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Can fluent English speakers understand this sentence the first time they hear it?

What? They still steal steel?

Can they hear a difference between the pronunciation of the words still, steal, and steel?

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  • Not that it should be relied upon as a holy grail - but this website can be fairly useful for ELL to find the homophones of a word: homophone.com/search?type=&q=steal (the main downside, is it shows no result if the word has no homophones in their dictionary) – Bilkokuya Jul 11 at 12:29
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Still (/stɪl/) and steel (/sti:l/) are distinguishable. The vowel sounds in these two words are different.

Steal and Steel (/sti:l/) are homophones and are pronounced exactly the same.

However, the words are, in this case, easily identified by grammar. In this sentence, "steal" is a verb and "steel" is a noun. "Steel" as a verb cannot take "steal" (as a noun) as its object. So there is no ambiguity in the sentence.

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    "Steel" can be used as a verb -- "To steel oneself to make the decision". More rarely "steal" can be used as a noun: The Big Steal was a book title not long ago. But yes, "steel" is typically a noun and "steal" a verb. – David Siegel Jul 10 at 16:44
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    I would say a native speaker, depending on accent, could distinguish steal and steel. To my ear, the "ee" sound in "steel" is longer. – Matt Thrower Jul 11 at 9:57
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    @MattThrower: I disagree with your comment both as a matter of fact and as a matter of logic.  U.S. English is my first language (and, FWIW, essentially my only one) and I agree with the three answers, which say that “steal” and “steel” are homophones.  I pronounce them exactly the same, so there’s no way anybody could distinguish which one I’m saying.  And, if I heard somebody say two words that were distinguishable from each other (but different from “still”), without context, I wouldn’t know which was which. – Scott Jul 11 at 12:34
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    In my corner of the UK, "steal" has a slight hint of a diphthong in the vowel. "steel" does not. But I wouldn't expect a non-native speaker to hear the difference. – alephzero Jul 11 at 12:36
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    @Scott I'm British. And, as alephzero suggests, in RP I believe there's a very slight difference. – Matt Thrower Jul 11 at 12:45
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Context is the key to understanding. If your reader or conversation partner understands you are talking about someone or something with a habit of misappropriating steel, then it is perfectly reasonable to say they still steal steel or steal steel still. If they do not have that context, they you may need to explain it.

Most native speakers of English will pronounce steal and steel identically, but differently from still. Some people in Yorkshire might pronounce all three differently, and some people in Tennessee might pronounce all three the same.


In all the "standard" accents with which I am familiar, steel and steal are homophones, both pronounced /stiːl/. The spelling of steal and words like team and cream among others reflects a distinction in pronunciation which was mostly lost by the 18th century in what is known as the meet-meat merger. The distinction is preserved only in some corners of Ireland and Northern England, and I would say a learner should not bother with it.

The standard pronunciation of still has a shorter vowel, thus /stɪl/. That said, many speakers of Southern, Appalachian, and African-American Englishes, and what is called Estuary English, speak with what is called the fill-feel merger. Pairs like ill and eel, hill and heal, or will and we'll are pronounced the same in those accents. Again, I would say a learner is safest sticking to the standard pronunciation in speaking.

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    I'm curious what distinction is made in Yorkshire between "steal" and "steel". – chepner Jul 11 at 2:30
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    Indeed, some speakers of Cockney/Estuary English merge all four of ill, eel, hill and heal into /iw/. – TonyK Jul 11 at 9:53
  • There are times where I'll pronounce will and we'll the same - e.g. in "Will we go soon?" "Yes, we'll go soon", will and we'll are indistinguishable. – Bob Jarvis Jul 11 at 11:59
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    @BobJarvis: May I ask (roughly) where you live?   (I’m on the East Coast of the US, and I guess I would understand your speech, aided by context, but I would not speak that way myself, and I would not consider it correct.) – Scott Jul 11 at 12:09
  • Would you say that “we’ll” and “wheel” are homophones? (I realize that there may be regional variations.) – Scott Jul 11 at 12:09
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I, for one, hear a significant difference between "still" and "steal" or "steel". I would call the vowel sound that I make, and typically hear, in "still" a "short-I", while I would call the vowel sound in "steal" or "steel" a "long-e". There are, I am sure, more technically correct terms for these sounds. To help clarify, to me "Still" rhymes with "hill" and "kill", while "steal" rhymes with "keel", "feel", and "conceal".

As is implied by the forgoing, to me "steal" and "steel" are homophones, with no detectable difference in sound.

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    There isn't much mention of "still" in these answers, perhaps because it is the most easily distinguished of the three. I think it's worth pointing out that one of the characteristics of a typical non-native accent is the way the short i in still is frequently mis-pronounced. The name "Philip" is not "Pheeleep", a pill is not peel and so on. – Weather Vane Jul 11 at 14:17
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Can fluent English speakers understand the sentence?

What? They still steal steel?

Well, certainly yes. We use our knowledge of everyday English to make a rational interpretation of the likely meaning of the sentence. In this sense, pronunciation is not key.

Can fluent English speakers distinguish these words when spoken in isolation, with no context? I could certainly attempt to pronounce each word with such emphasis to make each one sound unique and probably identifiable to many people. Would I do that in normal speech? Probably not.

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In English, the difference in writing between steel/steal and still is called a minimal pair.

ae/ee are pronounced the same way. It is their graphemes (how they are written) that differ.

still is pronounced differently. That said, there is only one sound difference between steel/steal and still.

minimal pairs

In English, minimal pairs (how you pronounce vowel sounds and not how they are written) are very important because

still contains the sound /ɪ/ for the i. steal/steel contain the sound [i:] for ea and ee.

The difference between steal and steel in spoken language will come from the co-text.

  • This seat is as hard as steel.
  • To steal is not a good thing.

The sounds in steel/steal and still are never misheard by native speakers in this sense. And still is an adverb. So, a totally different category.

It is important to do exercises with minimal pairs in order to become used to them. English has many quirks but knowing usual minimal pairs helps learners as how English sounds is not how it is written.

bat/bet
steal/steel [we saw this one], others include: feet and feat
hot/hit
but/bat
bait/late....notice: ai and a are both the same sound.

The most difficult one is probably the /ɪ/. The sounds of the i and u in the word minute (for time) are both /ɪ/. Also, the /ɪ/ does not exist in some languages like French and Spanish. So those speakers have a hard time with: sheet/ship.

Etc. There are tons of places online and in books to learn these sounds. Please note: there are regional variations sometimes.

At this level of learning, I think regional differences should be left out of explanations because it is already hard enough to grasp the idea of minimal pairs and graphemes in English.

  • I'm confused by your list of pairs. bat/bet, hot/hit and but/bat differ in single vowel sounds, and bait/late differs only in initial consonant sound, but surely sheen/neat differ in both initial and final consonant sounds? – jeffB Jul 11 at 17:04
  • I had an error. But the minimal pair sound difference between bait and late is correct. ai and a are the same sound here. – Lambie Jul 11 at 17:33
  • The list above includes both pairs of homonyms (is standard dialects) such as steal/steel and feet/feat. These are not minimal pairs. Others in the list, such as but/bat are. This should be corrected if this answer is to have value. – David Siegel Jul 12 at 22:04
  • The Wikipedia article in the above answer says: "and minimal pair drills were [in the 1940s and 1950s] widely used to train students ...However, later writers have criticized the approach as being artificial and lacking in relevance to language learners' needs." I tend to agree with the "later writers" and think it would be best to omit "minimal pairs" from answers here -- i do not see that they are of direct use to learners, although they may inform teaching methods, such as by knowing sounds or distinctions not found in some learner's native languages. – David Siegel Jul 12 at 22:07
  • On the other hand, i think that mention of alternate dialects should often be included in answers here, because learners will encounter at least the more common ones, and may encounter others. Learners of US English will surely encounter Southern and Western accents, and may encounter what is soemtiems called "African American Vernacular" and dialects spoken by those of Hispanic background. UK learners will surely encounter several variations besides RP, although I am not knowledgeable enough about BrE to be sure which (Cockney??) – David Siegel Jul 12 at 22:12
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"What? They still steal steel?"

Yes, "still" has a different sound to "steel" and "steal". We use our knowledge of general sentence order to logically work this out.

Also, the emphasis placed on each of these words in a question would allow us to understand that "steal" is the verb, and that "steel" is the noun. More emphasis may be placed on "steal" because the sentence is interrogative.

However, I understand that this is something hard for non-native English speakers. I have heard these three words pronounced as the same word many a time by non-native speakers. It is like "fill" and "feel". The only way you can get better at this is by listening to a native English pronunciation and practising.