English contains many minimal pairs, and well-known examples are the words ship and sheep and tree and three.
Likewise, many students find it hard to come to terms with the fact that most verbs in English change tense using only one tiny little sound and they often need ongoing practice in pronouncing such differences.
Not all minimal pairs are difficult to set apart. For example bat and boot, swim and swam, rose and doze, bush and book. This article is concerned with difficult minimal pairs.
Differences in consonants
These can be grouped together by initial sound or final sound:
choose - Jews; choose - shoes; chop - shop; cheese - she's; day - they; sink - zinc; think - sink; three - tree;
Two similar consonants: badge - batch; life - live (adj.); sin - sing; some/sum - sun/son; watch - wash;
One extra sound at the end: bill - build; chain - change; fine - find; hell - help; sell - self; star - start;
The following are especially common:
- /d/ vs /t/: grade - great; hard – heart; made - mate; played - plate; raid - rate; ride – right/write; said - set; side/sighed - sight/site; stayed - state; thread - threat; tide/tied - tight; weighed - weight; white - wide;
- /z/ vs /s/: eyes - ice; lose - loose; phase - face; plays - place; prize - price; raise/rays - race; rise - rice;
Sound in the middle of the word
alive - arrive; decree - degree; money - mummy; precedent - president; simple - symbol
Differences in vowels
- /æ/ vs /ʌ/: back - buck; ban- bun; bat - but; cat - cut; lack - luck; mad - mud; pack - puck; stack - stuck; staff - stuff; swam - swum; ran - run; tan - ton;
- /ɪ/ vs /iː/: bit - beat/beet; chip - cheap; dip - deep; fill - feel; filled - field; hid - heed; hit - heat; live (vb.) – leave; ship - sheep; sit - seat; still - steal/steel; will - wheel;
- /aɪ/ vs /eɪ/: height - hate; light - late; plight - plate; ride - raid; right/write - rate; white - wait/weight; wide - wade;
- various: great - greet; line - loin; nose - noise; soup - soap; state - estate; walk - work;
- Polysyllables: apologies - apologise; batter - butter; bottle - battle;
Differences in word stress
- record (vb) – record (n); weekend – weakened; below - bellow;
"Nasty neighbours"/commonly confused words
As well as the minimal pairs mentioned above, there are several words which, while not strictly minimal pairs, are sufficiently similar to each other so as to cause problems for many students. Examples such as foot /fʊt/ - food /fuːd/ can be hard to distinguish as they not only have similar - but to the native ear, different - vowels, but also similar consonants, thereby making them doubly treacherous.
Other nasty neighbours are minimal pairs, but contrary to reason, the different letter is not the one that changes in sound.
- loose /luːs/ - lose /luːz/
- prophecy /ˈprɒfəsɪ/ - prophesy /ˈprɒfəsaɪ/
- woman /wʊmən/ - women /wɪmən/
These examples vary one letter and two sounds
- breath /breθ/ - breathe /briːð/
- desert /ˈdezərt/ - dessert /dɪˈzɜːrt/ (note that the verb desert is also pronounced /dɪˈzɜːrt/)
- Wikipedia, minimal pair
- Cited in Wikipedia: G. Brown (1990), Listening to Spoken English. pp. 144–146.
- International Phonetic Alphabet
- Pronunciation and decoding exercises: /s/ vs /z/
- Ship or sheep
- Vocabulary ELT games