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To be an expert speller, you must learn the language of spelling. And this includes a number of different things. But learning pronunciation is key. The number of spellers who have misspelled a word in competition because they learned the wrong pronunciation is legion. Don’t become one of them! Let’s learn correct pronunciation – and how to read diacritics – starting with long and short vowels.

Since Merriam Webster Unabridged Online is the official source for words, we should learn the pronunciation symbols this website uses. (For simplicity’s sake, I often refer to this website as the MWU.) Because the MWU covers the entirety of the American English language, it must cover every sound uttered therein. So using simple phonetic symbols you may recognize from grade school won’t suffice. But the daunting International Phonetic Alphabet (the IPA) goes too far. So Merriam-Webster came up with a happy medium that works simply yet effectively. It shows the pronunciation of each word in the dictionary between two backslashes, or virgules, as you’ll see demonstrated below.

Let’s begin!

Long Vowels

The four long vowels are simple to recognize and simple to pronounce. (The vowel u is actually not included here.) We simply write each long vowel with a short horizontal line over it called a macron. When you see such a vowel written this way, you pronounce it by simply saying the letter. So we simply pronounce the sound \ā\ like the letter a. The same goes with each other vowel. Here are examples of words that contain each long vowel sound.

  • \ā\: say, weigh, lay, skate
  • \ē\: bee, neat, read, sleet
  • \ī\: die, why, ply, night
  • \ō\: go, know, hoe, comb

Short Vowels

Like long vowels, the three short vowels are also simple to recognize and pronounce. (In this case, the vowels o and u are not included in the set of short vowels.) Each one is simply written as a vowel without any marking of any sort. If you studied phonics in grade school, you may remember that these short vowels appeared as a vowel with a little curved line like a smile above them. (They looked like this: ă ĕ ĭ ŏ ŭ) We call these vowels short simply because they are often pronounced for a shorter time than long vowels. Here are some example words of each of the three short vowels.

  • \a\ = cat, grass, plaid, match
  • \e\ = bet, blend, thresh, meant
  • \i\ = fit, splint, pill, rich

To address the elephant in the room right now, why are there only four long vowels and only three short vowels? Don’t worry. Merriam-Webster didn’t overlook these! We’ll discover more about these remainders in our next blog post (or two).

Photo credit: Pamela Hilsher Walters, mother of Grace Walters, spelling coach extraordinaire for multiple Scripps champions. Meet their newest pet: Webster, the Dictionary Cat, posing next to an embroidered bee. Follow Webster on Instagram!