20 Minimal Pairs in English to Practice Perfect Pronunciation

There are a few things you can try to learn English more quickly.

One of them is to practice your pronunciation with minimal pairs. 

Read on to learn about 20 minimal pairs in the English language. 


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.

Minimal Pairs: Vowel Sounds

1. 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 word lit rhymes with fit or kit. And let sounds more like get.

The vowel in the middle is what differentiates these words. 

2. 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 “e” resembles the vowel in hen or end. Meanwhile, the “a” sounds the same as the one in hand.

The vowel in the middle differentiates these two words. 

3. 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.”

Minimal Pairs: Consonant Sounds

4. 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.”

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

The consonants in the middle (“t” and “d”) make them different in terms of pronunciation.

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. 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.

12. 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.

13. 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.

14. 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.

15. 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.

16. 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!

17. Bowling and Boring

Bowling is a sport 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.

18. 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.

19. 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.

20. 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.

How to Practice with Minimal Pairs

If you want to improve your English listening skills, the FluentU language program has English language videos.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

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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.

Good luck!

And One More Thing...

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