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I am puzzled by the spelling of "gross". I always heard it pronounced as a diphthong, and my dictionaries confirm this. Now my English teachers always taught me that while a repeated consonant in spelling can indicate several things (that the preceding vowel is short, or in a preterite form that the stress is on the preceding syllable), the preceding vowel is never a diphthong.

In fact, "gross" is the only exception that I know of to this rule.

Why is "gross" an exception and pronounced unlike "moss", "floss", "loss", "toss", etc.?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – snailboat May 3 '18 at 15:36
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    English is just a funny language with many exceptions. For example, take a look at this video and realize how many exceptions there are: youtube.com/watch?v=XTjeoQ8gRmQ – Kodos Johnson May 3 '18 at 18:43
  • As a surname, it rhymes with your other examples. Well, it did with a friend of mine! – Tim May 4 '18 at 16:39
  • this famous poem is also very nice to illustrate how irregular English pronunciation is: youtube.com/watch?v=v1V6Nn6aAmw – Ivo Beckers May 5 '18 at 22:31
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Beware of teachers who tell you that something is "never" true in English. Exceptions abound, particularly when it comes to pronunciation.

Perhaps the best example is wind, which can be pronounced with the short i heard in "win" and with the long i heard in "wide", depending on the meaning of the word in its context.

It's also interesting how pint does not rhyme with lint, hint, glint, or tint, in the same way that gross does not rhyme with boss, loss, toss, or cross.

As for the o in gross, you're right – that's not like the short o heard in "moss"; however, we could point out that it is like the long o heard in "most", though not like the short o heard in "cost".

If you stumble across a word you've never seen before (like phross, for example), you wouldn't know for sure if that rhymes with "gross" or "floss". All you can do is take an educated guess.

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    For the record, phross isn't a real word. Is it? – Andrew May 3 '18 at 16:31
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    @Andrew : ... All the phross people know the answer to that question ... :-) (It is not a commonly used word. This could change now, but probably won't.) – Eric Towers May 3 '18 at 16:32
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    what I like about your answer is that you re-phrase my original question better :-) – new_user May 3 '18 at 17:06
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    It's not so much that there are "exceptions", more that there are lots of different patterns. For the OP... English isn't really a single language because it's built up from so many other languages, with a side-order of a proliferation of dialects. Add to that several vowel shifts, and a bunch of smart-arse Victorians inventing spellings based on Greek/Latin roots and not the actual sound, and it all gets a bit painful! – Graham May 4 '18 at 1:57
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    @casualcoder I have the GOAT vowel in gross whether it is adjective or noun. oxforddictionaries and m-w agree with me... – AakashM May 4 '18 at 11:04
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The pronunciation of gross seems to be related to French pronunciation

The word "gross" comes from the French adjective gros, which is spelled with a double S in its feminine form grosse. I have the impression that grosse has a somewhat "exceptional" pronunciation already in French: rather than being pronounced with [ɔ], it is often pronounced with [o], which is a violation of the French "loi de position". (See post #52, by merquiades (Apr 30, 2014) in the following Word Reference thread: O-like vowels (RP English). Some modern French accents do have [ɔ] in grosse ("Combien d'accents en français? Focus sur la France, la Belgique et la Suisse").) I would guess that the French pronunciation of grosse with [o] is related to the English pronunciation with the GOAT vowel (i.e, the vowel phoneme found in the word "goat", also called the "long o" sound, transcribed in IPA as /əʊ/ for British English or as /oʊ/ or /o/ for American English).

Although I've only ever heard the word pronounced with the GOAT vowel, it seems that some English speakers may use the LOT vowel (or perhaps the CLOTH vowel, in accents where CLOTH=THOUGHT) in the word gross. Specifically, this pronunciation appears to be associated with Scotland. John Wells wrote a blog post "a gross violation?" that says that the English journalist Simon Hoggart criticized the Scottish politician Gordon Brown for allegedly using a pronunciation like /grɒs/ (I haven't been able to find any audio samples that would allow me to confirm that this is a feature of Brown's pronunciation), and we find a comment below by The Blob5, June 2012 at 14:53, that says "Gross-like-floss is a common pronounciation amoung the older generations in Scotland." I also found another post, in the WordReference thread "dross: pronunciation", that says "In Scotland, there is a prevalent pronunciation of 'gross' to rhyme with 'loss'" (wandle, Jul 28, 2012 #10), and this pronunciation is mentioned in John Walker's Critical Pronunciation Dictionary of 1791:

This word is irregular from a vanity of imitating the French. In Scotland they pronounce this word regularly so as to rhyme with moss. Pope also rhymes it with this word.

"Shall only man be taken in the gross?
"Grant but as many forts of mind as moss."

This, however, must be looked upon as a poetical license; for the sound is now irrevocably fixed as it is marked, rhyming with jocose, verbose, &c.

Other words like gross?

The Wells blog post says that gross (and related words like engross) are the only words spelled with "oss" and pronounced with the GOAT vowel in a typical British English accent. The linked WordReference thread indicates that least a few American English speakers apparently grew up pronouncing "dross" with the GOAT vowel, but it's unclear if this is anything more than just a sporadic mispronunciation used by people who saw the word in writing before hearing it and guessed at the pronunciation. (E.g. compare "OAR-y" for "awry" and "MIZZ-uld" for "misled", which are both attested as pronunciations used by some native speakers, but are definitely not considered correct in any accent.)

Other people have brought up cases of diphthongs before consonant clusters, like pint, but technically these are not an exception to the rule that you mentioned, which deals with a "repeated consonant in spelling". In "pint", no consonant letter is repeated.

In fact, there are very few true exceptions to the rule as you have stated it.

Words ending in "oll"

I only know of one major class of exceptions: words ending in "oll" like the word "poll" mentioned in Astralbee's answer. Some have the LOT vowel (or in many or all American English accents, the CLOTH/THOUGHT vowel), like doll, but many have the GOAT vowel, like roll, scroll, troll, stroll, poll, toll, droll.

But even these words may not necessarily be exceptions, because not all speakers pronounce the GOAT vowel as an closing diphthong in this context. Some speakers, like me, have an allophonic realization of the GOAT vowel in this context that sounds closer to [oɫ] or [oə̯ɫ] than to [oʊɫ]. (For example, I hear a difference between my pronunciation of slowly, which I would transcribe as [ˈsloʊli], and my pronunciation of holy, which I would transcribe as [hoɫi] or [hoə̯ɫi]. I pronounce the vowel in words like scroll like the vowel in the word holy, not like the vowel in the word slowly.)

Alternatively, in certain accents, the distinction between the GOAT vowel and some other back vowel phoneme may be reduced or eliminated by phenomena like l-vocalization, or mergers of certain vowels preceding /l/—the Wikipedia article on "English-language vowel changes before historic /l/" mentions some relevant mergers that occur for some speakers.

Bass in the sense "low" (not the fish)

Another freak exception like gross is the word bass in the sense "deep/low in the musical scale" (the explanation for that is given in the answer to the following ELU question: Why does “bass” sound like “base”?). I don't know of any other exceptions beyond these, as long as we're talking about the pronunciation of single vowel letters rather than digraphs, and restricting the discussion to stressed vowels.

Vowel digraphs before double consonants (uncommon)

Vowel digraphs occur fairly infrequently before double consonants, but when they do it's not unlikely that the word is pronounced with a diphthong (if the vowel is stressed): e.g. the word surveillance has a "long a" sound in the stressed second syllable, and when renaissance is pronounced with stress on the second syllable, that syllable has a "long a" sound (in American English, it can be pronounced with stress on the first, in which case the second syllable has a reduced vowel sound).

Unstressed vowels in some words (not worth learning as an exception)

Vowels in pre-tonic word-initial syllables are sometimes pronounced as "long", even when there is a following double consonant, but this is never necessary and in some cases I have the impression that it can even be stigmatized (specifically, I think I've seen criticism of the pronunciation of the word dissect with a "long i" in the first syllable) so I wouldn't recommend trying to learn these words as a class of exceptions. I just thought I should mention them for completeness. This phenomenon can occur with the letter "o", as in "official", or "e", as in "effective". More commonly, "official" and "effective" are pronounced with reduced vowels in their first syllables.

  • Double-Ls can have wonky effects after the letter U, too--compare pull full bull vs hull mull cull (and after A there's a difference in shall vs fall), but I'm not sure any of those are diphthongs. – 1006a May 4 '18 at 14:48
  • "Some have the LOT vowel (...), like doll, but many have the GOAT vowel, like roll, scroll, troll, stroll, poll, toll, droll." I could be misinterpreting this sentence, but these words seem not to have the GOAT vowel, at least to me. They have the same vowel as "hull" to me, which I'm reasonably sure is not the GOAT vowel. – Potato44 May 4 '18 at 15:41
  • @Potato44: It does seem possible that some Australian speakers have merged the GOAT vowel into the STRUT vowel before /l/ in some contexts. The talk page for the Wikipedia article "Australian English phonology" contains a post by a speaker from Sydney who seems to say that "colt" and "cult" have the same vowel sound. – sumelic May 4 '18 at 20:49
  • Re: "many have the GOAT vowel, like roll, scroll, troll, stroll, poll, toll, droll": For me (grew up in Michigan), words like "roll" and "role" and "soul" and "goal" don't have the full diphthong of "goat"; the vowel starts out the same, but the dark L replaces the W-like offglide instead of following it. Is that a regional thing, or am I just interpreting the "GOAT" classification more strictly than is intended? – ruakh May 4 '18 at 21:40
  • @ruakh: For me as well, the quality of the vowels in the word "goat" and "roll" are noticeably different. (For example, "holy" and "slowly" are not an exact rhyme for me.) But unless the vowel is merged with another vowel, these kinds of variants are usually considered to be allophonic (for comparison, I also have quite different vowels in the words "trap" and "fan", but no possible contrast). – sumelic May 4 '18 at 21:44
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You are right, the vowel 'o' in "gross" is pronounced as the diphthong oʊ, the same as in "toast". It is not, for example, pronounced the same way as the similarly spelled "dross".

However it is not the only example of this preceding a repeated consonant. "Poll" for example.

  • Poll is a tricky example for me, because I often pronounce it /pɒl/ (as in Polly Parrot, not a diphthong). But I've no such problem with, say, roll (which rhymes with an actor's role, not a gangster's moll). – FumbleFingers May 3 '18 at 15:57
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    @FumbleFingers They are all tricky! That's the point. And you are mispronouncing it. – Astralbee May 3 '18 at 16:01
  • The OED lists separate British and US pronunciations for poll , Poll (short for Polly), and Polly. British and US pronunciations did sound different for all three. To my untrained ear, the British pronunciation of poll and Poll sounded different. I couldn't tell whether the vowel in British Poll and Polly was the same. I've never encountered the name Poll in the US, but if I did and knew it was short for Polly, I'd definitely pronounce it differently then poll. – weissj May 3 '18 at 19:11
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    I'm finding this conversation somewhat confusing. To my NZ English ear, pole, poll and Poll all sound completely identical, they all have the same first syllable as Polly, and they all rhyme with roll, role and moll. – BenM May 3 '18 at 21:17
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    @BenM: Yes, that seems to be a merger that's characteristic of NZ English as opposed to other varieties. Wikipedia says "Before /l/, the vowels [...] /ɒ/ and /ɐʉ/ (doll /dɒl/ vs dole /dɐʉl/, transcribed by Bauer et al. as /dɒl/ and /dɒɯ/) [...] may be merged." – sumelic May 3 '18 at 22:02
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English has a logical model of "short" and "long" vowels - in this model, the "long vowels" a, i, o and u are considered a single "unit" of sound, even though when they are pronounced they are obviously diphthongs.

The ou in cloud is a diphthong - and you won't get any argument from anyone on that. Something like bow (as in archery) might not be considered a diphthong - as the long "o" is what's being sounded here.

Being a native speaker myself, I didn't realize English has the "ʊ" sound as part of the "long o" until studying Spanish, which is a language that doesn't do that.

Interestingly, for verbs, double consonants tend to make the preceding vowel short. This explains the patterns when adding -ed or -ing to verbs, which is the typical situation that you are doubling consonants.

I think what is happening with gross is that two s's together indicate that the s sound at the end must be unvoiced. Plurals that end with a single s may have that sound voiced (like a "z") or unvoiced. Double "s" at the end of the word is always unvoiced.

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    I think you meant the last word of the answer to be "unvoiced". – Ari Brodsky May 3 '18 at 18:04
  • Actually, I think he intended the last word of the first sentence in the last paragraph to be "voiced." – joiedevivre May 3 '18 at 18:14
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The vowel sound of o in gross may be listened to in British and American English here: gross

The IPA phonetic transcription of the sound of the o in gross is əʊ in BrE and oʊ in AmE.

This vowel sound is called a diphthong but personally, I find it can confuse students. I think it's best to learn the actual sound in sample words first by contrasting minimal pairs of sounds (bed/bit, about/abate, etc.).

There are books out there that give you the sound using the IPA system and then give examples of words with that particular sound.

There are basically eight diphthongs in English:

You can see them here: English diphthongs and the author provides a list of words in which they are used. A useful tool.

The words in which they are used are NOT always pronounced the same in British and American English, though these diphthongs they exist in both varieties.

Other words that have the sound əʊ are: blow, no, grow and phone.

The sound is almost always spelled as an o except in a borrowing like flambeau, where the French eau is əʊ in English. That unfortunately is not true of other diphthongs (two vowels as one ) in English.

This can become quite complicated as the sound of ea in bead is the same as the ee in sheep. Therefore, if one starts with sounds and then one looks at lists of words with those sounds, one can start associating them with certain patterns, which I will not discuss here now.

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Checking a regex dictionary for .*oss$ (i.e. all words ending "--oss" suggests that gross is indeed that only exception with o.

However looking at .*ass$ gives three vowel sounds (by example):

  • mass /mæs/ is the most common.
  • grass /ɡrɑːs/ (a long sound, like in fast), though some accents would have /græs/
  • bass, /beɪs/ in music (a different long sound, clearly a dipthong, the same as base); the fish is /bæs/.

So the "rule" is clearly oversimplified

  • Although /ɑː/ can be considered a "long" vowel sound, it isn't a diphthong. If we consider words with /ɑː/ to be exceptions, then words like chaff, giraffe, staff, brass, class, glass, pass would all be exceptions to the OP's rule as a result of the TRAP~BATH Split. The "long" (but monophthongal) vowel /ɔː/ also occurs in words with the spelling "all", and in American English /ɔ/ occurs in some words with the spellings "oss" or "off" as a result of the LOT~CLOTH split. – sumelic May 4 '18 at 22:16
  • @sumelic that's certainly true, and I was careful to only describe one example as a diphthong. There's always more detail than I can or want to give. Chaff confuses me because I have the trap-bath split and chaff unlike the other words in that list shares a vowel with trap. But it's too late here to think to much about it – Chris H May 4 '18 at 22:23
  • There is a lot of variation, so it seems likely that "chaff" could be one of the words that words that vary from speaker to speaker. I don't have the split or much exposure to accents with it so I was just going on the linked British Library page. – sumelic May 4 '18 at 22:26
  • @sumelic we have a common bird called a chaffinch (from chaff-finch). This is a much more common word than chaff alone, and is always (in practice) pronounced with the TRAP vowel. So when the first syllable is used as a word on its own, it presumably inherits the pronunciation. I wonder how the radar-scattering material was pronounced by 1940s RAF crew – Chris H May 5 '18 at 7:09

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