Minimal pair

From Teflpedia
(Redirected from Minimal pairs)
IPA vowels
æ ɑː
trap father - start
dress face square
ɪ ɪə
kit fleece near
ɒ əʊ ɔː
lot goat taught
ʊ ʊə
foot goose mature
juː jʊə
cute cure
ʌ ə ɜː
strut comma nurse
price mouth choice
IPA consonants
Normal sound: /b, d, f, g, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, v, w, z/
 ʃ  ŋ
show church sing
ʒ  j 
usual judge you
θ ð s
think that see
IPA Stress
ˈ Primary stress
hotel /həʊˈtel/
ˌ Secondary stress
IPA Syllabification
. nitrate /ˈnaɪ.treɪt/, night-rate /ˈnaɪt.reɪt/

Minimal pairs are pairs of words which differ in only one phonological element.

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.

According to Wikipedia,[1] author Gillian Brown has criticized this approach as being artificial and lacking in relevance to language learners' needs.[2]

Differences in consonants[edit]

These can be grouped together by initial sound or final sound:

Initial sound[edit]

choose - Jews; choose - shoes; chop - shop; cheese - she's; day - they; sink - zinc; think - sink; three - tree;

Final sound[edit]

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[edit]

alive - arrive; decree - degree; money - mummy; precedent - president; simple - symbol

Differences in vowels[edit]

  • Monosyllables:
    • /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[edit]

  • record (vb) – record (n); weekendweakened; below - bellow;

"Nasty neighbours"/commonly confused words[edit]

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/)


  1. Wikipedia, minimal pair
  2. Cited in Wikipedia: G. Brown (1990), Listening to Spoken English. pp. 144–146.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

This article is a stub and may need expanding. If you feel you can help improve it please click the "Edit" link at top to edit it. If you need help editing, simple guidance can be found here.