Commonly Confused Vowels: Minimal Pairs

What are minimal pairs and how can they help me with pronunciation?

Do you struggle to pronounce certain vowels sounds in English? English vowels can be tricky to distinguish and this results in many commonly confused vowels and misunderstandings.  What can help? Practicing with commonly confused minimal pairs can help you isolate the sounds you struggle with.  Minimal pairs are two words that are pronounced almost in the same way, but they have one sound that makes them different, a vowel or a consonant.  

If you learn to distinguish minimal pairs by practicing them back to back, you can really improve your English pronunciation. Learning to hear the difference between minimal pairs is also a great way to become a better English listener. Most importantly, by practicing the following minimal pairs, you can learn to avoid common mistakes and misunderstandings when communicating in English.

 

Commonly confused vowels: /æ/ vs.  /e/ 

Notice how the mouth is more open in /æ/ and more narrow for /e/

  • Annie      any
  • gnats       nets
  • axes         X’s
  • knack      neck
  • rack         wreck
  • bad           bed
  • bag           beg
  • madly      medley
  • sad           said
  • ban          Ben
  • sand        send
  • slapped   slept
  • bat           bet
  • mat          met
  • paddle     pedal
  • batter      better
  • pan          pen
  • tamper    temper
  • bland       blend
  • pack         peck
  • than         then
  • fanatic     phonetic

Confused vowels: /i:/ vs. /I/  

Notice how /i:/ is longer and is produced with a wider mouth position while the /I/ sounds shorter and is pronounced with a narrower mouth position. 

  • beach      bitch* (swear word in English) 
  • beat         bit
  • cheap      chip
  • cheek      chick
  • deal         dill
  • each        itch
  • feel          fill
  • gene        gin
  • green      grin
  • keen       kin
  • lead        lid
  • leak        lick 
  • leave      live
  • meal      mill
  • peach    pitch
  • peak      pick
  • reach     rich
  • scene     sin
  • seat        sit

Commonly mixed up: /oʊ/ vs. /aʊ/  

Take note of how the lips are rounded and then becomes smaller to pronounce /oʊ/ while the /aʊ/ starts in a wide positions that then narrows to a more rounded position

  • arose         arouse
  • phoned     found
  • boat          bout
  • pro            prow
  • hole          howl
  • hose          house
  • crowed     crowd
  • coach        couch 
  • so              sow
  • tone          town
  • sews         sows
  • groaned   ground

 

Commonly confused vowels: /oʊ/ vs. /ɔ/ 

Notice how the lips start in a larger rounded position and then become smaller for /oʊ/ while the mouth is consistently rounded in a medium position for the /ɔ/ sound. 

  • bowl         ball
  • so              saw
  • drone       drawn
  • note         nought
  • close        claws
  • foal          fall
  • Low         law
  • drone      drawn
  • goal         gall
  • oat          ought
  • sew         saw
  • tote         taught
  • choke     chalk
  • close      claws

 

Commonly confused vowels: /oʊ/ vs. /ɔːr/  

Notice how the mouth starts in a larger rounded position and then becomes smaller for /oʊ/ while the mouth starts in a medium rounded position and then widen slightly for /ɔːr/. The tip of your tongue should be pulled back in the middle of the /ɔːr/ pronunciation. 

  • folk             fork
  • Know          nor
  • mow           more
  • poke           pork
  • show          sure
  • chose         chores
  • doe             door
  • dome         dorm
  • doze           doors
  • foe              four
  • go               gore
  • know         nor
  • moaning  morning
  • owe           or
  • snow        snore
  • stow         store

Need help? 

Still not sure if you’re pronouncing those sounds correctly? Do you need some feedback on your pronunciation to determine if you’re on the right track?  To learn more about English pronunciation and practice it in conversation, join SpeakUp, a dynamic program that engages you in authentic conversations on relevant topics and provides you with feedback from a professional and experienced English teacher.  The first week is free for you to try it out!  

 

Anita Collins

Anita Collins

Anita is a long-time English teacher and language enthusiast from Canada, currently living in the multilingual city of Montreal. She majored in linguistics, dabbled in translation, and has been teaching students from all over the world for over a decade. She now spends each morning trying to balance her two loves: planning the next trip and spoiling her beagle. The rest of her day she spends on curriculum design and language classes, with the beagle underfoot.
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