːst/
d. extinct /ɪkˈstɪŋkt/

If the /ɪɡ/ and /ɪk/ are at the end of the word, like 'big' or 'tick', I can see the differences and pronounce them easily. However, in the exercise, it seems to me that the /ɡ/ and /k/ of all the words are canceled or silent.

Could you advise me on whether I'm correct or not in this case?

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    Keep in mind that pronunciation can vary a lot by region. "Extinct" and "exact" would sound fine to me whether pronounced with /k/ or /g/.
    – LMS
    Jan 8, 2017 at 16:19
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    Extinct is the different word, like exterior and exlamation, explanation. Jan 8, 2017 at 16:52
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    "However, in the exercise, it seems to me that the /ɡ/ and /k/ of all the words are canceled or silent." - I'm not sure what you mean by "canceled or silent", because they definitely make a sound that is very important to the pronunciation of the words. If you just mean that they don't make a difference...they are pronounced similarly, but not exactly the same. "Eggs" and "ex" should sound different. As @TonyK says, one is voiced and one is unvoiced.
    – stangdon
    Jan 8, 2017 at 17:41

3 Answers 3

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A native English speaker pronounces extinct differently from egg stinked (yes I know, that should be egg stank). extinct is pronounced with an unvoiced /k/ sound, and egg stinked with a voiced /g/ sound.

As you remark, there would be hardly any difference in this context if voicing were the only distinction. But in most dialects of English, a syllable-final unvoiced consonant preceded by a vowel is pre-glottalized. In some dialects, notably Cockney, the consonant (especially /t/) can disappear entirely, and all that's left is the glottal stop: "Wha' a lo'" for "What a lot".

See the Wikipedia article on Glottalization for a discussion of this.

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There are some general rules for the pronunciation of ex-:

  • It's pronounced /ks/ when it has primary stress as in execute, exile, extra etc.
  • When it's unstressed, then its pronunciation depends on the following sound:
    • if the following sound is a vowel or another voiced sound, it's pronounced /gz/ as in exact, exist, exhaust, exhilarate etc.
    • if the following sound is voiceless, it's /ks/ as in expire, explain, extreme, expunge etc.

'Exact' belongs to the first sub-category in the second category, while 'extinct' belongs to the second one in the second category.

There may be exceptions, however.

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Yes, they are pronounced differently. The 'ex' in 'exact' sounds more like 'eggs'.

There is a reason for this - many words use 'ex' as a prefix. It comes from the Latin meaning 'out'. For example 'exhale' means to breathe out, 'extract' means to pull out, and 'extinct' means to die out.

That isn't the case with 'exact' - it comes from the Latin exactus, which in its entirety means 'precise', so the word has a different etymology.

It is no surprise that we over-pronounce 'ex-' in words where it acts as a prefix because it often acts to negate a word, for example, 'ex-girlfriend', or 'ex-wife'.

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