Should you pronounce the T in 'often'?

Sometimes people ask me about pronunciation. And it always makes me sad. More often than not, the person asking the question has been haunted by it for years and never knew where to turn for an answer. They’re thrilled that, at last, they have found a language expert who can set the record straight once and for all.

The problem is: I’m no expert. Pronunciation isn’t my thing. When it comes to how certain words should sound, I have no more insight than anyone else. All I have is a dictionary. And that’s where it gets sad: Almost everyone has a dictionary, or at least access to one online, yet they don’t know that it holds the answer.

Take, for example, an e-mail I got from a reader named Ellen.

“I'm from downstate New York, where we pronounce the word ‘often’ without the T sound as ‘ofen.’ Since moving upstate three years ago, I have noticed that many people pronounce the T sound. Is there a right or wrong way to say this word? Is it a regional pronunciation? I do get teased often about my downstate accent and wondered if I am indeed mispronouncing this useful word?”

I told her that I don’t know anything about regional variations in how this word is pronounced. I was raised in Florida by New Yorkers and was taught that the T is silent. As I recall, most people around me used a silent T and those who didn’t stood out. But as for whether she is mispronouncing this word — well, that’s as easy for her to answer as it is for me.

In its entry for the word “often,” Webster's New World College Dictionary lists two correct pronunciations -- one with a T sound and one without. That tells you that both pronunciations as correct. However, because this dictionary lists the silent T pronunciation first, that means its preferred pronunciation is the one with the silent T.

So Ellen has been right all along. But so have her new neighbors.