25 English Minimal Pairs

There are a few things you can try to learn English more quickly. One of them is to practice your pronunciation with minimal pairs. 

If you learn minimal pairs, you can really improve your English pronunciation. It’s a great way to become a better English listener and speaker.

Read on to learn about 25 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: Vowel Sounds

I vs E sounds

1. Lit and Let

The word lit rhymes with fit or kit. And let sounds more like get. Lit is the past tense of the verb to 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 to allow

I vs EE/EA sounds

2. Ship and Sheep

Ship refers to a vehicle for water travel, pronounced with a short “i,” while a sheep is a wooly mammal with a long “ee” sound. The biggest difference is that you lengthen the sound in the second word by quite a bit.

3. Bit and Beat

In bit, the short “i” sound is similar to the vowel in sit or lid. It means a small piece or amount. In beat, the sound is pronounced as a long “ee,” like in the words beet or deep. It signifies the action of striking rhythmically.

E vs A sounds

4. Pen and Pan

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

U vs A sounds

5. Cut and Cat

The middle sound in cut is pronounced as “uh,” and in cat it sounds like “ah.” 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.

Minimal Pairs: Consonant Sounds

F vs V sounds

6. Fan and Van

In fan, notice how the word starts with the sound “f” which is a quiet sound. In van, the “v” should vibrate and tickle your lips. A fan refers to a device for moving air. Meanwhile, a van is a vehicle for carrying goods or people.

7. Leaf and Leave

Leaf, referring to the flattened structure of a plant, ends with an “f” sound. The entire word sounds quite short. Leave ends with a “v” sound and means to go away or depart. The word is longer and more drawn out to emphasize the different ending sound.

R vs W sounds

8. Right and White

Right starts with the “r” sound, like in rabbit or rain. It refers to something being correct or a direction. White starts with the “w” sound, as in wind or water, and describes a color. In the first word, you use your tongue for the “r,” and in the second, you round your lips for the “w.”

L vs N sounds

9. 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.” Not is used to refuse or negate something. For example, “I am not well today.”

P vs B sounds

10. Pat and Bat

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.

To pat someone is to lightly touch them with the flat surface of your hand. Bat is usually a long, wooden thing used in sports like cricket or baseball. It is also a kind of animal that flies at night. 

11. Pin and Bin

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.

A pin is a small, sharp metal object used to fasten cloth or paper. A bin is a narrow basket-like object. In British English, a bin is a place where you put trash.

S vs Z sounds

12. Sip and Zip

The “s” in sip sounds like the hiss of a snake. The “z” in zip sounds like the buzz of a bee. 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.

T vs D sounds

13. Writer and Rider

The consonants in the middle (“t” and “d”) make them different in terms of pronunciation. A writer is someone who writes, usually for a living. A rider is someone who rides an animal or a vehicle. The second word is pronounced slightly slower to elongate the sound of the first syllable.

14. Hat and Had

In hat, the last sound is “t,” as in cat or bat, referring to headwear. In had, the last sound is “d,” as in mad or sad, indicating the past tense of “to have.” For the “t” sound, let the air pass over your tongue, and for the “d” sound, block the flow of air for a harder sound.

T vs L sounds

15. 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).

R vs L sounds

16. Arrive and Alive

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. To arrive is to get to a place. To be alive is to have life.

17. Grow and Glow

The end of each word sounds like “oh”. Like the previous pair, the “r” and “l” consonants are what make them different. To grow is to become larger over time. To glow means to shine, or to create light in a dark place.

18. Bowling and Boring

The “l” and the “r” sounds make these words different, as well as the “w” in the first word! Make sure you add an extra “oo” sound for the first syllable of bowling. Bowling is a sport played with huge balls and pins. Boring means the same thing as uninteresting.

19. Kneel and Near

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. To kneel is to bend on your knees. Something is near you when it is close to you physically.

S vs TH sounds

20. Sigh and Thigh

The “s” in sigh sounds like the hiss of a snake. And the “th” in thigh sounds like the end of the word tooth. 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.

21. Sin and Thin

In sin, meaning an immoral act, notice the “s” sound, as in sit or sun. In thin, the first sound is “th,” as in think or thumb, describing something slender. Make sure your tongue is between your teeth for the second sound.

T vs TH sounds

22. Tent and Tenth

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. 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.

SH vs CH sounds

23. Sheer and Cheer

The “ch” of cheer is pronounced similarly to the “ch” of cherry. The “sh” in sheer sounds like the sound you make to tell somebody to be quiet: shhh!

Sheer refers 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.

D vs T sounds

24. Hard and Heart

The different sounds of “d” and “t” in these words make them sound different. For the second word, make sure there’s air passing between your tongue and the roof of your mouth for the “t” sound.

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.

B vs V sounds

25. Bent and Vent

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.

If something is bent, then it is curved at an angle. A vent can be an opening in a wall that lets gasses pass through a room. The word can be used as a verb, meaning to let out strong emotions.

How to Practice with Minimal Pairs

  • Watch a YouTube video to learn the pronunciation of minimal pairs.
  • Use a pronunciation dictionary like Forvo to listen to the pronunciation of similar words and try to hear their different sounds.
  • Study the sounds on an IPA (International Phonetic Pronunciation) chart.
  • Try to identify minimal pairs while listening to people speak English.

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

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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, speaking English 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!

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