English language Uncategorized

Just the fax, ma’am

Q: I was born and raised in the US, but I’ve worked overseas most of my adult life. I get back from time to time, but my English is always somewhat out-of-date. What bothers me now is hearing so many people not pronounce the letter “t” in certain plurals. For example, “tests” becomes “tess,” “districts” is “distrix,” “next” sounds like “nex,” and “facts” like “fax.” What’s going on?

A: The pronunciations you mention aren’t unusual and aren’t incorrect. In practice, not every English plural is pronounced exactly as the singular with an “s” at the end. The distinct enunciation of several consonants in a row is often awkward and unnatural.

A phonologist could explain this much better, but I’ll do my best. Let’s take these plurals one at a time.

“Tests.” Most people would pronounce the second “t” if “tests” came at the end of a sentence or before a vowel (as in “the tests are in”). But when “tests” appears before a consonant (as in “tests tomorrow” or “tests daily”) that “t” is often elided into the following letter. Thus a speaker may appear to be saying “tess tomorrow” or “tess daily.”

“Districts.” In the plural, the second “t” is generally elided into the “s.” So it sounds like “distrix.” It would require a real bit of gymnastics for the tongue to separately enunciate all three consonants: the “c,” the “t,” and the “s.” Hence the “t” is elided into the next letter.

“Next.” When the words appears at the end of a sentence, or before a vowel (as in “next in line”), both the “x” and the “t” are sounded. But before a consonant, the “t” is often elided. Example: “nex customer” or “nex time.”

“Facts.” Again, it’s difficult (and in fact unnatural) for the tongue to enunciate separately all three consonants: the “c,” the “t,” and the “s.” Hence the “t” is elided into the next letter, which is why “facts” rhymes with “fax.”

I often wish dictionaries listed standard pronunciations for both singulars and plurals, but they don’t. Sigh.

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