When you read poems, you will sometimes come across things that don’t sound right to you. Often, this is because people pronounce some words differently depending on where they grew up. The writer of the poem may have grown up somewhere that they pronounce things a little differently than you do.
Probably the most well-known example is the word “tomato.” In Britain, this word is pronounced “toe-MAH-toe,” whereas in America it is pronounced “toe-MAY-toe.”
Similarly, “pajamas” is pronounced “puh-JAW-muhz” (rhymes with “llamas”) in Britain, but can be pronounced either “puh-JAM-uhz” (rhymes with “panoramas”) or “puh-JAW-muhz” in America. And, in America, “dance” rhymes with “France,” while in Britain “dance” is often pronounced “dahns.”
I once wrote a poem for a publisher in India where I rhymed “face” with “vase.” (In America, these two words rhyme with one another.) My publisher was very confused because in India, as well as Britain and much of the world, “vase” is pronounced “vahz” (rhymes with “jaws”).
When I read poems by British authors, sometimes I am surprised by their rhyme choices. For example, I recently saw “speedier” rhymed with “media” because Brits often do not pronounce the r’s at the ends of words.
Dealing with different pronunciations
In general, it’s a good idea to think about who your readers might be. When you run into a word that your readers may pronounce differently than you, you may want to choose a different rhyme. For example, instead of saying:
I like to sing and dance.
You might say:
I like to dance and sing.
A syllable and a half
Another problem you might encounter has to do with the number of syllables in a word.
Many types of poems require counting syllables, or counting “feet,” which are groups of syllables. For example, haiku usually have five syllables on the first and last lines, and seven syllables on the second line. Sonnets normally have five feet of two syllables each, ten syllables total, on each line.
When I write poems, I not only think about the rhymes, but also the rhythm, or “meter” of the words. I usually count feet rather than syllables, but it still requires knowing how many syllables are in any given word.
For most words, the number of syllables is pretty easy to count. “Cat” is clearly a one-syllable word. “Mother” is easy to identify as two syllables. But not every word in English is pronounced the same way by everyone.
Depending on where you live, you may pronounce things a little differently than people in other places. Sometimes this can change the number of syllables you hear when you pronounce certain words.
For example, take the word “poem.” Depending on where you live, this might be pronounced “POE-uhm,” “poe-EHM,” or even “pome.” If you pronounce it “pome,” you might rhyme it with “home,” but this might sound wrong to people in other parts of the country or world. Regardless of how you pronounce it, because other people might pronounce it with a different number of syllables, which would make the rhythm different to them than it is to you.
When a word can be correctly pronounced with one syllable or two, I call these “one-and-a-half-syllable words.” Other examples include words such as “orange” (which some pronounce “OR-uhnj” while others say “ornj”) and “fire” (which many would argue is a one-syllable word, while others say it rhymes with “higher,” which is definitely two syllables.
Similarly, there are many “two-and-a-half-syllable words,” such as “family” (which can be correctly pronounced with either two syllables — “FAM-lee” –or three — “FAM-uh-lee”) and “chocolate” (“CHOK-lit” or “CHOK-uh-lit”).
Dealing with different syllable counts
When you discover that other people may pronounce a certain word differently than you, you can fix the problem in one of two ways.
Substitute a different word
One easy way to solve this issue is to avoid the word by substituting a different one, such as “mother” or “father” in place of “family.”
Change the placement of the word
Another way to fix the problem is by placing the word where it can be pronounced either way without affecting the rhythm.
For example, instead of saying:
My family is very nice.
You might say:
I really like my family.
This way, regardless of whether your readers pronounce “family” as two syllables or three, it doesn’t affect the rhythm of the line.
Whenever you encounter words that others might pronounce differently than you, it’s good to keep these words in mind when you are writing poems that require rhythm or syllable counting so that your poems can be read more easily by everyone, no matter where they are.