The Grammarphobia Blog

To haff and haff not

Q: I tried to call you during your last appearance on WNYC, but I couldn’t get through. My question is that I constantly hear people pronouncing the word “have” as “haff,” such as “I haff to go to the store.” What is that all about?

A: You’ve noticed a common pattern in English pronunciation. Some linguists call it “voicing assimilation,” and here’s how it affects the pronunciation of the letters “v “and “f.”

These letters are nearly twins, as you can see when you pronounce “very” and “ferry,” or “have” and “half.” If you look in the mirror, you’ll notice that the lips and teeth are positioned identically for both “v” and “f.”

The only difference here is that “v” is voiced (pronounced with the vocal cords vibrating) and “f” is “voiceless” (the vocal cords aren’t involved, only a rush of air).

When these letters appear at the end of a word (as in “have” and “half”) and just before a vowel, they’ve pronounced normally: “have a cookie” … “half a cookie.”

But before the letter “t,” the “v” becomes “voiceless” – that is, it’s pronounced as “f”: “I haff to go.”

This shouldn’t be regarded as a mispronunciation. Think of it this way. The “v” is there all right; it’s just undergone a little shift.

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