When I was growing up, someone in authority told me that the way to pronounce often was offen, like off with a little syllabic n at the end. Often was like soften, listen, and glisten, I was warned, with a silent t. I was young and impressionable, and the t-less pronunciation stuck with me.
Later I learned that the pronunciation with the t, off-ten, was completely acceptable: the preference I had developed for offen was just a bit of linguistic prejudice someone had saddled me with.
Over the last several years, some colleagues and I have been surveying West Coast students about their pronunciation of often (and other things as well). What we found is that the pronunciation off-ten, with the t, is vastly preferred. Speakers report using it by about three to one, though some noted that they might pronounce the word either way. In class discussions, a few students also report an experience similar to mine—being warned against that telltale t.
It seems clear that the pronunciation of often has shifted away from the idea of a t-less offen. Listen and you’ll probably notice the change too. So where did the prejudice against off-ten come from?
Historically, often is from oft, so it had a t originally. The writers of pronunciation guides in the 16th and 17th centuries (called orthoepists) were split on the right pronunciation. During the 17th century the t pronunciation was widely adopted by educated speakers, perhaps as a spelling pronunciation. (That’s the phenomenon where speakers pronounce a word according to its spelling, like saying salmon with an l.) Over time, the pronunciation with a t came to be treated as a hypercorrection, and the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary even said that the pronunciation off-ten “which is not recognized in dictionaries, is now frequent in the south of England, and is often used in singing.”
Henry Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage spared the singers, but called off-ten a pronunciation practiced by “academic speakers who affect a more precise enunciation than their neighbours… & the uneasy half-literates who like to prove that they can spell.” Other writers were just as snarky, but more concise: Henry C. Wyld called the off-ten pronunciation “vulgar” and “sham-refined” in his 1932 Universal Dictionary of the English Language, and Alan C. Ross in his 1954 paper on social practices in England simply said that offen was upper-class pronunciation and off-ten was not. In the United States, The Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (from 1975) was flat out prescriptive: “Often should be pronounced OFF-un, not OFF-tun, though the latter pronunciation is often affected, especially by singers.” They must have consulted the OED.
Today’s Merriam Webster online dictionary is more realistic and, thankfully, less judgmental. It cites the pronunciation as \ˈȯ-fən, ÷ˈȯf-tən\. The ÷ sign (called an obelus mark) indicates “a pronunciation variant that occurs in educated speech but that is considered by some to be questionable or unacceptable.”
When people speak in public, my ears are tuned to how they pronounced often. From what I hear, off-ten is the predominant form, and I sometime notice speakers switching from one pronunciation to the other. Perhaps there is even a pattern to the switching. That’s something to investigate down the road.
It is only a matter of time, I suspect, before Merriam Webster drops the obelus and recognizes often as one of those polyphonic words with alternative standard pronunciations. Like either, economics, apricot, and pajamas.
Feature image: “Hong Kong Park 44” by Wilfredor. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.