What's That Flat?


Puzzle variations in which sounds are the basic unit instead of letters.


Phonetic beheadment

quest quest west

Phonetic charade

lox + myth locksmith

Phonetic curtailment

cute cute queue

In a phonetic curtailment, TWO can be longer than ONE; what counts is the number of sounds, not the number of letters. In fact, the greater the change in spelling, the more interesting the base.

When to Label

A flat is phonetic if any part is phonetic, even if some parts are not. For example, this phonetic charade:

weigh + ding wading

No flat is labeled phonetic if it can also work as a letter-based puzzle.

mite mrite rite

’Mite’ to ‘rite’ is both a first-letter change and a first-sound change, but it is called a first-letter change.

mite mrite right

’Mite’ to ‘right’ has to be a first-sound change.

Sound Identification

The underlined letters, as pronounced in the following words, stand for single sounds: loud, chin, whale, joke, sing, coin, ship, thin, this, vision. These sounds are indivisible. On the other hand, these represent two sounds: few and curable. The y and oo sounds are separate.

Modern pronunciation varies widely; you’re likely to encounter phonetic flats that don’t work in your speech. They are still legal and valid as long as MW substantiates their pronunciation. These pronunciation variations are common enough to be acceptable without comment in flats:

w = hw. For most Americans, where and wear are homonyms.

For many Americans, T and D have the same sound between two vowels if the second vowel is unstressed; latter and ladder are homonyms.

ä = ŏ. For most Americans, bother rhymes with father. For a minority, cot is a homonym of caught.

Before a vowel sound, ar = er = ār. Many Americans pronounce Mary and merry the same, and a large minority pronounce marry the same as the other two. 11C is not consistent on this point; NI3 explains it. Phonetic flats based on this pronunciation are not tagged “NI3 pronunciation.”

r = schwa or nothing. For many r-droppers, card and cod are homonyms, as are manners and mannas.

schwa = short i, most often unstressed. For many, language and languid are a last-sound change.