Look at this poem by Lewis Carrol:
We lived beneath the mat,
Warm and snug and fat,
But one woe, and that
Was the Cat!
Do you notice anything interesting?
There is something special about the rhyming words at the end of each line.
They are all minimal pairs!
What are minimal pairs, you ask?
I am glad you did.
In this post, we will tell you all about minimal pairs in the English language and why they are helpful for learning English. Then, we will list 20 of the most common minimal pairs in English.
What Are Minimal Pairs?
Minimal pairs are two words that are pronounced almost in the same way, but they have one sound that makes them different. The sound can be a vowel or a consonant.
These pairs have nothing to do with spelling or meaning. The words sound similar but they do not mean the same thing. Their definitions have nothing to do with each other.
They might be spelled very differently, but the actual sounds (called phonemes) will be quite similar. Or, the two words in a minimal pair might be spelled very similarly, with just one different letter.
Minimal pairs often confuse English learners. Many English learners will replace one word with another while speaking. This completely changes the meaning of the actual sentence.
However, if you learn minimal pairs, you can really improve your English pronunciation. Practicing minimal pairs is a great way to become a better English listener.
How to Practice with Minimal Pairs
There are lots of ways to practice English with minimal pairs. For example, you can watch a YouTube video to learn the pronunciation of minimal pairs. You can also use a pronunciation dictionary like Forvo to listen to the pronunciation of similar words and try to hear their different sounds.
One great practice idea is to study the sounds on an IPA (International Phonetic Pronunciation) chart. If you learn all of these different sounds, it will be much easier to understand the differences between minimal pairs.
One of the most fun ways to practice is to try to identify minimal pairs while listening to people speak English. This is a great way to improve your English listening skills.
For example, you can try to identify minimal pairs while watching videos on FluentU. On FluentU, you can find authentic English videos like movie trailers, music videos, news clips and inspiring talks. All of these videos feature native speakers of English, so you will hear English as it is really spoken. Each FluentU video comes with interactive subtitles in English, so you can quickly look up words and create vocabulary lists.
While listening and reading, try to think of any minimal pairs of the words you see and hear.
FluentU is a great way to improve your listening comprehension and your pronunciation. Sign up for the free trial and check it out!
20 Minimal Pairs in English to Practice Perfect Pronunciation
Lot and Not
The word lot in English is generally used to talk about a large number of things. For example, “I ate a lot of food.” In American English, it might be used to talk about a piece of land, usually for sale.
Not is used to refuse or negate something. For example, “I am not well today.”
These words sound the same, except for their first consonants, “l” and “n.”
Flight and Fight
As a verb, flight refers to the action of flying. It can also refer to a trip in a plane, such as “My flight leaves at 2:00.”
Fight, on the other hand, means to be violent with someone.
The main difference between them is the consonant “l” in the word flight.
Lit and Let
Lit is the past tense of the word light. It means to burn something like a candle or a cigarette. Lit can also be used as an adjective, to say that something is full of light such as a room.
Let is a synonym of allow.
The vowel in the middle is what differentiates these words. The word lit rhymes with fit or kit. And let sounds more like get.
Pat and Bat
To pat someone is to lightly touch them with the flat surface of your hand. Pat can also mean a piece of something very soft like butter.
Bat is usually a long, wooden thing used in sports like cricket or baseball. It is also a kind of bird that flies at night.
These words might sound very similar. But the “p” in pat sounds slightly harder than the “b” in bat. When you say pat, some air will come out of your mouth. When you say bat, this won’t happen.
Sip and Zip
To sip something is to drink something slowly.
Zip as a noun is a short word for zipper, the thing that you use to close your pants or jacket. As a verb, it means to close a zipper.
The “s” in sip sounds like the hiss of a snake. The “z” in zip sounds like the buzz of a bee.
Writer and Rider
A writer is someone who writes, usually for a living.
A rider is someone who rides an animal or a vehicle. This is commonly used in the context of riding a horse.
What is interesting in this pair is that even though the first letters are different, their first sounds (phonemes) are the same. The consonants in the middle (“t” and “d”) make them different in terms of pronunciation.
Pen and Pan
A pen is a thin, small tool used to write and draw.
A pan is a circular, flat utensil used to cook food like eggs.
The vowel in the middle differentiates these two words. The “e” resembles the vowel in hen or end. Meanwhile, the “a” sounds the same as the one in hand.
Tease and Knees
To tease someone is to playfully make fun of someone. And knees are the joints in your leg that connect your upper and lower legs.
Even though their spellings are completely different, they sound very similar. The second part of both these words sounds like “ease.”
But the first part of tease sounds like “tee-” and the first part of knees sounds like “nee-” because the “k” is silent.
Tie and Lie
As a verb, tie means to join two things with a knot using a string or rope. As a noun, it refers to the piece of clothing that men usually wear around their neck when dressing formally.
To lie is either to say something false, or to be in a horizontal position (such as to lie in bed).
The difference, of course, is the first consonant of each word.
Arrive and Alive
To arrive is to get to a place.
To be alive is to have life.
The middle sound in both words will help you separate these pairs. Other than the “r” and “l” sounds, these two words sound exactly the same.
Grow and Glow
To grow is to become larger over time.
To glow means to shine, or to create light in a dark place.
In terms of sounds, it is quite easy to separate them since the last part of both the words are spelled as they are written. The end of each word sounds like “oh.” Like the previous pair, the “r” and “l” consonants are what make them different.
Sigh and Thigh
To sigh is to take a deep breath as a sign of sadness, relief or tiredness.
The thigh is the part of your leg that is above your knee.
Since both these words have such different meanings, it is easy to differentiate them. The “s” in sigh sounds like the hiss of a snake. And the “th” in thigh sounds like the end of the word tooth.
Cut and Cat
To cut is to make an opening or create two or more pieces of something using a sharp tool.
A cat is, of course, an animal.
The middle sound in “cut” is pronounced as “uh,” and in “cat” it sounds like “ah.”
Pin and Bin
A pin is a small, sharp metal object used to fasten cloth or paper. It can also refer to the act of pushing someone to the ground or a wall and holding them there.
A bin is a narrow basket-like object. In British English, a bin is a place where you put trash.
The first consonant is what makes these words different. Like with pat and bat, you can practice by seeing if air comes out of your mouth when you say pin and not when you say bin.
Tent and Tenth
A tent is a temporary shelter made from cloth or wood.
Tenth can refer to the number ten in a series. For example, the tenth house on a street.
The final sound is what makes these words different. The “t” at the end of tent is a hard “t” sound. The “th” at the end of tenth sounds like the end of the word tooth.
Sheer and Cheer
Sheer is a word that is used to emphasize an adjective. For example, “The president’s speech was sheer nonsense.”
Sheer can also refer to a kind of cloth that is so thin you can almost see through it.
Cheer is encouraging someone by making loud noises and exaggerated gestures, like at a sporting event.
To differentiate between the two, you need to focus on the first sound. The “ch” of cheer is pronounced similar to the “ch” of cherry. The “sh” in sheer sounds like the sound you make to tell somebody to be quiet: shhh!
Bowling and Boring
Bowling is a sport played with played with huge balls and pins.
Boring means the same thing as uninteresting.
The “l” and the “r” sounds make them different. Every other part of the word is pronounced in the same way.
Kneel and Near
To kneel is to bend on your knees.
Something is near you when it is close to you physically.
The “k” in kneel is silent, so the first consonants of these words actually sound exactly the same.
The last parts of the words are different, though. These parts are pronounced just like the words eel and ear.
Hard and Heart
If something is hard, it is either physically solid or it is difficult to do.
The heart is the organ in our body that constantly pumps our blood.
The different sounds of “d” and “t” in these words make them sound different.
Bent and Vent
If something is bent, then it is curved in an angle.
A vent can be an opening in a wall that lets gases pass through a room. The word can be used as a verb, meaning to let out strong emotions.
The “b” and “v” sounds are what make these words different.
One way to practice is to watch what you do with your mouth while saying these words. When you say bent, your two lips will come together at the beginning. When you say vent, you will put your upper teeth on your bottom lip.
We know that separating one word from another in these pairs might feel confusing. In fact, even some native speakers make mistakes while listening or speaking. But if you learn the basics of English pronunciation properly, English speaking actually becomes quite easy.
Noticing how your mouth and tongue move while you speak English words is a great first step. Then, you can learn the different vowel and consonant sounds that exist in English.
You’ll be a master of minimal pairs in no time.
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