The Grammarphobia Blog

Poetic license

Q: I pronounce “poem” with one syllable (like “pome”), but my significant other does it with two (like “POH-um”). She says I pronounce it like a noo-YAWK-ur. Who says it right?

A: Different dictionaries have different opinions about how to pronounce “poem.” Here are the opinions of the two American dictionaries I consult the most:

(1) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says it has two syllables. The first is accented and rhymes with Edgar Allan’s last name. The second sounds like the final syllable in “item.” This is more or less how I say it (POH-um). Like “poet,” but with an “m” instead of a “t” at the end.

(2) Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has several acceptable pronunciations, one syllable (rhyming with “home”) and two syllables (with the second pronounced like “um” or “im” or “em”). It would be hard to go wrong, according to M-W.

The earliest published reference for “poem” in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from the 15th century. We got it from the Latin poema via the Middle French poeme. For what it’s worth, the modern French poème has two syllables.

In answer to your question, both pronunciations are acceptable, but the two-syllable version seems to be more common.

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