As a hypothetical example, should we close Why are "put" and "but" different in their pronunciation? as a duplicate of Why is "chore" pronounced differently from the "chore" in "choreography"?

I think that would be ridiculous, but I have seen votes to close questions as "duplicates" for similar reasons. To me, this seems like a hostile way to treat perfectly good questions.

This is also not how duplicates are supposed to work. See the following Meta SE posts:

Duplicates are matching questions, and they have to match in the specifics, not just the general type of question. And in fact, the answers generally aren't duplicated either. Users are right to expect answers that are more in depth and specific than "etymology, great vowel shift, English spelling is so random."

If the community decides we really don't want to welcome this kind of question (which has not been established yet), it should be made clear in the Help Center that they are off-topic. Then it would be valid to vote to close these questions as "off-topic." But calling them "duplicates" is just false.

This is a general question. Although it was prompted by specific close-votes that I feel are a problem, it is not just about these votes or the users who cast them. But for those who want the actual examples, here they are:

  1. Why is the word watch pronounced differently from words like patch, latch, match, catch, and batch? It was suggested that this is a duplicate of Why is "chore" pronounced differently from the "chore" in "choreography"? These are obviously not the same question. The top answer to the "duplicate" starts out "Because of etymology." Etymology is totally irrelevant to the diffent pronunciations of the vowels in "watch" and "latch." Both words derive from the same source language (Old English), and they had the same sequence of sounds in that language ("watch" comes from wæcce/wæccende, and "latch" comes from læccan/læccean.)
  2. Why do "bomb" and "tomb" have different pronunciations? It was suggested that this is duplicate of Why are "put" and "but" different in their pronunciation? Both of these questions are about how vowel pronunciations have evolved over time. The similarity ends there. The top answer to the second question starts with the following introductory paragraphs:

    English is over a thousand years old, and has been through so many changes in the meantime that even very competent speakers struggle with English as it was written a few hundred years ago, and that of a few hundred more is so different as to essentially be a different language entirely.

    This has left us with a great many inconsistencies, and the fact that English borrows from different languages, at different times, with different degrees of Anglicisation, leaves us with many more (though not in this case).

    Some of the reasons for particular cases are hard or impossible to track, and some are open to reasonable conjecture, while others we can make more reliable statements about.

    Evidently, some people have the impression that this would make a satisfactory answer all by itself to all questions of this type. But if you look at the post, that's not even a fifth of the way into it. The rest of it is an in-depth explanation of the specific etymological histories of put and but and the sound changes that applied to these words. And none of that is applicable to the words "bomb" and "tomb."

Edit (27 April 2016)

I just found an older, highly upvoted question that has comments related to this topic: "Why is ‘i’ in milk pronounced differently from ‘i’ in find?" I thought I'd copy nohat's comment, which I think perfectly expresses my feelings:

I know you guys don't like these questions, but I love them and the interesting, subtle facts we can learn from the fabulous answers we get, as Janus's here. Sure, many people don't intuit the primacy of spoken language, but to dismiss these questions because the askers have a misunderstanding is short-sighted. To say that they all have the same answer is empirically false, and, with all due respect, there is a complex relationship between English spelling and pronunciation. Pronouncements implying that they are utterly orthogonal are manifestly wanting.

  • 6
    +1. I think EL&U is stronger for having questions and answers about spelling, pronunciation, regional English, punctuation, style guidelines, and other topics that some participants care a lot about and others are inclined to dismiss. I don't understand why someone who has no interest in a particular area of usage feels aggravated by questions that focus on that area and tries to shoot them down with simplistic arguments. Let people who care about pronunciation give serious answers to questions raised on that topic. We don't all have to care about a topic for it to be valid and useful.
    – Sven Yargs
    Apr 20, 2016 at 5:38
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    @SvenYargs - I agree, and the same issue as been raised with regard to other topics here, what remains unclear is what these users are actually interested in, apart from making a lot of unuseful and uncontnstructive comments.
    – user66974
    Apr 20, 2016 at 6:20
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    I see no evidence that the two questions you nominate have ever been suggested as duplicates. Therefore this is a straw man. [That's not to say that mistakes in reading a question's intent or the appropriateness of a nominated duplicate don't happen, but evidence would be useful.]
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Apr 20, 2016 at 6:43
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    @AndrewLeach the post based on the highly upvoted comment that was left underneath one OP in particular. A recent question. I'm sure it was said in an off the cuff manner, it's not the first time someone posts comments such as: "Because English" or "Because spelling is weird" or "Because they're English words?". People do leave similar comments, especially when the OP is asking about pronunciation and/or spelling, but it was only a comment. Oh, and a different user did suggest closing it as a duplicate.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 20, 2016 at 9:06
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    @Mari-LouA I see a difference between questions that ask, "How is this word's spelling or pronunciation different in different dialects or different time periods" and "Why isn't this word pronounced like another word that is spelled the same." I think all of the latter are duplicates.
    – jejorda2
    Apr 20, 2016 at 20:58
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    @jejorda2 but the reasons aren't always the same, sometimes it's the so-called vowel shift, sometimes it was a typographer's convention, the capitalised pronoun I, sometimes a silent letter was added because the word was derived from Latin (debt, and scent) sometimes a letter used to be pronounced but over time the pronunciation changed: see Shakespeare's works etc.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 20, 2016 at 21:10
  • @jejorda2: So would you be fine with the "bomb" and "tomb" question if it were rephrased to something like "How did the pronunciations of "bomb" and "tomb" evolve over time? Did they ever rhyme?"
    – herisson
    Apr 20, 2016 at 21:21
  • There was a question about monkey and donkey not rhyming come to think of it. That too got closed. Did it reopen? I wonder. EDIT: english.stackexchange.com/questions/275205/…
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 20, 2016 at 22:03
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    The point is, all these questions have the same four or five answers, even after you get down to details such as GVS. From an academic standpoint, once you've seen a few of them they just become noise. If the person asking the question expressed a specific reason for needing to know about a specific case it would be one thing, but asking simply because you think English spelling/pronunciation is stupid is non-productive (and does not serve the purported purposes of this site). It makes sense to make such questions dupes of a handful of prototypical ones, if they are not deleted entirely.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 20, 2016 at 22:04
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    @HotLicks: Thanks for responding. I'm interested in discussing this further; perhaps we could set up a chat room. I disagree that these answers are all basically the same; I've explained some of the reasons why in my edited post. I think there is no reason to assume people are asking these questions because they "think English spelling/pronunciation is stupid." Asking a question shows curiosity and a desire to learn. The answers to these questions have valuable, specific, hard-to-find information about the history of these words and how they have evolved in spelling and pronunciation.
    – herisson
    Apr 21, 2016 at 21:03

1 Answer 1


I agree that there are different purposes for these spelling vs pronunciation questions, and that there is so little out there for people to get real answers other than asking native users who like talking about this stuff. Dictionaries are so lacking, and the gap between standardized spoken English and all the ever-changing variations heard out in the world can just confound users when they try to look for clues in spelling...

There is a natural inquiry about pronunciation and spelling that I respect - from both an academic and a user standpoint. Here's an example: Being from Boston and obsessed with language use, I can tell the difference from someone who is from Boston proper and has Gaelic influence in their speech heritage and someone from western Massachusetts who has French heritage, simply by the way they produce the final consonant in the word "what". Back in the day my motivation in learning to discern the difference had more to do with being street savvy enough to identify quickly who was from which part of town, but that street skill is one that I find handy in deepening my understanding of language and human geography now. If I were a learner/practitioner and repeatedly found that what I was hearing out in the world did not match what I saw/wanted to express on the page, I would want a forum like this to turn to for help.

Another aspect of this issue that I respect is about keeping current with creative/common uses in comparison to covention. I don't listen to much spoken-word performance, but on the rare occasion that I do, I am invariably struck by the new forms of rhyming that collapse or expand diphthongs and frontalize lateral glides etc...and I can't imagine what these utterances would like like on the page - now or in the near future as inevitably change in usage will change spelling convention.

I believe there is worthwhile contribution here, and I like the idea of creating/diverting space for it. Maybe a category for semi-duplicate and a re-direct link to the original-but-not-exactly the same inquiry could be a solution...?

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