Can fluent English speakers distinguish between “steel”, “still”, and “steal”?



Can fluent English speakers understand this sentence the first time they hear it?

What? They still steal steel?

Can they hear a difference between the pronunciation of the words still, steal, and steel?

Han Jae Sook

Posted 2019-07-10T15:58:21.403


Not that it should be relied upon as a holy grail - but this website can be fairly useful for ELL to find the homophones of a word: (the main downside, is it shows no result if the word has no homophones in their dictionary)

– None – 2019-07-11T12:29:33.430



Still (/stɪl/) and steel (/sti:l/) are distinguishable. The vowel sounds in these two words are different.

Steal and Steel (/sti:l/) are homophones and are pronounced exactly the same.

However, the words are, in this case, easily identified by grammar. In this sentence, "steal" is a verb and "steel" is a noun. "Steel" as a verb cannot take "steal" (as a noun) as its object. So there is no ambiguity in the sentence.

James K

Posted 2019-07-10T15:58:21.403

Reputation: 80 781

49"Steel" can be used as a verb -- "To steel oneself to make the decision". More rarely "steal" can be used as a noun: The Big Steal was a book title not long ago. But yes, "steel" is typically a noun and "steal" a verb. – David Siegel – 2019-07-10T16:44:29.937

@DavidSiegel: Steel: to coat with said metal. – Joshua – 2019-07-11T00:01:09.530

2@DavidSiegel Steel as a noun is an uncountable noun and can be used as-is. Steal as a noun is countable and requires a determiner such as "a" or "the" or to be pluralised. It would be "They still steel a steal?" (nonsensical but grammatically correct) – Erwin Bolwidt – 2019-07-11T03:15:03.417

14I would say a native speaker, depending on accent, could distinguish steal and steel. To my ear, the "ee" sound in "steel" is longer. – Bob Tway – 2019-07-11T09:57:07.807

11@MattThrower: I disagree with your comment both as a matter of fact and as a matter of logic.  U.S. English is my first language (and, FWIW, essentially my only one) and I agree with the three answers, which say that “steal” and “steel” are homophones.  I pronounce them exactly the same, so there’s no way anybody could distinguish which one I’m saying.  And, if I heard somebody say two words that were distinguishable from each other (but different from “still”), without context, I wouldn’t know which was which. – Scott – 2019-07-11T12:34:24.383

17In my corner of the UK, "steal" has a slight hint of a diphthong in the vowel. "steel" does not. But I wouldn't expect a non-native speaker to hear the difference. – alephzero – 2019-07-11T12:36:03.423

14@Scott I'm British. And, as alephzero suggests, in RP I believe there's a very slight difference. – Bob Tway – 2019-07-11T12:45:08.967

2I'm a west-coast American. When I say the words "steal" and "steel", it feels like the vowel in the latter is further forward. I don't know whether anyone could hear that minor difference. "Still" is completely distinguishable. – Lee Daniel Crocker – 2019-07-11T18:01:03.367

@alephzero as an aside Cambridge dictionary has the same pronunciation for both as does Oxford. Though I was only looking at the online version of both. – DRF – 2019-07-11T18:27:19.177

6-1, I really think to be a complete answer this should note that in some regions there is a subtle difference between steal and steel. It would be fine to say that this difference is unimportant for English learners and that some people may be unable to distinguish. – TypeIA – 2019-07-12T06:37:07.380


@MattThrower - That's exactly why I don't like to see answers flatly state that two words are homophones. Nuances of the pronunciation of vowels are very regional, even with people who would hotly insist they speak some kind of "standard" dialect.

– T.E.D. – 2019-07-13T01:06:01.730


Context is the key to understanding. If your reader or conversation partner understands you are talking about someone or something with a habit of misappropriating steel, then it is perfectly reasonable to say they still steal steel or steal steel still. If they do not have that context, they you may need to explain it.

Most native speakers of English will pronounce steal and steel identically, but differently from still. Some people in Yorkshire might pronounce all three differently, and some people in Tennessee might pronounce all three the same.

In all the "standard" accents with which I am familiar, steel and steal are homophones, both pronounced /stiːl/. The spelling of steal and words like team and cream among others reflects a distinction in pronunciation which was mostly lost by the 18th century in what is known as the meet-meat merger. The distinction is preserved only in some corners of Ireland and Northern England, and I would say a learner should not bother with it.

The standard pronunciation of still has a shorter vowel, thus /stɪl/. That said, many speakers of Southern, Appalachian, and African-American Englishes, and what is called Estuary English, speak with what is called the fill-feel merger. Pairs like ill and eel, hill and heal, or will and we'll are pronounced the same in those accents. Again, I would say a learner is safest sticking to the standard pronunciation in speaking.


Posted 2019-07-10T15:58:21.403

Reputation: 16 753

4I'm curious what distinction is made in Yorkshire between "steal" and "steel". – chepner – 2019-07-11T02:30:01.910

3Indeed, some speakers of Cockney/Estuary English merge all four of ill, eel, hill and heal into /iw/. – TonyK – 2019-07-11T09:53:59.050

There are times where I'll pronounce will and we'll the same - e.g. in "Will we go soon?" "Yes, we'll go soon", will and we'll are indistinguishable. – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica – 2019-07-11T11:59:33.187

3@BobJarvis: May I ask (roughly) where you live?   (I’m on the East Coast of the US, and I guess I would understand your speech, aided by context, but I would not speak that way myself, and I would not consider it correct.) – Scott – 2019-07-11T12:09:00.150

Would you say that “we’ll” and “wheel” are homophones? (I realize that there may be regional variations.) – Scott – 2019-07-11T12:09:04.270

@chepner Answer from a native Yorkshire speaker: the vowel in "steal" has a trace of a diphthong in it. Imagine the pronunciation of "sequel" without the "kw" sound in the middle (and without replacing it with a glottal stop, or whatever) and you get close to the Yorkshire pronunciation of "seal". (But this is a mild vowel shift compared with some others in South Yorkshire dialects, where "coal" and "hole" both rhyme with "oil"!) – alephzero – 2019-07-11T12:44:17.917

I think you need a general rule. No one seems to be providing that. Regional differences are a separate chapter. You first have to deal with minimal pairs and graphemes. – Lambie – 2019-07-11T16:20:21.220

@alephzero is this the difference? Mid front unrounded vowel /eː/ v.s. Close front unrounded vowel /iː/?

– Melioratus – 2019-07-11T19:39:02.263

@scott I would say that we'll is more we-ul and wheel is more wee-el. I am in (old) Hampshire in the UK with a Yorkshire father, a Surrey month and lots of time spent in the Devon area. Mi accent ain't dat neat. – TafT – 2019-07-15T11:02:02.953


I, for one, hear a significant difference between "still" and "steal" or "steel". I would call the vowel sound that I make, and typically hear, in "still" a "short-I", while I would call the vowel sound in "steal" or "steel" a "long-e". There are, I am sure, more technically correct terms for these sounds. To help clarify, to me "Still" rhymes with "hill" and "kill", while "steal" rhymes with "keel", "feel", and "conceal".

As is implied by the forgoing, to me "steal" and "steel" are homophones, with no detectable difference in sound.

David Siegel

Posted 2019-07-10T15:58:21.403

Reputation: 17 300

2There isn't much mention of "still" in these answers, perhaps because it is the most easily distinguished of the three. I think it's worth pointing out that one of the characteristics of a typical non-native accent is the way the short i in still is frequently mis-pronounced. The name "Philip" is not "Pheeleep", a pill is not peel and so on. – Weather Vane – 2019-07-11T14:17:30.583

But to non-English natives who struggle distinguishing "still" and "steel", they will also not distinguish between "keel" and "kill". So your explanation "still rhymes with kill" is not useful. – theonlygusti – 2019-11-21T23:00:46.257


Can fluent English speakers understand the sentence?

What? They still steal steel?

Well, certainly yes. We use our knowledge of everyday English to make a rational interpretation of the likely meaning of the sentence. In this sense, pronunciation is not key.

Can fluent English speakers distinguish these words when spoken in isolation, with no context? I could certainly attempt to pronounce each word with such emphasis to make each one sound unique and probably identifiable to many people. Would I do that in normal speech? Probably not.


Posted 2019-07-10T15:58:21.403

Reputation: 149


In English, the difference in writing between steel/steal and still is called a minimal pair.

ae/ee are pronounced the same way. It is their graphemes (how they are written) that differ.

still is pronounced differently. That said, there is only one sound difference between steel/steal and still.

minimal pairs

In English, minimal pairs (how you pronounce vowel sounds and not how they are written) are very important because

still contains the sound /ɪ/ for the i. steal/steel contain the sound [i:] for ea and ee.

The difference between steal and steel in spoken language will come from the co-text.

  • This seat is as hard as steel.
  • To steal is not a good thing.

The sounds in steel/steal and still are never misheard by native speakers in this sense. And still is an adverb. So, a totally different category.

It is important to do exercises with minimal pairs in order to become used to them. English has many quirks but knowing usual minimal pairs helps learners as how English sounds is not how it is written.

steal/steel [we saw this one], others include: feet and feat
bait/late....notice: ai and a are both the same sound.

The most difficult one is probably the /ɪ/. The sounds of the i and u in the word minute (for time) are both /ɪ/. Also, the /ɪ/ does not exist in some languages like French and Spanish. So those speakers have a hard time with: sheet/ship.

Etc. There are tons of places online and in books to learn these sounds. Please note: there are regional variations sometimes.

At this level of learning, I think regional differences should be left out of explanations because it is already hard enough to grasp the idea of minimal pairs and graphemes in English.


Posted 2019-07-10T15:58:21.403

Reputation: 26 929

I'm confused by your list of pairs. bat/bet, hot/hit and but/bat differ in single vowel sounds, and bait/late differs only in initial consonant sound, but surely sheen/neat differ in both initial and final consonant sounds? – jeffB – 2019-07-11T17:04:57.480

I had an error. But the minimal pair sound difference between bait and late is correct. ai and a are the same sound here. – Lambie – 2019-07-11T17:33:06.187

The list above includes both pairs of homonyms (is standard dialects) such as steal/steel and feet/feat. These are not minimal pairs. Others in the list, such as but/bat are. This should be corrected if this answer is to have value. – David Siegel – 2019-07-12T22:04:02.207

The Wikipedia article in the above answer says: "and minimal pair drills were [in the 1940s and 1950s] widely used to train students ...However, later writers have criticized the approach as being artificial and lacking in relevance to language learners' needs." I tend to agree with the "later writers" and think it would be best to omit "minimal pairs" from answers here -- i do not see that they are of direct use to learners, although they may inform teaching methods, such as by knowing sounds or distinctions not found in some learner's native languages. – David Siegel – 2019-07-12T22:07:44.953

On the other hand, i think that mention of alternate dialects should often be included in answers here, because learners will encounter at least the more common ones, and may encounter others. Learners of US English will surely encounter Southern and Western accents, and may encounter what is soemtiems called "African American Vernacular" and dialects spoken by those of Hispanic background. UK learners will surely encounter several variations besides RP, although I am not knowledgeable enough about BrE to be sure which (Cockney??) – David Siegel – 2019-07-12T22:12:22.337

@DavidSiegel I really do not care what some silly Wikipedia article claims. If you don't learn minimal pairs - directly or indirectly - you'll never learn English. Minimal pairs are incredibly useful. In fact, they teach them to kids in school. It is very difficult to master the fact that many vowel sounds have the same materialization with different letters: minute. The i and u are the same sound. //steel/steal and still are a minimal pair. [i:] for steel/steal versus /i/ for still. steel versus still and steal versus still. – Lambie – 2019-07-12T22:15:58.357

You don't teach regional dialects before teaching standard ones. In standard British and American English: steel, steal and still are all pronounced the same way. In fact, even in Black English they are the same. Let's leave Hispanics out of this,shall we? That is really beyond the pale. This is not a Phd course in pronunciation variations. The only way to show students the oddities of English is to at some point introduce the sound system of English. I wonder, have you actually ever taught English?? – Lambie – 2019-07-12T22:16:56.803

Why not Chinese speakers or Haitian Creole speakers? Hm? – Lambie – 2019-07-12T22:22:00.707

1I am sorry but it is simply untrue that "In standard British and American English: steel, steal and still are all pronounced the same way." I have yet to hear a standard speaker who pronounces "steel" and "still" identically. Learners need not master regional variations, but need to know that they exist, because they will hear them. – David Siegel – 2019-07-12T22:28:22.187

The Wikipedia statement disfavoring Minimal pairs in teaching is cited to Brown, Gillian (1990). Listening to Spoken English. pp. 144–6. Do you consider that a reliable source? I should add that I have never before heard of "minimal pairs" and consider that I know English fairly well. – David Siegel – 2019-07-12T22:31:53.800

@DavidSiegel OMG, are you misreading me on purpose?? Steal/steel are pronounced the same way on both sides of the Atlantic and so is still. I spent considerable time making clear: steel/steal, one sound. still another sound. How can you have read everything I have written and misread me like that?? The difference in either is precisely: steel/steal VERSUS still. For pete's sake... – Lambie – 2019-07-12T22:40:24.423

Yes you said earlier that "steel" and "still" sounded different, and seemed to contradict yourself. If what you meant was that there is no difference between BrE and AmE for any of the three words, that is probably true, but i don't think it is what you wrote, and differences between BrE and AmE were not the point of the immediately previous comments, so I did not take your comment as meaning that. I am surely not intentionally misreading you nor misrepresenting your comments -- i may will have misunderstood you. – David Siegel – 2019-07-12T22:47:02.087

I will repeat this one last time: steal/steel have the same phoneme. still has another. That difference is the same in standard speech in the English language. It is exactly what I wrote in my answer. "still contains the sound /ɪ/ for the i. steal/steel contain the sound [i:] for ea and ee" I am not contradicting myself. You did not read my answer carefully. It's there in black and white. – Lambie – 2019-07-12T22:53:30.003


"What? They still steal steel?"

Yes, "still" has a different sound to "steel" and "steal". We use our knowledge of general sentence order to logically work this out.

Also, the emphasis placed on each of these words in a question would allow us to understand that "steal" is the verb, and that "steel" is the noun. More emphasis may be placed on "steal" because the sentence is interrogative.

However, I understand that this is something hard for non-native English speakers. I have heard these three words pronounced as the same word many a time by non-native speakers. It is like "fill" and "feel". The only way you can get better at this is by listening to a native English pronunciation and practising.

Posted 2019-07-10T15:58:21.403

Reputation: 797