1. While listening to the OALD's pronunciations of prefatory, I wondered why the British pronunciation (ˈprɛfətrɪ, which resembles ♦pre-fah-trie) lacks the sound of the letter o, and thus seems less intuitive than the American (ˈprɛfəˌtɔri, which resembles preh-fah-tory)? Is it wrong in British English to articulate the o?

  2. What are some formal terms describing this phonetics issue? Alas, I'm unversed in phonetics; so please feel free to edit the title and question.

Footnote: I apologise for ♦mimicking the pronunciation (3. Are there apter words to describe my action?)
; I can't aurally register phonetic symbols.

  • 1
    Do you mean pre-fah-try/tory instead of pret-fah-try/tory?
    – DJMcMayhem
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 0:17
  • @DJMcMayhem -- The original poster is French. French has a number of silent consonants that modify the preceding vowels.
    – Jasper
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 0:47
  • @DJMcMayhem Thank you! Yes; I edited my OP accordingly. In the future, please feel free to edit any of my posts for improvement.
    – user8712
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 1:00
  • @LawArea51Proposal-Commit I would have edited it, but minor changes are not allowed. I think it has to be at least a 6 character change.
    – DJMcMayhem
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 1:02
  • 1
    You might find this book of interest: books.google.com/…
    – TimR
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 12:18

2 Answers 2


I'll answer the questions in reverse order, starting with the phonetic process and then talking about this specific example.

The name for this phenomenon in general would be elision; in fact, it also occurs in French. Elision refers to a sound being dropped or muted in the pronunciation of a word, and this often occurs to vowels in unstressed syllables. As an example, in the French word appeler, there is sometimes elision of the second vowel. It's difficult sometimes to give exact reasons for phonetic processes, but the reason for elision might be that these vowels are less important for understanding, so they can be left out when people talk quickly.

In the English word "prefatory", the stress falls on the first syllable, so the letter o is not stressed. In British English, this has led to the o being elided, so it is now a silent letter. However, the usual American pronunciation lacks elision. This difference applies more generally to the pronunciation of the endings -ary, -ery, and -ory in British and American English. However, it's hard to see a more general phonetic rule behind this; I would say this is simply one of the differences between British and American English that has developed over the centuries.

There are also words that usually have elision in American but not British English, such as the word "laboratory".



After the American revolution, Noah Webster and other language and education reformists set out to deliberately rationalize and simplify an American language as part of forming an identity for the newly founded nation. As part of this, Webster created language textbooks to simply teaching and learning in US schools. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_Webster)

In Webster's "Spellers," words were broken into syllables which students were encouraged to learn by sounding out individually. Thus American pronunciations like "pref-a-tor-y;" and "off-ten" for "often," "sal-mun" for "salmon," etc.

Webster also officially adopted simpler alternate spellings for words like "color," "jail," and "aluminum."

  • Webster's innovation in syllabification was to define syllables by pronunciation rather than by etymology. But Americans drop syllables left and right, in words like interesting, vegetable, every, beverage, favorite, and so on, so this can't be the full explanation. Besides, we don't pronounce often as "off-ten" or salmon "sal-mun" either.
    – choster
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 14:19
  • Right. The full explanation would be in my doctoral thesis on the subject, should I choose to write such a thing. But we don't all speak like Noah Webster did, and we don't all speak alike. Most modern Americans say "offen," but I heard someone say "off-ten" just yesterday. Nor are we necessarily consistent: I might use canned "sa'mun" to make a "salmun" salad. However, I will admit that not ev'ry int'ris'ting veg'table bev'rage is my fav'rit.
    – Evelyn
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 14:51
  • I'm also kind of skeptical that we can pinpoint the source of this difference to the influence of Noah Webster. It's possible, but my first hypothesis would be that it's just another way the British and American forms of English developed separately. Do we know how old the elision in British pronunciation of these words is?
    – sumelic
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 16:02
  • Thomas Sheridan’s “General Dictionary of the English Language” of 1780 says for the the pronunciation of words in -ery “always sounded érry” and -ory “always sounded as if written u̍rry”, making no mention of any possible elision; in contrast, he does not the elision of, e.g., the “e” in the past suffix “-ed”. He also shows the pronunciation of prefatory with 4 syllables “pre̍f′-fe̍-tu̍r-y̍”. Sheridan was Irish, but I wouldn’t think that made any significant difference in his pronunciation of standard English.
    – sumelic
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 16:23
  • 1
    It wasn't all Noah Webster: he is just the most widely known of the group of language reformers involved. And they didn't invent much, if any, of what they promoted: they merely chose which of several alternates then in current use to codify as correct American English. They did, however, set out to create a distinct American form of English; and succeeded.
    – Evelyn
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 17:31

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