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This is a pair of words that lots of learners of British English find challenging. In this post, I’m going to explain the difference for you. There is also a video at the bottom of the page so you can hear the difference.

HOLY /ˈhəʊ.li/:

The vowel is the first syllable is a diphthong. This means there is movement in the vowel. Linguists and English teachers call this vowel the GOAT vowel and it is also found in words like:

  • SOAP, HOPE, OPEN, OWN, TOE, ALTHOUGH

To make the GOAT vowel sound you start with a SCHWA /ə/. This is the unstressed vowel. You create this by relaxing the mouth fully and breathing out. Air passes your vocal folds (your voice box) and vibrates them so the sound, like all vowels, is voiced.

The second part of the vowel is called the FOOT vowel. This is also found in words like:

  • PUT, LOOK, WOMAN, SHOULD

Like all vowels, the sound is voiced so your vocal folds vibrate.

You need to make sure that both parts of the vowel are clear if you want to pronounce this word in a standard British English accent.

HOLLY /ˈhɒl.i/:

Now on to the second word in the pair. 

The vowel in the first syllable here is the LOT/CLOTH vowel. The way this vowel is pronounced in a British English accent is quite different from the same vowel in an American accent. The most noticeable difference between this vowel is that in a standard British English accent, the vowel in the words LOT and CLOTH is exactly the same. In General American, the two words contain two different vowels.

In British English, LOT/CLOTH is a rounded low back vowel.

This means the lips are in a rounded shape. It’s low in the mouth which means the mouth needs to be wide open. It’s physically challenging to both open the mouth wide and round the lips at the same time so don’t expect that the rounding of the lips will be that obvious. It’s also a back vowel. If you say the word APPLE then say the word LOT, you should feel the tongue pulling backwards and the sound moving back in the mouth.

Other words that contain the LOT/CLOTH vowel are:

 -OFFER, GOT, SOCK, QUALITY, WATCH.

To help you with these differences in pronunciation, I have created a video for you and you can watch it here.

How to pronounce HOLY and HOLLY in a British English accent.

You can also try these sentences:

1. Let’s decorate this holy place with holly.

2. Holly had grown by the holy site.

And if you’re looking for more… try these sentences with the GOAT and LOT/CLOTH vowels in different words. I have highlighted the GOAT vowels in a bold font and have underlined the LOT/CLOTH vowels (and don’t forget – LOT and CLOTH vowels are pronounced exactly the same in British English!):

1. The goat spoke a lot.

2. The sausage is too hot and I don’t want it.

3. I know Tom got the old box.