This Common “Mispronunciation” Actually Dates Back to Old English

In fact, the "father of English literature" pronounced it this way.

English is confusing to say the least. It can be quite the challenge to keep track of all the rules of grammar, spelling, and pronunciation; just take these 70 words and phrases you’ve probably been using wrong. That’s probably why you pride yourself on mastering some of the trickiest grammar guidelines, such as which words always need to be capitalized—or how to pronounce a simple three-letter word like ask.

Or is that a grammar rule? Because not everyone pronounces this tiny verb the same way. Many people pronounce it as ax, just like the chopping tool. You might see this as a linguistic quirk or a common, but incorrect, vernacular habit. Only people who say ask are pronouncing it the right way, right?

Well…maybe not. Think about it: Language is a human creation, always evolving and changing. New words are added to the dictionary every year. Things may not be as simple as right and wrong, and the ask vs. ax debate is no exception. According to Smithsonian, the ax pronunciation is, in fact, totally valid. You might be wondering how that’s possible. The word is spelled A-S-K, so it’s pronounced ask. Simple, grade-school level phonics. Right?

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Well, the origin of the word tells a different story. Like many of the words we use today, ask comes from an Old English word. In this case, the word is acsian, and it can be traced back to the eighth century AD. And, sure enough, it was pronounced ax-ian.

As Old English evolved into Middle and then modern English, the word became asken and then ask. But the ax pronunciation stuck around—and it popped up in some pretty notable places. The celebrated Middle English writer Geoffrey Chaucer, who penned The Canterbury Tales and is often called “the father of English literature,” used the word this way; so did the Coverdale Bible, which was the first-ever English incarnation of the Bible. When this was published in 1535, Matthew 7:7 instructed the pious to “axe and it shall be given you.” The president of the American Dialect Society says that “ax” is “not a new thing; it is not a mistake. It is a feature of regular English.”

It’s tough to argue with that. Sorry, pronunciation sticklers!

[Sources: Smithsonian, NPR]

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a word nerd who has been writing for since 2017. You can find her byline on pieces about grammar, fun facts, the meanings of various head-scratching words and phrases, and more. Meghan graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2017; her creative nonfiction piece “Anticipation” was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Angles literary magazine.