Pronunciation – accessibility for web writers

Provide a pronunciation for words that are spelt the same, but mean different things when pronounced in different ways. However, in English, it’s usually possible to decide the meaning from the context.

In some languages, words spelt the same way may have different meanings depending on their pronunciation. In English, heteronyms are an example. For instance, ‘content’ could be a reference to the way someone is feeling, or to the words on this page.

Context usually helps

In English, the meaning of heteronyms is usually made clear once we see the context in which they are used. In ‘After dinner, she was feeling quite content’, we know that ‘content’ is referring to a feeling. And in ‘She wrote the content for this article last night’, we know that ‘content’ is now referring to the words she wrote.

Sometimes the meaning may be unclear

But what about this: ‘She gave a small bow to the princess as she walked by’? Does ‘bow’ mean that she curtsied, or did she give the princess a ribbon for her hair? Without knowing the pronunciation of the word, the meaning would not be clear.

For someone listening to a web page rather than looking at the words on the screen, there may be a different problem.  A vision impaired person using a screen reader may not realise that two meanings were possible. They may just accept the meaning based on the pronunciation the screen reader gives them.

Provide a pronunciation or rewrite the sentence

In cases like the princess and the bow, the accessibility guidelines suggests we provide a pronunciation so the meaning is clear. We can do this by linking to a sound file or glossary, or providing the pronunciation beside the ambiguous word. This solution requires a bit of effort (on our part, and that of our users).

For heteronyms, a better solution would be to rewrite the sentence to avoid the ambiguity. So either ‘She gave a small curtsey as the princess walked by’ or ‘She gave the princess a ribbon for her hair as she walked by’.

Rewriting the content may not be a solution for this problem in other languages.


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