“Bowel” or “Vowel”: Clarifying the Difference between “B” and “V”

“Bowel?” I ask my client jokingly from across the table while pointing to my stomach. “Ha! No, ‘vowel,’” the client clarifies. While many clients are aware of the difference between “b” and “v,” it is difficult for them to keep from substituting one for the other. What’s the big deal, though? In English, if you use a “b” instead of a “v” or vice versa, someone may misunderstand you. We have word pairs that differ only by whether a “b” or a “v” is used, such as “boat” and “vote.” Context may clear up some of these errors, but not all the time. Even so, the more sound substitutions you use, the more mental effort it will take for a listener to understand your message. Learning to use “b” and “v” correctly will increase your ability to communicate easily, effectively, and efficiently.

One way to be more aware of whether you are producing “b” or “v” is to understand the specifics of how the two are produced. The two distinguishing factors between these two sounds are placement and airflow.

Let’s talk first about placement. When producing the “b” sound, both of your lips should come together completely. In contrast, the “v” sound is made by placing the top teeth against the lower lip.

The other factor that distinguishes “b” from “v” is airflow. The “b” sound is a stop consonant, meaning you stop the air completely with your lips before releasing the air in a quick burst. The “v” sound has continuous airflow; you should be able to hold this sound continuously for as long as you have air in your lungs to keep it going. You will feel a slight vibration where your teeth meet your lips as you produce the sound.

The more aware you are of the differences in placement and airflow, the more vigilant you can be about using “b” and “v” accurately. Use a mirror to help you as you get started practicing words with “b” and “v.” The extra visual cue from seeing your lip placement in the mirror will help you catch yourself if you start to slip. Start by practicing word pairs with “b” and “v” like “boat/vote,” “ban/van,” “very/berry,” “base/vase,” and “bent/vent.” Do the words sound the same or different when you read them one after the other? Try recording yourself and evaluating your results. Once you feel pretty confident with these pairs, try “b” and “v” in different places within the word. You can also try words that contain both sounds, such as “verb,” “available,” and “vocabulary.”

I hope you have found this information helpful! Best of luck as you maneuver through the not-always-so-obvious distinctions between “b” and “v.”