Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

T Between Vowels

One of the reasons I started this blog was to share the discussions I have been enjoying with Good Word readers who write in questions and comments.

Not long ago Jane Quein wrote, “Another often misspelled word or mispronounced word is congratulations. Many people spell is congradulations. I’ve seen it spelled this way on many outdoor signs. Misspelled words drive me crazy!”

Me, too, though I am encouraged by the growing interest in spelling that I mentioned in my first blog, Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee (2006). The misspelling, of course, is wrong. Since we congratulate graduates when they graduate, it is easy to confuse the spelling of the two.

However, T is pronounced like a D in a wide range of English words, like writer (= rider), plotting (= plodding), and metal (= medal or meddle). These two consonants are identical except for the fact when we pronounce D, we vibrate our vocal cords but not when we pronounce T. (Actually, we also toss out a puff of air with the T but that is a moot issue here.)

Now, all vowels in English are voiced. You cannot pronounce a vowel without vibrating your vocal cords. This means that when a voiceless T occurs between vowels, we have to rev up our vocal cords, quickly shut them down for the split second it takes to pronounce T, then rev them up for the next vowel. That is a lot of double-clutching in the throat. Most English speakers do not bother, which means the vowels and the T are all voiced but voicing the T makes it a D.

That brings us to congrATUlate. It is one of those words with T between two vowels. So it is perfectly normal to pronounce this word with a D sound replacing the T. This same phenomenon is audible in the words mentioned above, words like writer and rider, plotting and plodding, metal and medal. Say “She is a plodding writer” to someone then ask them what “she” does—write or ride? How does “she” do it—straightforwardly or plottingly?

3 Responses to “T Between Vowels”

  1. maven Says:

    I always thought the pronunciation of the t in congratulations sounded more like or “j” or “ch”. Maybe it’s regional. I imagine there must be plenty of words where that sound is represented by the letter “d” though, (e.g. adulation) so maybe this wouldn’t break the connection between the misspelling and the pronunciation.

  2. marciepooh Says:

    Hmm, I put (or at least I think I do) a ‘t’ sound in writer, plotting, and metal, with a D they are other words. But I either a ‘d’ or ‘ch’ in congratulation, sitting at my desk at the moment I’m thinking about it too much to say it naturally. As a singer, I have to think about enunciation, at least in choir practice, and I wonder if that makes a difference in singers everyday speech?

  3. Art trujillo Says:

    Finally an intelligent comment about the intervocalic T, which softens the sound. About the only time we
    Hear maTTer is when we are contrasting it with maDDer.

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