How do I know when to spell a word with "r-" or "wr-"?

For example, (wr)ap and (r)ap, (wr)ing and (r)ing. Both sets have the same R sound but different spellings.

Is there a way of working out which to use, or do I simply have to learn each word?

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    Every word with "wr" has a slight but hearable "w" sound in them. Listen to how "write" is different from "right". Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 9:22
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    @SovereignSun You'd better write to Collins and AHD then, and tell them they need to make corrections. Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 9:47
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    @SovereignSun: what do you hear when one of the people is speaking who thinks that "copyright" is "copywrite"? There is no difference in pronunciation, whatever you think you hear.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 10:36
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    There was a difference in the pronunciation of these words 500 years ago. There isn't today in any of the standard varieties of English. Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 13:35
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    @SoveriegnSun, I don't make this difference in speaking, and I don't know anybody else who does so. I don't know where it is you hear it. Perhaps with non-native speakers who have been taught to make a distinction that doesn't exist among native speakers?
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 13:45

2 Answers 2


No. There is no way other than to learn them.

[Words starting with "wr-" are almost always native English words, from Germanic roots, rather than borrowings from French or Latin; but that does not really give you much help].

  • I think there's some truth in the idea that "phonetic/phonemic clusters" may be associated with specific meanings. In which context my gut feeling is the percentage of words starting with wr- that have associations with "violence / effort" is probably much higher than the corresponding percentage for "ordinary" r- words. (I'm thinking of wrack, wring, wreak, wreck, wrench, writhe, wrestle, wrangle,...) Maybe we imported the entire "phonetic / semantic cluster" from Germanic roots (behind the scenes, so to speak). Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 16:38

You have to get it right by reading written words instead of focussing on pronunciation. Once you will practice enough usage, you can understand what exactly the person is saying. Try to comprehend the context and you're good to go. Also, even though they sound almost same, there is 1% dissimilarity which you'll find, like commented by @SovereignSun.

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    Do you have evidence for your assertion that there is 1% dissimilarity?
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 17:43
  • There is a difference in lip motion which is experienced by many people, including me. So if you notice a person speaking you will find it. You can find various forums where people have discussed the lip moment.
    – A.k.
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 2:48
  • And this dissimilarity (which I do not believe in) is 1% of what? Speakers? Utterances? Words? And how do you know?
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 11:52

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