2 The DRESS Lexical Set

Spellings | Pronunciations | Personal Pronunciations | Alternate Pronunciations
Word Lists | Short Phrases | Sentences | Mergers | Splits | Review

DRESS IPA ChartThe dress lexical set is part of the group of sets that can only be in Checked syllables. Also, dress is found in both stressed and unstressed syllables. Historically, dress evolved from the short /e/ vowel in Middle English, while face evolved from the long /e/. Some dress words, spelled ‹ea›, are derived from historical /ɛ/. It is a short, front, mid vowel often in the range of [e̞ ~ ɛ̝]. It is an unrounded vowel in all settings. Generally, face is higher and fronter than dress.

In many parts of the U.S. South, dress is a centring diphthong, going as far as [eə̯] in stressed syllables. In these accents, the nucleus of the face lexical set is lower in the vowel space, [ɛɪ̯], than the nucleus of dress. 

  • ☑️ Checked: requires a following consonant, and cannot exist on its own
  • in both stressed and unstressed syllables


eC, eaC

dress may be one of the easiest lexical sets to identify, as its spelling is very regular: it’s mostly ‹eC› or ‹eaC›, as you’ll see from the word lists below. There are a very small number of exceptional spellings: hemorrhage, any, many, Thames, friend, says, said, heifer, Leicester, leisure*, leopard, bury, burial, guess, guest; apart from those, which one can memorize, dress is quite straightforward. 


The dress lexical set is pronounced in many accents of English with either a slightly more open [e̞] vowel, or in a lightly more close than [ɛ̝].  In some cases, dress is more close, as we often get in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa with a pronunciation such as [e ~ ɪ]. In other cases, dress can be more open, as we get in the North of England, Canada and around the Great Lakes in the northern US, in the range of [ɛ̞ ~ æ̝]. 

Some accents in Scotland have an allophone of dress sometimes labeled with the alternate keyword never, where dress vowel is centralized from [ɛ] to [ɛ̈]. Wells lists never, devil, clever, eleven, heaven; bury, earth, jerk; next; shepherd; twenty as belonging to this group.

dress can be diphthongal [eə̯ ~ ëə], as is heard in some Southern US varieties. 

Personal Pronunciation

What is your dress pronunciation? Play around with the words from the list below on your own or with a classmate, friend, coach or teacher to identify how your dress vowel compares with the way(s) they say it. In order to hear its quality a bit better, try lengthening the sound of your dress vowel, and then attempt to subtly shift it around in the vowel space—up, forwards, down, and back—in tiny, subtle shifts. [If you have a diphthong pronunciation where you have an offglide moving toward the center of your mouth, focus on the nucleus of your dress vowel.] As you explore, you should feel the top surface of the back your tongue moving towards/away from the roof of your mouth, in the direction of the space just behind the alveolar ridge. What’s the smallest noticeable change that you can make?

If your dress vowel is (use the symbol that is most appropriate for your speech)

  • high, use the raised diacritic [ ɛ̝ ], a small T pointing up
  • open, use the lowered diacritic [ e̞ ], a small T pointing down
  • pushed forward, use the advanced diacritic [ ɛ̟ ], a tiny plus sign +
  • pulled back, use the retracted diacritic [ ɛ̠ ], a tiny minus sign –
  • moved toward the middle of the mouth, towards schwa [ə], use the mid-centralized diacritic [ e̽ ], a tiny x-marks-the-spot above the symbol, 
  • if you have some to lots of lip-rounding, use the more rounded diacritic [ ɛ̹ ], a tiny ɔ, which represents the lips rounding forward (to the left).
  • if you have little or no lip̤̤-rounding, use the less rounded diacritic [ ɛ̜ ], a tiny c, which represents the lips relaxing back towards a spread shape (to the right)

Alternate Pronunciations

Experiment with the Word Lists, Phrases and Sentences with the following vowels:

ɪ           near-close and near-front, with no lip rounding
e          close-mid and front, with no lip rounding
e̞          mid and front, with no lip rounding
ɛ          open-mid and front, with no lip rounding
ɛ̠          retracted open-mid front, with no lip rounding (could also be [ɛ̈])

As you move the vowels in the directions recommended, see whether that modified oral posture might inspire you to move the articulation of consonants and other vowels in the word in similar ways. Does it remind you of another accent?

Word Lists for dress, sorted by the consonant that follows

KEY: ◾︎dress in stressed syllable ◽︎dress in unstressed syllable 



◾︎step, represent, kept, accept, reception, separate, episode, leopard, deputy, preparation, weapons, epic, except, pepper, in-depth, PrEP, unacceptable
◽︎September, reputation, footstep (and other -step words), concept, epsilon, epilepsy, precept, windswept, transept, biceps, septennial, septet, Pepita, reptilian, forceps, narcolepsy


◾︎website, web, celebrity, February, Lebanon, Debbie, Webber, Deborah, rebel, Webb, debit, zebra*, Webster, pebble, treble, pueblo*, Hebrides, Knebworth, ebony
◽︎Zagreb, Caleb, Maghreb, Horeb, spiderweb, cobweb, ebbtide, Deneb, cubeb, hebdomadal 


◾︎ get, set, let, network, yet, better, letter, Carol Burnett, reset, pet, met=Met, net, threat, Rossetti, Metro, metal, set-up, petrol, jet, Beto, wet, retro, Brett, Getty, athletics, forget, etcetera
◽︎ internet, set-to, newsletter, Somerset, Vietnamese, asset, outlet, offset, metallic, sunset, upset, inkjet, etiquette, headset, e-cigarette, inlet, alphabet, love-letter


◾︎ read=red, said, editor, Z*, already, head, medical, led=lead, ahead, wedding, ready, bed, dead, wed, instead, thread, medicine, credit, Ed, spread, incredible, Edinburgh, Mediterranean 
◽︎ redhead, go-ahead, widespread, maidenhead, newlywed, Stansted, overhead, Ahmed, seabed, Whitehead, homestead, headquarters, sunbed, moped, masthead, Whitbread, bedspread


⚠︎ ‹x› is pronounced /ks/, and so it appears here
◾︎ next, tech, second, perfect (v.), section, subject (v.), select, text, project (v.), sex, record (n.), recommendation, connect, sector, check, protection, director, secretary, seconds 
◽︎ index, technology, subject (n.), project (n.), architecture, spectacular, object (n.), suspect (n.), complex, unisex, technique, Ben Affleck, cross-check, electronics, prospect 

◾︎ legacy, regular, legs, negative, pregnant, regulations, mega-, Gregory, Clegg, Lego, integrity, integral*, regulator, Megan=Meghan=Meagan, leggings, egg, reggae, peg
◽︎ JPEG, Skegness, segment, MPEG, segmental, Winnipeg, duck-egg, nutmeg, Schwarzenegger, impregnated, segmented, Zellweger, bootleg, tent-peg, Heidegger, nest-egg, Tuareg, gateleg



◾︎ stretch, sketch, fletcher, perpetual, Letchworth, stretcher, Sketchers, fetch, ketchup, etched, Quechua, treacherous, Gretchen, Chechnya, wretched, treachery, perpetuate


◾︎ register, education, schedule, legend, legislation, Hedges, allege, legendary, edge, Reg, vegetarian, vegetables, pledge, registry, prejudice, wedge, regiment, Edgware, ledger, illegible, Wedgwood, Egerton 
◽︎ Liversedge, gilt-edged, knife-edge, Buttigieg, re-education, straightedge, pledgor



◾︎ M=em, them, September, November, member, a.m., p.m., premier*, December, memories, MA, premises, Thames, MP3, remember, semi-, membership, Emma, temporary, attempt, temperature
◽︎ HTML, SMS, BMW, mayhem, temptation, YMCA, Bethlehem, carpe diem*, subassembly, tempura, Pembrey, idem, ibidem, undemocratic, embarcadero, tempestuous, condemnation, diadem


◾︎ content (adj.), when, many, then, send, N, any, end, against*, men, menu, entertainment, again*, sent, parental, enter, centre=center, Wednesday, den, event
◽︎ content (n.), comment, recommendation, TNT, dog-end, girlfriend, boyfriend, ENT, Turkmenistan, west-end, implementation, whenever, documents, ING, jobcentre, sensation, compensation, orientation

◾︎ length, penguin, strength, Jenkins, lengthy, flamenco, Genghis Khan, merengue (💃), Engels, nomenclature, Englewood, Jenks, Pengam, Svengali, Englebert Humperdinck, Menken
◽︎ wavelength, Boateng, Bengali, mesenchyme, Senghenydd, ginseng, Furtwängler


◾︎ death, Beth, method, ethical, ethnic, Death Valley, methodology, Methodist, meth, methadone, Seth, ethanol, breath, Bethnal, Macbeth, breathtaking, polyethylene, plethora, Bethlehem, stethoscope
◽︎ ethnicity, Bethesda, Megadeth, Digbeth, shibboleth, Gethsemane, ethnography, Bickersteth, metheglin, Bethune*, isopleth, Ashtoreth

◾︎ weather, together, whether, leather, Netherlands, Heather, altogether, Leatherhead, Wetherby, Smethwick, feather, Wetherspoon, nether, Netherton, leatherette, Hetherington, togetherness, Wetherspoon’s, tether 
◽︎ Mayweather, get-together, fair-weather, shoe-leather, bellwether, quill-feather


◾︎ left, F, reference, ref, Sheffield, theft, chef, definitely, definition, FA Cup, nephew*, effort, ˈrefuse (n.), Jeff, RAF, Stephanie, refugee, Geoffrey=Jeffrey, preference 
◽︎ lieutenant*, UFO, KFC, UNICEF, aleph, Prokofiev, Gurdjieff, Diaghilev, Nureyev, Turgenev, encephalitis, left-winger, effendi, coreferential


◾︎ never, level, every, however, everything, ever, seven, several, everyone, Kevin, whatever, evidence, nevertheless, heavy, revolution, Everton, revenue, Devon 
◽︎ A-level, high-level, sea-level, daredevil, Medvedev, maglev, Negev, she-devil, Mendeleev, counterrevolutionary 


◾︎ US, best, s, press, address, accessible, west, less, message, questions, test, process, question, yes, western, restaurants, lesson, Kanye West, rest, 
◽︎ Pinterest, Manchester, interest, process (n.), USA, access, duchess, progress (n.), protest, BST, congress*, processes, prestigious, prestige, essay (v.), Estonia 


◾︎ says, president, present, resolution, Lesley=Leslie*, residence, pleasant, reservations, presentation, lesbian, residue, Desmond, desert, Wesley, resin, reservoir, unpleasant, bezel
◽︎ Martinez, Suarez, Gomez, Lopez, Sanchez, Perez, Torres, Rodríguez, Ramirez, Hernandez, González, Jabez, Gutiérrez, Flores, Cortez, mesmeric, Mendes, unpresidential 

◾︎ special, professional, pressure, session, specialist, fresh, especially, impression, Cheshire, speciality, refresh, confession, recession, possessions, obsession, precious
◽︎ Zooey Deschanel, blood-pressure, acupressure, Gilgamesh, Daesh, horseflesh, overpressure, micromesh, gooseflesh, depressurization

⚠︎ In the U.S. West, these words are part of face
◾︎ leisure*, leisurewear*, measure, measurement, made-to-measure, measurable, pleasure, pleasurable, pleasure-grounds, pleasure-boat, treasure, treasury, treasure-trove, Lemesurier, Nadezhda, Brezhnev
◽︎ tape-measure, Voronezh, half-measures, yard-measure, countermeasure


Vowels followed by /r/ and /l/ often are affected by the following consonant. 

Ax icon

In order to practice these vowels without the following consonant affecting them, experiment with the “Consonant Chop” technique. Speak the word without the following consonant and all that comes after it, chopping the word off right after the dress vowel. For example, for error, you would start by saying “e-“ then, as two units, say “e-   -rror”. If you’re working on using the [ɛ] vowel, that would be something like [ɛ — ɹɚ]. Then try putting the two syllables closer and closer together, [ɛ – ɹɚ, ɛ-ɹɚ, ˈɛ.ɹɚ, ˈɛɹɚ]. You can also try a different vowel, say [e], and change the /r/ to a tap [ɾ] [e – ɾəɾ, e-ɾəɾ, ˈe.ɾəɾ, ˈeɾəɾ]. If you have success with that more extreme oral gesture, then you can attempt the [ɛ.ɹ] version afterwards. Similarly you can do this with /l/, such as with the word “yellow.” Chop the word in two before the /l/, e.g. “ye-   -llow,” [ˈjɛ — ləʊ̯, ˈjɛ – ləʊ̯, ˈjɛ – ləʊ̯, ˈjɛ.ləʊ̯, ˈjɛləʊ̯]. 

Though dress when followed by ‹r› can become the centring diphthong square, e.g. [ɛː], [ɛə̯] or [ɛɚ̯], it doesn’t have to: it can simply be dress plus a consonant /r/. This contrast relates to the Merry-Mary Merger (see more below, under Mergers); if the two sets are different from one another, then you don’t have the merger. Similarly, some trap+/r/ words merge with dress, in the so-called Merry-Marry Merger (see more below). 

Try the words below with a clean dress vowel, with no offglide to schwa (or r-coloured schwa) before the consonant /r/.

-ɹ* (for those with the Merry-Mary Merger, see square: Approximants and trap: Approximants)

◾︎ very, America, ceremony, errors, verified, terrace, therapy, perry=Perry, Jeremy, terrible, necessary, derriere*, Kerry, berry, terry=Terry, terrorism, Jeremiah, heritage
◽︎ necessary, Londonderry, unnecessary, Queensferry, bayberry (and other -berry words), Secretary-General*, terrazzo*, Peron, car-ferry, psychotherapeutic, Middlebury, heraldic, errata*, seraglio*, ferruginous

When followed by ‹l›, the vowel is often pulled back, especially if /l/ is articulated with the dark-l [ɫ], which may move the vowel more towards schwa [ə]. In some accents, a very dark-l can lead to the vowel being “swallowed” by the /ɫ/, making it syllabic [ ɫ̩ ]. 


◾︎ help, well, well-, HTML, health, L, welcome, tell, hotel, self, self-, sell, LED, yellow, seller, healthcare, URL, held, television, elsewhere, development, telegraph, telephone, themselves
◽︎ maxwell, Elena*, Motherwell, hello, PLC, Intel, commonwealth, El Salvador, Farewell, well-being, best-selling, bombshell, parallel, Novotel, Seinfeld, Isabel.

Short Phrases

  1. Put the pedal to the metal!
  2. Kevin said “yes” when Zhen popped the question.
  3. Jeff forgets the chef’s get-together.
  4. Reggie’s alleged theft of his BMW.
  5. The hard-boiled egg has an X on it.
  6. Ben Affleck deflects questions.
  7. The spread at the wedding was delectable.
  8. Carol Burnett was the best comedienne of the 70’s.
  9. The redhead perfected his sketch.
  10. Beth was tempted to swim in the Thames.
  11. Manchester United bested Chelsea in 2018.
  12. Edna cherished her precious wedding dress.
  13. Sven and Freddie felt PrEP was right for them.
  14. Shideh’s SSD is filled with JPEGs and MP3s.
  15. Ezra was a splendid engraver.
The redhead perfected his sketch by DALL-E
The redhead perfected his sketch by DALL-E


Level 1

Short with 2-3 words, underlined

  1. The director made many comments.
  2. The “Emperor” is the heaviest penguin.
  3. I’ll measure the treasure with pleasure.
  4. Kerry met Jeremy on the terrace.
  5. Queen Elizabeth* was Head of the Commonwealth.

Level 2

Short with 4-5 words, underlined

  1. Kenji saw Cinderella in the West-End.
  2. Ella read Worry by Jessica Westhead in bed.
  3. Eric said the best instrument is the cello.
  4. The Derrick Motel in Edmonton is only seventy bucks.
  5. A nestling isn’t a fledgling: make every attempt to return it to its nest! 

Level 3

Medium with 3-4 words, not underlined

  1. Access to the excellent Irish healthcare system isn’t exactly free.
  2. Ew: Ben has been eating beans and lentils again*.
  3. Greg had temporary memory loss not caused by epilepsy.
  4. The event is the second Wednesday in September.
  5. Singer Brett Eldredge went to Elmhurst College.

Level 4

Hard with 4-6 words, not underlined

  1. Debbie left Edinburgh for the Mediterranean ahead of schedule.
  2. Clooney elegantly represented Nespresso in a celebrity endorsement. 
  3. My encyclopedia is missing letters F, L, N, M, S, and X.
  4. Heather tended cubeb berries[1] for use in medicine.  
  5. The bed, dresser, and hope chest were left by the tenant.


The dress+/r/-square Merger and the dress+/r/-trap+/r/ Merger are commonplace in much of North American English, and commonly referred to as the Merry-Marry-Mary Merger, though some regions have neither, or only one merger. 

Experiment with these three set by making them match (if they’re not merged for you), or by differentiating them with these options:

dress+/r/, trap+/r/, square: [  e̞/æ/eə̯,    ɛ/a/e,    ɛ̝/æ͍/ɛɚ̯  ] 

There are minimal pairs for dress+/r/ vs. square: very/vary, merry/Mary, ferry/fairy=faerie, cherry/chary, Ferrer/fairer, Derry/dairy.

Minimal Pairs for dress+/r/ vs. trap+/r/ include: Perry/parry, berry=bury*/Barry=Barrie, terry/tarry, merry/marry, herald/Harold, perish/parish.

    1. The merry fairy named Mary took the ferry to marry hairy Harry in Paris.
    2. Terry and Barry Berry tarried before buying two very varied dairy farms in Derry.
    3. I was scared to be on the terrace as the floor was transparent and it was very narrow and precarious
    4. Gerald told Barry it was necessary that they prepare the ring bearer before the marriage ceremony.
    5. Apparently, Sharon, the librarian, made repairs for the book that was very terribly damaged.

The nursedress+/r/ Merger, aka the Merry-Murry Merger exists in Philadelphia, while Merry-Mary-Marry remain distinct, nursedress before /r/ are merged. For more details see the nurse Lexical Set.

    1. Valeria craved some urgent retail therapy and purchased three new trousers.
    2. There was another emergency surgery needed due to the unnecessary errors in the last one
    3. “I don’t think they’re terrible!” says Kerry, looking down at her purple Birkenstocks.

kit+/n/-dress+/n/ Merger: Speakers with the Pin-Pen merger, where dress before a nasal becomes the vowel of kit [ɪ], as is found in African American English and many forms of Southern US English, and in the speech of County Cork and County Kerry in Ireland. In some instances, the vowel may have an offglide on kit words before nasals, with [ɪə̯], pin, while monophthong [ɪ] is reserved for dress words before nasals, pen. Examples of Pin-Pen homophones: Ben/been/bin, bend/binned, gem/Jim/gym, lent/lint, pend/penned/pinned, rents/rince. Experiment with your kit–dress vowels below.

    1. Since even a wager of ten cents will win, when will Ben begin to bet again?
    2. sent the link to my friend to find out more information about the gym membership.
    3. Tia attempted to improve her girlfriend’s mood by buying her favourite drink.
    4. Can you comment upon the content of your essay in a three-minute window?


Pathway Puzzles

Pathway Puzzles allow you to practice finding members of a lexical set. Choose the next cell with the FIRST lexical set word to make a pathway from the START of the puzzle down to the FINISH. Open the KEY document to see the solution, and check your work. Pathway Puzzles were created by Farisya Khairul, through support from a AMPD Minor Research Grant.

dress + /r/ – square + /r/ Pathway Puzzle | KEY



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