Some words differ by only one sound.
“Pen” and “ten”, for example.
If you pronounce the /p/ sound at the beginning of the word “pen” as a /t/ sound, you’re no longer talking about an object you use for writing; you’re talking about a number.
We call “pen” and “ten” minimal pairs.
There are many minimal pairs in English and in this post you'll discover 20 that can cause some trouble for many learners. You'll also get some tips on how to practise them.
Let’s start with the trickiest of all: minimal pairs that differ only by the vowel sound /ɪ/.
Long /iː/ vs. Short /ɪ/
In the table below, the words on the left column are pronounced with a long vowel sound. You say “ee” like in “cheese” when you smile.
In the words on the right, however, the middle sound is short. You say “i” quickly, like in “it”.
|Long sound /iː/
|Short sound /ɪ/
Let’s clarify these one by one.
1.Sheep Or Ship?
A sheep is an animal. A ship is a big boat.
A sheep cannot sail across the ocean unless it's got some sort of superpower.
And farmers who have thousands of ships in the field are just as uncommon.
Make sure you pronounce these words correctly.
2. Leak Or Lick?
A leak is when water or another liquid comes out of a place when it shouldn't. It's like when a water bottle has a hole and water comes out.
To lick, however, is to touch something with your tongue, like when you lick an ice cream.
So if say you have a pipe that licks, you shouldn’t call a plumber.
You should call the Ghostbusters.
3. Cheek Or Chick?
A cheek is part of your face. A chick is a baby chicken. It's a small bird that comes from an egg.
If you say you used to have yellow cheeks, people might think you were very sick!
4. Peel Or Pill?
A peel is the thick outer layer of some fruits and vegetables. A pill is a small piece of medicine that you swallow when you have a headache or a cold.
If you’re a doctor or a pharmacist, make sure you advise people to take pills, not peels. Peels would give your patients stomachaches.
5. Bean Or Bin?
A bean is a type of food. It's small, can be different colours, and grows in pods. A bin is a container used for storing things or for trash.
Bins are NOT a good source of proteins. Beans are.
6. Feel Or Fill?
Feel means to experience something by touching or to have an emotion. Fill means to make something full or put enough of something in it.
That’s why “Can you feel this form please?” is a weird question to ask.
7. Beach Or Bitch?
Be careful here or you may get a slap in the face!
A beach is a place with sand or small stones near the sea or a lake. Bitch is a word that can be rude. It's a female dog, but sometimes people use it to say something mean about a person.
None of your friends would want to come with you if you say, “Let’s go to the bitch, shall we?”
8. Sleep Or Slip?
Sleep is what you do at night in bed. Slip can mean to slide accidentally, like on ice.
You may get some funny looks if you say you sleep on banana peels.
Other Types Of Minimal Pairs
Here are some other types of minimal pairs, where a consonant or a different type of vowel change the meaning of the words.
9. Think Or Sink?
The infamous “th” sound causes problems for a lot of learners of English: Italian, French, Japanese, and German speakers are just some of the victims.
To sink means to go down below the surface or towards the bottom of the sea. Boats can sink.
So don’t say you’re sinking when, in reality, you’re thinking. And, most importantly, help someone who’s telling you that they’re sinking! Don’t do what this German coastguard did.
10.Then Or Ten?
The “th” sound again. I apologise on behalf of the English language for this. But saying “ten” instead of “then” can be confusing.
Once a student was telling me a story connecting events by saying “ten” instead of “then”. She was saying things like, “And ten I went…., ten I saw…., ten I asked….” and so on.
I kept hearing 10, 10, 10. Confusing!
If you find the “th” sound impossible to make, pronounce it as a /d/ sound rather than /t/. It’s still not perfect, but it works much better.
11. Thumb Or Sum?
A thumb is one of the fingers on your hand. A sum means the total amount of something.
You can’t use your sum scroll on your smartphone.
And you can’t calculate the thumb of all your monthly expenses either.
12. Lice Or Rice?
The English sound /r/ doesn’t exist in some languages such as Japanese, Chinese, and Thai. So this minimal pair can be tricky for those speakers.
Lice are small insects that live in hair and make your head itch. So be careful not to don’t order lice when you’re eating in a restaurant!
Start with an /r/ sound and order rrrrrrrice. You can make this sound by slightly rounding your lips and vibrating the tip of your tongue.
13. Boats Or Votes?
Spanish does not have a /v/ sound so the letter ‘v’ is often pronounced as /b/. But imagine saying that a politician has received 20 million boats. Would you find that distracting? I would!
14. Bark Or Park?
Speakers of Arabic languages can have difficulties with pronouncing the /p/ sound at the beginning of words like “park”. This sound doesn’t exist in their language.
But let’s get things clear.
Bark can have two meanings. One is the sound a dog makes. The other is the outer layer of a tree.
The word park can have two meanings too.
A park is a place with grass, trees, and paths where people can walk, play, or relax, while to park means to leave a vehicle that you are driving in a particular place (usually a car park) for some time.
This is why you can’t have a picnic in a bark nor can you bark your car. And if your neighbour’s dogs park all day, then please introduce me to your neighbour!
15.Beer Or Bear?
Beers are alcoholic drinks made from barley, hops, water, and yeast. People drink it often at parties or bars. The word “beer” sounds like “ear”.
Bears are big, furry animals. They live in forests and can be quite large. The word “bear” sounds like “air”.
Now, imagine ordering a bear in a pub.
16.Would Or Good?
Some years ago I was teaching “Would you like” questions to a group to a group of Spanish speakers.
“Would you like a coffee?”
“Would you like to be rich?”
“Would you like to come to the party?”
That kind of thing.
But for some reason, some of them would start the questions by saying “Good you like”. I was confused.
I did some research and found that some Spanish and Catalan speakers may pronounce /w/ as /g/ before a vowel.
That was would to know. I mean, good to know.
17. Did Or Dead?
I’ve had students of English who often pronounce “dead” (an adjective meaning no longer alive as “did”, the past form of do.)
John: My grandad did yesterday.
Mary: He did what?
John: Nothing. He did!
Mary: What did he do?
John: He diiiiiid!!
18. Ate Or Hate?
Ate is the past simple form of eat. Hate is the opposite of love.
Never shout “I ate you!” to anyone. You won’t achieve anything by doing that and you’ll confuse the person you hate, too.
But if you really need to say it, make sure you pronounce it with a /h/ sound at the beginning of the word.
19. Peeking Or Speaking?
To peek means to look at something quickly and secretly because you should not be looking at it.
I had Thai students who after an English language exam kept saying, “Peeking was good!”
I understood what they meant. They were saying that the speaking part of the exam went well. Still, it sounded weird.
If you’re a Thai speaker or a speaker of a language that doesn’t have the consonant sound /s/, try to practise sssssssspeaking this sound.
20. Shower Or Sour?
The sound /ʃ/ at the beginning of “shower” is hard to pronounce for Spanish, Greek, Japanese, and Korean speakers.
So “shower” may sound like “sour”. “Show” may become “saw” and “she” may become “see”.
Here’s a meaningless story to help you practice these sounds.
“She had a sour face. Then showed me a saw. I saw it and took a shower.”
How To Practise Minimal Pairs
Here are some activities and tips to help you:
- Listen to audio recordings of minimal pairs and try to identify the differences in sounds. This can help train your ear to distinguish between similar sounds.
- Repeat the words after hearing them. Mimicking the pronunciation as closely as possible can help you in mastering the sounds.
- Record yourself saying the minimal pairs. Then, compare your pronunciation with that of a native speaker.
- Turn the practice into a game. For instance, have a partner say a word from a pair, and you have to identify which word it was. This can be a fun and interactive way to practise.
- Use pronunciation apps.
- Create tongue twisters that include your target minimal pairs.
- Visualise how your mouth, lips, tongue, and breath should move when pronouncing each sound. Take a snapshot of that in your head and try to repeat it as many times as possible.