The Unpronounceable Butter

You know what sucks? Words like “butter”. The “tt” is pronounced as anything but a “tt” and it is next to impossible for a non-native speaker to make sound right.

Of course, my new address has to start with just this kind of word. Plus there are several plosives in the address, which are also unpronounceable. I have to repeat my address over the phone fifty times a day nowadays, and every time it turns into a production.

And while I’m on the subject of complaining about the English language, has the word “who” gone completely out of business? I’m reading the endless “He is the writer that wrote the novel that. . .” and it just feels wrong. But since everybody is doing it, it’s possible I’m the one who’s confused.

And now I will fetch a pitcher of water and practice saying “butter, pot, tip and put.”

29 thoughts on “The Unpronounceable Butter

  1. I use who and whom correctly. (Except for the occasional typo.) I had a TA who was a grammar snob, and I begged him to teach me how to use these two words correctly. He did, and ever since I’ve tried to be precise about my usage of who/whom/that.

    I’m with you on unpronounceable words. I used to live on a street that English speakers would pronounce one way and Spanish speakers would pronounce another way. I lived there for five years, and every time I said my address aloud, I felt like I might be stupidly mispronouncing it. I never really got used to it. Not that that will make you feel better…


    1. David’s right. Just rhyme the word with “udder,” and everybody in the U.S. will know what you mean.

      (That’s “udder,” as on a cow, not “utter,” as in “to speak.”)


  2. Pronounce the tt in butter like a single Spanish r and you’ll be fine. In American the t and d between vowels (if the second vowel is unstressed) are pronounced the same, basically like a Spanish r (I knew of an Gringo in Latin America who got involved in a lengthy confusion because when he tried to say ‘todos’ the Latinos heard ‘toros’.

    Final t is often unreleased in American (as are final p and k sounds) which is really hard for non-natives to hear.


  3. The who/that thing drives me crazy, too.

    Pronounce a “tt” or terminal “t” like ‘d” but clip the word short. (if the word liegitimately ends in “d” or as a “dd” just elongate the vowel a little bitter). At least, that’s the advice i came to after trying to pronounce the words to myself–Cliff Arroyo is, I think, pretty much saying the same thing but it sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. 🙂

    Is it easier to make yourself understood to speakers of British English? They tend to make sharper, more explosive “t” sounds. I spend a year in a British boarding school, during which time I kept in touch with my American boyfriend, “Martin.” The Brits found the way I pronounced his name hilarious (the “t” all but disappears).


  4. About using “that” in place of “who:” Not everybody is doing it, although a surprisingly large number of people who claim to be “writers,” or at least blog writers, and should know better, are. But it is wrong wrong wrong, and will remain wrong as long as there are English Departments at highly regarded universities, and university presses, and real hard-cover publishers. Let one of those “that” users encounter an editor — and find out how far “that” will get before being red-lined out!


    1. Actually, no. It is perfectly acceptable to use “that” in place of “who.” See Mark Twain, “The man that corrupted Hadleyburg.” I guess he claimed to be a “writer” but was really not.


      1. Your sarcasm may be misplaced. Mark Twain, a journalist, frequently wrote in the vernacular — sometimes even in the “uneducated” vernacular. He is, of course, a well-known writer (and Huckleberry Finn an undisputed classic), but the fact that he may have used a particular locution in a particular book does not make it a model for received English. Clarissa’s sense that the use of “that” instead of “who” doesn’t feel right is entirely justified. Go Clarissa!


  5. I could give dozens of other examples from Shakespeare, King James Bible, etc… You just don’t know what you’re talking about, and there there is no such thing as “received English.”

    Compare with “a man which…” which actually is ungrammatical. Your belief that a hard-cover book is more grammatical than a paper-back is laughable.


    1. Actually, I do know what I’m talking about, and have the degrees to prove it. And there is indeed such a thing as received English. (By the way, what is “a man which” all about? I don’t recall that locution mentioned anywhere.) If you are the Jonathan Mayhew who teaches Spanish at the University of Kansas you should also know that we are discussing “usage,” not “grammar.” You seem to be getting very hot under the collar for something rather trivial and are verging on personal animadversion — which is a no no both among bloggers and in any discussion group of which I am aware. I’m therefore out of here. You can have the last word if it gives you such satisfaction, but it will only make you look foolish….


      1. My dictionary says: ” In practice, while it is true to say that ‘who’ is restricted to human references, the function of ‘that’ is flexible. It has been used for both human and nonhuman references since at least the 11th century. In standard English, it is interchangeable with ‘who’ in this context.” You said it was “wrong wrong wrong.” Yes, I do get hot around the collar about ignorant statements because people come to feel insecure about their own usage of English because of misguided people who think they know things they don’t. There is a “received pronunciation” in the UK, but I have never heard the term “received English.” I do know the difference between usage and grammar, but I also know that usage is not a question of absolute “right” and “wrong.”


        1. Not to worry, dear Clarissa. Speaking for myself, I’m not upset at all. Just more wary about toeing the water in the comment section of Clarissasblog.

          On another topic, WordPress keeps knocking your blog off my “Blogs I Follow” list and out of my Reader, so that I have to keep reclicking “Follow.” Does anyone else have that problem?


          1. On a positive note, the acrimony must mean that people REALLY care about the English language.

            Once again, I apologize for any unpleasantness.


        1. You’re absolutely right about the heat, Cliff, but apparently not about the ill will!!! When I see myself called “laughable,” “ignorant,” and a pedant who the writer “despise[s],” it’s clearly time to quit. Collegial discussion is fine, but it stops being fun when it gets nasty.


      2. Yes, what sounds better sounds better and you have to trust your instinct.. But why? In your case, “the writer that wrote the novel that…” has two relative clauses in a row. That’s already bad and repeating “that” makes it worse. Compare “This is the singer that I was telling you about yesterday.” “That” sounds better there, I think, because it avoids the awkward choice between who and whom.


        1. I’m not worried about the use of “that” instead of “who.” I’m bothered by what I see a complete avoidance of “who.” But you just solved the mystery for me when you mentioned that this might be an avoidance of “whom.”


  6. While I’m a native speaker, I often have weird pronunciations or cadences to my speech. (yay for autism and scripted words) – I’ve found that for things that involve repeating my address on the phone, I just say “can I spell it for you?” and I have a practiced “t as in tom” and “b as in boy” when I come to certain letters…


  7. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a ‘rule’ about not using ‘that’ with people and I wonder what it’s based on. I doubt if it’s based on the use of native speakers with at least a high school education.

    For me, ‘the woman who…’ and the ‘the woman that….’ are basically interchangeable.

    I can’t use ‘that’ with a proper name though, so “Jane Smith, who..” is fine and *”Jane Smith, that…” isn’t. Although if I add the article then that’s okay again. “The Jane Smith that I know would never do that” sounds much better than ?”The Jane Smith who I know would never do that”

    Also I never use ‘whom’ except as a relative after prepositions and only in a pretty formal register at that.

    nb. before the examples, * means ‘the following is ungrammatical’ and ? means ‘the followning is of undetermined grammatical status.


    1. Right. We don’t use “that” for people in non-restrictive clauses (with the comma). Adding the article makes it restrictive (which Jane Smith are you talking about?). The reason you’ve never heard of the rule is it ain’t one. Some people have tried to make it a rule, on the theory that it would be nice if “that” never referred to human subjects. It might be nice, but it isn’t an actual rule of English grammar or usage.


      1. I was going to get into restrictive vs non-restrictive but I thought that might send me over the edge into total grammar geekiness and any minute might start ranting that the English ‘simple present’… isn’t (it certainly doesnt’ correspond with the simple tense of Spanish or most other European languages).


    2. The point is not that nobody should use “that” to refer to people. What I don’t get is why “who” is so studiously avoided even in the sentences where it makes every sense.


      1. I can think of several possible reasons.

        If this is coming from students all of a sudden you might look to some other teacher they’ve all had (especially an ‘english composition’ teacher) who might require this for some reason (or they misunderstood something the teacher said and expanded use of ‘that’ is the result).

        Or… they’re thinking in Spanish! (I’m trying to fill the glass half way up here). While Spanish has a few different relatives que is okay almost all the time (and it lines up with ‘that’ much more than ‘who’).

        Or it could be an illusion, you’re seeing more than usual and noticing it for some reason while over all it’s not increasing.


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