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How to Pronounce 'Caramel'

Have you ever been accused of pronouncing "caramel" the wrong way? Here's how different people pronounce it differently.

By
Mignon Fogarty,

The words "how to pronounce caramel."

Jeffrey wrote in after he noticed that I pronounced “caramel” as “car-muhl” a few weeks ago, and that sounded wrong to him.

The Harvard Dialect Survey found that the three-syllable pronunciation (car-a-mel) is dominant all along the east coast of the United States, from Maine to Florida and extending into the south, through Atlanta, Mississippi, Louisiana, and parts of Texas. Jeffrey, it turns out, was born and raised in New York, which explains why “car-a-mel” is the way he’s used to hearing it. 

My parents are from the midwest, I grew up in Seattle, and I’ve lived in the west my whole life; and I rarely recall hearing anyone pronounce it “car-a-mel,” although the Harvard Dialect Survey maps show that there are some people here who pronounce it that way. 

The most memorable thing for me is caramel apples, which has a melodic sound with both words having two syllables: “caramel apples.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone call them “car-a-mel apples.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage acknowledges three pronunciations for the word, saying “ker-a-mel” is best, “kar-a-mel” is second best, and “car-mel” is worst, although he doesn’t give a reason for his ranking. 

I’ll concede that the three-syllable pronunciations better reflect the spelling of the word: C-A-R-A-M-E-L. But many words aren’t pronounced exactly like they are spelled, as we learned in the “worcestershire” episode a few months ago. There are even other three-syllable words in which the middle syllable is often dropped such as “interesting,” which is often pronounced “intresting,” and “laboratory,” which is often pronounced “labratory.”

I’ll also concede that I feel a little bit defensive about the “carmel” pronunciation, given that it’s all I heard growing up, and seems to be the common pronunciation in my region and—depending on which maps you look at—in the majority of the United States, and then it feels like people are just decreeing for no reason that one pronunciation is “better” than the others. 

But no matter how you pronounce it, the correct spelling is C-A-R-A-M-E-L. Sometimes people spell it without the A in the middle based on the “carmel” pronunciation, and that spelling is wrong. 

While we’re on the topic, I’ve always wondered what the difference is between caramel and butterscotch, so I looked it up. The biggest difference between the two is that caramel is made with white granulated sugar and butterscotch is made with brown sugar. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

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