English spelling: don’t let your pronunciation go awry (or is that ‘aw-ree’)?

How do you pronounce ‘awry’?

Those who’ve worked with me before will know that I talk a lot about spelling.

I remember as a student using the word ‘awry’ (meaning something that’s gone wrong or askew) when speaking about something and pronouncing it ‘aw-ree’.
Then one of my friends gently remarked, ‘do you mean ‘uh-RYE’?
My friend didn’t actually laugh at me, but it was still quite embarrassing. I obviously wasn’t as well-educated as I thought!
I knew what ‘awry’ meant, but then I’d never heard it out loud: I’d only ever seen it written down. And I followed the rule that ‘y’ at the end of a word sounds like ‘ee’.

Written English vs. spoken English

Whether or not English is your first language, like most of the people I work with you’re probably totally at ease with writing English.
The problem is, writing English and speaking English are very different things. And people who are familiar with written English, and comfortable using it, often have a difficult time expressing themselves in speech as readily as they can in writing.
I think there are two reasons for this:

1. English spelling doesn’t match English pronunciation

foreign signage in English full of spelling mistakes
English spelling: read this sign out loud, it’s pronounced the way it’s written!
I don’t need to tell you that English spelling can be a bit tricksy. Are there two c’s in ‘accommodation’? Is it ‘night’ or ‘nite’? And when you wrote that embarrassing email to your boss about how you ‘ red the report and their are no problems with it’, when of course you meant ‘read the report and there are no problems with it’, why didn’t the stupid spellcheck pick it up?
That last one is a real example: the client who shared that with me was mortified at having his mistakes corrected by colleagues! ’It sounds right when you read it out loud’, he said.
He’s correct, of course: ‘red’ sounds the same as ‘read’.  But English spelling is a very unreliable guide to how pronounce words.

2. Writing is all about WHAT you say: speaking is about HOW you say it, too    

Writing well is about structuring your statements coherently, getting the right overall tone, and choosing the right words. If you get all of that right, correct spelling is the icing on the cake: it’s a simple matter of proofreading (or running spellcheck!)
Speaking, on the other hand, is not just about WHAT you say but HOW you say it.
Are you articulating clearly? Do the words sound the way your listeners are expecting them to sound? Basically, are they going to fully understand what you’re saying?

‘Walk’ or ‘work’?

A statement you make in writing, all spelt correctly, could be completely clear: but if you say the same thing out loud, would it be properly understood?
For example: I worked with a doctor who used to often ask his patients:
“What kind of work do you do?”
It’s a simple question. But they often used to misunderstand him, because with his West African accent, they thought he was asking them about the way they walk!
It became clear that he was used to seeing a letter ‘o’ in a word and pronouncing it short, like the ‘o’ in ‘hot’. So ‘work’ sounded like ‘wok’ – which sounds a bit like ‘walk’, when it should rhyme with ‘jerk’ and ‘perk’.
But it’s not obvious that a word spelt ‘-ork’ should be pronounced ‘-erk’, is it?

Making sense of spelling

In my coaching sessions, we work with SOUNDS first and foremost. Then we look at all the different ways there are to spell a sound, so that you learn to associate the sound you’re making with the common everyday words you’re familiar with in writing.
Sometimes it means learning to break that very strong mental link we all develop between letters of the alphabet and the way your brain has trained itself to pronounce them.
As I always tell the people I work with: we have to get back to thinking of language as a collection of sounds, and words and phrases as strings of sounds, rather than arrangements of letters.
Think of it this way: there are far fewer sounds in standard English than there are ways to spell those sounds.
The ‘oo’ sound in ‘food’, for instance: you can spell it ‘ue’ as in ‘blue’, ‘iew’ as in ‘view’, ‘o’ as in ‘do’… there are many more! So speaking clearly is actually EASIER than writing clearly!
Except with words like ‘awry’…

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