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Is the First Dictionary Pronunciation the Best One?

You were probably taught that the first pronunciation in the dictionary is the best one, but it's not quite true.

By
Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read
a woman looking up a pronunciation in a dictionary
The Quick And Dirty

In some dictionaries, especially older ones, the first pronunciation may have been the preferred pronunciation at the time, but it’s not a universal rule today that the first pronunciation is the best one or most common.

I know at some point I was told that the first pronunciation in the dictionary is the best one or the most common one—and maybe you were told this too—but I also remember hearing it isn’t true, so I did a little research.

From what I can tell, it seems like this rule was more common in the past. I found a book from 1918 that said “If more than one pronunciation is allowable, the preferred one is given first,” and the 1973 edition of Britannica Junior Encyclopedia for Boys and Girls says essentially the same thing: “Where there is more than one pronunciation, the preferred one is given first.”

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But in newer reference books, it’s either ambiguous or clearly stated that the first pronunciation isn’t necessarily the preferred one.

The Oxford English Dictionary “Key to Pronunciation” simply says, “The pronunciations given are those in use among educated urban speakers of standard English in Britain and the United States.” To me, that seems to imply the order doesn’t matter since other dictionaries have been more direct about it.

My Twitter friends were especially helpful, quickly sending me the pronunciation information from the dictionaries they had on hand.

Freelance editor DeAnna Burghart said her American Heritage Dictionary reads:

All pronunciations given are acceptable in all circumstances. When more than one is given, the first is assumed to be the most common, but the difference in frequency may be insignificant.

American Heritage Dictionary

Karen Conlin, an editor specializing in indie fiction and also a past winner of the ACES Robinson Prize sent me a photo from the front matter of her Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, which was published in 2009 and is especially clear on the matter. It reads:

The presence of variant pronunciations indicates that not all educated speakers pronounce words the same way. A second-place variant is not to be regarded as less acceptable than the pronunciation that is given first.

Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition

The next part fascinates me and shows how much interesting information you can glean from a careful reading of a dictionary, because the word that comes before the second variant can tell you how common it is.

  • If the word “also” comes before the second pronunciation, it means the pronunciation is less common.
  • If the word “sometimes” comes before the second pronunciation, it means the pronunciation is even less common.

It will also be labeled if the pronunciation is regional or considered dialect.

I presume that, at least in Merriam-Webster dictionaries, if the second pronunciation doesn’t have a label, you can infer that it is used with about the same frequency as the first pronunciation.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.