Compound words

A compound word is a word that is made from two other words put together, for example, “lumber” plus “yard” = “lumberyard”. English has thousands of compound nouns, but there are also some compound adjectives, adverbs and verbs. Here are a few examples:

  • Adjective: childlike, postwar, secondhand, lifelike, monthlong, citywide, overanxious
  • Adverb: henceforth, anyway, overall, nonetheless (3 words!)
  • Verb: freelance, proofread, upgrade

Pronouncing compound words

The important thing to know about pronuncing compound words, is that you should follow the pronunciation and spelling patterns of the individual words. You should not try to apply spelling patterns to the whole compound word together. Here are some examples of errors that could happen if you try to say a compound as a single word rather than two words together:

Silent final -e
An [-e] at the ends of words is silent, but a silent [-e] can be found in the middle of a word, if it is part of a compound. For example “hedgehog” is the two words “hedge” plus “hog”. The [-e] at the end of “hedge” is still a silent final [-e]. So you should NOT say “hed-ge-hog”!

Y as a consonant
When the letter “Y” is in front of a vowel, it is a consonant. However, in a compound word such as “layout”, the “Y” is not a consonant, it is just part of the vowel of the first word “lay”. You should NOT say “la-yout”!

False digraphs
Normally, when the letters “T” and “H” are together, they work as a pair (diagraph) to represent the /th/ sound. However, in the middle of a compound such as “foothold”, it might look like there is a “TH”, but it is not. You should say “foot-hold” and NOT say “foo-thold”.

So, you need to keep your eye open for compound words, in order to pronounce them correctly. There are some compounds that are hyphenated (written with a dash mark), such as “mass-produced”, and those are easy to see, but a compound that is written as one word could trick your eyes.

There are only just a few compounds that have a pronunciation which is a little bit different from the original two words, such as “vineyard” and “breakfast”.

Don’t let your eyes be tricked — be on the lookout for compound words, and remember to use the spelling and pronunciation patterns of the individual words.


A tongue-twister: Thistle sticks


Six thick thistle sticks.
Six thick thistle sticks.
Six thick thistle sticks.

This tongue-twister is good for practicing 2 things:

1. Short-i. In all of these words, the [i] uses the Short-i sound. The key to Short-i is to relax your tongue so that it doesn’t sound like Long-E (see This or These ).

2. “TH”. Be careful –“TH” should not sound like the “S”! (see TH Part 1 & TH Part 2 )

TH – Part 2. Some funny mix-ups.

So, when people do not pronounce TH correctly, what sound do they make instead?

When TH is voiceless (voice is off), common substitutions are T or S, and sometimes F.
When TH is voiced, the most common substitutions are D and Z (or occasionally V).

This can lead to some funny (or perhaps embarrassing) mix-ups.  For example, I sometimes hear students say “taught” when they are trying to say “thought” or they say “mouse” when they want to say “mouth”!

Some other possible mix-ups would be:
“thought” might sound like: “taught” “sought” or “fought”
“death” –> “debt” or “deaf”
“thank” –> “tank” or “sank”
“three” –> “tree” or “free”
“think” –> “sink”
“thing” –> “sing”
“fourth” –> “fort” or “force”
“math” –> “mat” or “mass”
“both” –> “boat”
“faith” –> “fate” or “face”
“truth” –> “truce”
“author” –> “otter” or “offer”
“thin” –> “tin” “sin” or “fin”
“those” –> “doze”
“worthy” –> “wordy”
“father” –> “fodder”
“mother” –> “mutter”
“they” –> “day”
“other” –> “udder” (or “utter”)
“either” –> “eater”

You could end up with a funny meaning if you switch some of those words around!

Since the TH sounds in English are used very frequently (and because it is not difficult for the tongue to produce) it would be worth the effort to train yourself to say them right. So, go ahead! Don’t be afraid of TH!

NOTE: there are a few words in which the TH does not make the usual sound.  For example, in the name “Thomas”, the TH is actually pronounced as a T sound. Another example is a word like “foothold” which has an accidental TH: the T of the word “foot” happens to be next to the H of the word “hold” but they keep their separate sounds.

TH – Part 1. Don’t Be Shy!

The “TH” sound is one that most ESL learners have problems with — I would guess it is probably 99%.

Do you absolutely need to fix it? No. That’s because so many people mispronounce it, that it is sort of a “normal” mistake, and native speakers are used to hearing it wrong.

So, why bother?

1. “TH” is fairly easy to fix – but you do need to get over being shy about it! Most of my students feel awkward or embarrassed when they say it the right way.

2. “TH” is a VERY frequent sound. You find words with “th” in almost every sentence of English – it is in many words that we use all the time: the / this / thing / think / they / them / that / those / there / then / with / both / other / earth / teeth / mother / father / south / north / month / truth / three / fifth / tenth / thousand / (This is just a few examples!)

3. Since “TH” is so frequently mispronounced, it is possible to go for quite a while without having any major communication problems, but you should be aware that an incorrect “TH” is a very common part of English “baby talk.” For example, when my son was small, if I asked him “How old are you?” he would answer by showing me 3 fingers and saying “free!”

4. You should also be aware that there are many words that can be confused if the “TH” is not pronounced well. (I hear them all the time.) Some examples: “mouth” can sound like “mouse” / “author” can sound like “otter” / “three” can sound like “tree” or “free”.
These kinds of mistakes can slow down a conversation or lead to funny misunderstandings. (I will give more examples in my next post.)

5. Remember, it is “real” English. Even if you think it feels or sounds “funny”, it actually sounds completely normal for English – and this is true for all types of English: American, British, or whatever.

1. “TH” is not tricky – you just need to be brave, and stick the tip of your tongue between the upper and lower teeth. Saying it correctly consistently is really just a matter of practice and self-discipline.

2. There are 2 kinds of “TH”.
a. Voiceless “TH” is said with the voice turned off. Some examples are: thing / think / with / both / earth / teeth / south / north / month / truth / three / fifth / tenth / thousand.

b. Voiced “TH” needs to be said with the voice on (vocal cords vibrating). Some examples are: the / this / they / them / that / those / there / then /other / mother / father.

My next post will give more examples and other tips.