Choir Quips 1 – quarter

As some of you may know, I sing in the London City Voices choir. It’s a friendly and very good non-audition choir.

Whenever we start a new song, my ears prick up at the way people pronounce certain lyrics.

Today I want to look at the pronunciation of quarter:

London City Voices Choir
(Image © London City Voices, If you look carefully, you can see me singing in the picture)

Quarters in The Boxer

Listening to people say the word quarter is one of my favourite things (no joke). It appears frequently in common phrases like quarter past eight, first quarter of the year, and three quarters of an hour.

Some people will say the word with /kw/ at the beginning like in queen, others will just say /k/ like in keen.

Last month, we were singing The Boxer by Simon & Garfunkel. The song contains the following lyrics:

Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go

Listen to the lyrics:

Now listen to quarters slowed down:

(audio from YouTube)

You can hear that they are saying /kw/. Unsure? Let’s listen to the audio again but with the first /k/ sound chopped off:

You can hear that this sounds like waters, which proves there’s a /w/ sound. (quarters in IPA transcription would be /kwɔːtəz/, waters would be /wɔːtəz/)

I believe (but I have no evidence) that /kw/ is the more “standard” or “traditional” pronunciation, whereas /k/ is becoming more common. (Please comment below to agree/disagree with me!)


In the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone you can hear the actor Daniel Radcliff say quarters with /k/ rather than /kw/ when he says “Can you tell me where I might find Platform 9¾?” (nine and three quarters).


Now listen to nine and three quarters slowed down:

You can hear it is /k/ rather than /kw/. Unsure? Let’s listen to the audio again but with the first /k/ sound chopped off:

(audio from YouTube)
Platform 9 3/4
You can visit Platform 9 ¾ in London’s Kings Cross Station (image source)

My Choir

In my choir, I noticed that the sopranos tended towards /k/ whereas the altos towards /kw/. The tenors and basses varied. Singing together it all merged into a strong /kw/.

Why do some people say /kw/ and others /k/?

Well it’s probably because of the following vowel sound /ɔː/ which is made in a very similar position to a /w/ sound.  The /w/ merges into the /ɔː/ and is lost. That’s why a native speaker might say /k/ for quarter, but will always say /kw/ with other vowel sounds like queen, quite, quote.

How do YOU pronounce quarter?

With /kw/ or just /k/ at the beginning? You might want to check similar words like quartet, quorum, quart, and Quorn (which you may or may not pronounce the same as corn). 

Comment below and let me know!

You can listen to my choir sing the song here (at 0:53 you can hear quarters)

You can listen to Simon & Garfunkel sing the song here (at 0:53 you can hear quarters)