I know that English is not a phonetic language, but I think there may be general patterns to help pronounce English words.

Can native English speakers say the words without looking at phonetic symbols?

  • 1
    Most native Anglophones learn most of their vocabulary by listening, not reading. Which is just as well, given words like hiccough (always pronounced hick-up, never hick-off). There are certainly "patterns" which can help you guess the likely pronunciation of an unfamiliar word, but there are so many different patterns, and so many different types of exception that this question as it stands is simply Too Broad. Jan 9, 2018 at 15:12

2 Answers 2


If native English speakers have had experience of similar words, they may be able to guess how to pronounce correctly a new word but by no means is it a guarantee. In fact, English is almost purely based on listening to other speakers hence why there is no Grammar 'rules' such as those in Latin (although we try to make rules, there is often exception because these rules aren't rules at all)

English Grammar evolves with the spoken word, Grammar scholars base Grammar on real-life language; I think it's a wonderful fact.

Place names are often the examples that catch native English speakers out; I have just moved to Kent, and these place names all caught me out too:

  • Shipbourne (pronounced shib-bon)
  • Holborn (pronounced hoe-born)
  • Tonbridge (pronounced tun-bridge)
  • Ightham (pronounced ith-ham)
  • Weald (pronounced wold)

Sure, there are pronunciation rules in English. The problem is that the rules are complex and there are lots of exceptions.

Years ago I was involved in education and at the time there was a lot of debate over how best to teach children to read, whether to teach children phonetic rules or not. The pro-phonetics people said, Sure, there are lots of words that aren't pronounced phonetically, but a large percentage, like 80% or 90%, ARE phonetic. The anti-phonetics people would say that only a small percentage, maybe 10% or 20%, are phonetic.

The trick, I think, comes in how you define "phonetic". If you insist on assigning exactly one sound per letter, period, then the percentage of English words that are phonetic is indeed very small. If you allow for more complex rules, like "a vowel is long if it is the last letter of a syllable but short otherwise", "g is soft when followed by e or i but hard when followed by a, o, or u", etc. then the percentage of phonetic words goes up. That is, if you allow just 26 rules, one per letter, the percentage of phonetic words is small. But if you allow enough rules, hundreds I suppose, it's 100% -- though some rules may only apply to one word. :-)

In practice, you can sound out most words if you learn a few dozen pronunciation rules. And perhaps paradoxically, it's short, common words that usually break the rules. The longer words usually follow them.

I think an interesting exercise would be to find the smallest set of rules that works for the largest number of words. You'd have to define how you "score" them: like if with 50 rules I can correctly pronounce 80% of English words but with 60 rules I can pronounce 85%, which set is better? Unless the number of rules is huge, it's not going to reach 100%. But if you can get 80% or 90% and then learn the exceptions, I think that's pretty good.

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