How to figure out pronunciation rules in English?

This section of the English Phonetics Academy designed to provide guidance and practice in English pronunciation through the use of phonetics. The exercises and drills included will aid in reducing accents and improving overall speech sound production. These lessons are particularly beneficial for non-native speakers looking to improve their English-speaking skills.

2. Predictable pronunciations

In this chapter, we are going to look at a number of rules that we can use to establish the pronunciation of English words. In spite of the inconsistency between spelling and pronunciation noted in Chapter 1, there are many cases in which the occurrence of a particular phoneme is predictable.

This may be because grammatical endings, like the plural morpheme, have predictable forms. For example, it is a simple matter to establish that the plural of GA /bæɡ/ is /bæɡz/, not */bæɡs/.

Pronunciations may also be predictable simply because particular letters or combinations of letters always (or nearly always) correspond with particular phonemes. For example, pelican is /ˈpɛləkən/, not */ˈpæləkən/, because the letter e never corresponds with the phoneme GA /æ/.

(The Symbol * is used before a word or transcription to indicate that the form is incorrect.) Some rather important rules and letter-phoneme correspondences are given. Obviously, only part of the English vocabulary is covered here.

The symbols between / / refer to phonemes.

2.1 The plural, third-person singular, and genitive endings

The English plural morpheme has three shapes (or ‘allomorphs’): /ɪz/, /s/ and /z/. They are used as follows:

  • /ɪz/ after /s, z, ʃ, ʒ/, as in kisses, roses, bushes, batches, bridges;
  • /s/ after the fortis obstruents /p, t, k; f, θ/, as in lips, lights, books, coughs, moths;
  • /z/ in other situations, i.e. after /b, d, g; v, ð; m, n, ŋ, l, r/ and all vowels. Examples are tabs, loads, bags, loves, scythes, storms, pens, kings, balls, bars, as well as trays, hoes, villas, etc.

These rules also apply to the morphemes for the third person singular present tense and the genitive.

Third person singular present tense

/ɪz/ – kisses – /ˈkɪsɪz/

/s/ – hits – /hɪts/

/z/ – goes – /goʊz/


/ɪz/ – Joyce’s – /ˈd͡ʒɔɪsɪz/

/s/ – Jeff’s – /d͡ʒɛfs/

/z/ – Joe’s – /d͡ʒoʊz/

Note 1: The /f, θ, s/ at the end of the following nouns change into /v, ð, z/ in the plural.

  • singular /-f/ becomes plural /-vz/ in: calf, elf, half, knife, leaf, life, loaf, -self, sheaf, shelf, thief, wife, wolf. Note that the spelling also changes: calf – calves, etc. The plurals of dwarf, hoof (/huːf/ or / hʊf/), scarf, wharf, have either /-fs/ or /-vz/.
  • singular /-θ/ becomes plural /-ðz/ in: path and mouths. The plurals of bath, lath /læθ/ (‘lat’), oath, sheath, truth, wreath, youth have either /-θs/ or /-ðz/. The spelling remains unchanged.
  • singular /-s/ becomes plural /-zɪz/ only in house. So: /ˈwʌn ˈhaʊs/ but /ˈtuː ˈhaʊzɪz/.

Note 2: Instead of /ɪz/, some speakers have / əz/.

2.2 The past (participle) endings

The English plural morpheme has three shapes (or ‘allomorphs’): /ɪd/, /t/ and /d/. They are used as follows:

Shape 1

/ɪd/ after /t,d/, as in fitted, loaded;

fitted – /ˈfɪt̬ɪd /

loaded – /ˈloʊdɪd/

Shape 2

/t/ after the fortis obstruents /p, k, f, θ, s, ʃ/, as in helped, knocked, stuffed, pronounced, leashed;

helped – /hɛlpt/

knocked – /nɑːkt/

stuffed – /stʌft/

leashed – /liːʃt/

Shape 3

/d/ in other situations, i.e. after /b, g, v, ð, z, ʒ, m, n, ŋ, l, r/ and after all vowels, as in stabbed, bagged and in showed, tied, etc.

stabbed – /stæbd/

bagged – /bægd/

showed – /ʃoʊd/

tied – /taɪd/

In irregular verbs, these rules of course do not apply.

Note that –edly is always pronounced /ədli/ when the accent falls on the last syllable of adverbs:

marked /mɑrkt/ markedly /ˈmɑrkədli/
assured /əˈʃʊrd/ assuredly /əˈʃʊrədli/

but: good-humouredly /ˈgʊd ˈhjuːmərdli/.

2.3 Spelling-pronunciation rules for lax vowels

In this section, we give representative examples of spellings for each of the GA vowel phonemes. In a number of cases, exceptional spellings are noted. Regularities are given as rules.

/ɪ/ Examples of spellings that represent the vowel /ɪ/

lip – /lɪp/

guild – /gɪld/

manage – /ˈmænɪd͡ʒ/

Exceptional spellings with e

pretty – /ˈprɪt̬i/

England – /ˈɪŋglənd/

Exceptional spellings with u

busy – /ˈbɪzi/

business – /ˈbɪznɪs/

Exceptional spellings with o

women – /ˈwɪmən/

/ɛ/ Examples of spellings that represent the vowel /ɛ/

bed – /bɛd/

bread – /brɛd/

lever – /ˈlɛvər/

Exceptional spellings with a

any – /ˈɛni/

many – /ˈmɛni/

Thames – /ˈtɛmz/

Exceptional spellings with ay, ai

says – /sɛz/

said – /sɛd/

again – /əˈgɛn/

/æ/ Examples of spellings that represent the vowel /æ/

land – /lænd/

swam – /swæm/

quack – /kwæk/

laugh – /læf/

bath – /bæθ/

aunt – /ænt/

dance – /dæns/

command – /kəˈmænd/

Exceptional spellings with ai

plaid – /plæd/

Rule: In GA, though not in all varieties of American English, /æ/ does not occur before /r/. That is, marry = merry = Mary: /ˈmɛri/.

/ʌ/ Examples of spellings that represent the vowel /ʌ/

nut /nʌt/

color – /ˈkʌlər

son – /sʌn/

(m)other – /(ˈm)ʌðər/

one -/wʌn/

dove – /dʌv/

country – /ˈkʌntri/

Exceptional spellings with oo

blood – /blʌd/

flood – /flʌd/

Rule: /ʌ/ does not occur before /r/: hurry /ˈhɜri/, worry /ˈwɜri/, thorough /ˈθɜroʊ/.

/ʊ/ Examples of spellings that represent the vowel /ʊ/

put – /pʊt/

bull – /bʊl/

sugar – /ˈʃʊgər/

bosom – /ˈbʊzəm/

wolf – /wʊlf/

woman /ˈwʊmən/

foot – /fʊt/

Rule: The spelling oo only represents /ʊ/ in: foot, good, hood (also the suffix), soot (roet), stood, wood, wool and in all words spelled –ook such as cook, took, except spook (AmE for ghost) and snooker (BrE biljartspel), which have /u:/.

2.4 Spelling-pronunciation rules for tense vowels

/iː/ Examples of spellings that represent the vowel /iː/

Rule: /iː/ never occurs before /r/: hearing, near are /hɪrɪŋ/, /nɪr/.

neat – /niːt/

complete – /kəmˈpliːt/

see – /siː/

receive – /riˈsiːv/

police – /pəˈliːs/

(n)either – /(ˈn)iːðər/

theory – /ˈθiːəri/

idea(l) – /aɪˈdiːə(l)/, NOT /aɪˈdiː(l)/

museum – /mjuˈziːəm/

/uː/ Examples of spellings that represent the vowel /uː/

Rule: /uː/ never occurs before /r/: touring, cure are /tʊrɪŋ/, kjʊr/. This is the same rule as for /i:/ above.

soon – /suːn/

lose – /luːz/

group – /gruːp/

shoe – /ʃuː/

chew – /tʃuː/

nude – /nuːd/

fruit – /fruːt/

blue – /bluː/

/eɪ/ Examples of spellings that represent the vowel /eɪ/

ace – /eɪs/

plain – /pleɪn/

may – /meɪ/

veil – /veɪl/

grey – /greɪ/

Exceptional spelling with ea

break – /breɪk/

great – /greɪt/

steak – /steɪk/

Yeats (Irish poet, 1865 – 1939) – /jeɪts/

Reagan (40th U.S. President, 1981 – 1989) – /ˈreɪgən/

/oʊ/ Examples of spellings that represent the vowel /oʊ/

old – /oʊld/

shoulder – /ˈʃoʊldər/

goes – /goʊz/

though – /ðoʊ/

/ɑ:/ Examples of spellings that represent the vowel /ɑ:/

Set 1

collar – /ˈkɑːlər/

contest (noun) – /ˈkɑːntɛst/

bomb – /bɑ:m/

Set 2

coffee – /ˈkɑːfi/

lost – /lɑːst/

daughter – /ˈdɑːt̬ər/

Exceptional spelling with -other

bother – /ˈbɑːðər/

All other words have /-ʌðr̩/ (You know: mother, brother, smother, other…).
Note: speakers from the East Coast and parts of the Midwest use /ɒː/ in set 2.

Foreign words

As observed by Lindsey (1989) GA tends to use tense vowels in foreign words. (British English often has a lax vowel in these cases.) Thus,

Costa Rica – /ˈkoʊstə ˈriːkə/

Piedro – /ˈpjeɪdroʊ/

Los Gatos – /loʊs ˈgɑːtoʊs/

Voltaire – /voʊlˈtɛr/

However, this is not a hard-and-fast rule. So do look words up.

/aɪ/ Examples of spellings that represent the diphthong /aɪ/

line – /laɪn/

mind – /maɪnd/

fight – /faɪt/

die – /daɪ/

eye – /aɪ/

Rule: /aɪ/ rarely occurs before r: hire, higher are /ˈhaɪər/.

/ɔɪ/ Examples of spellings that represent the diphthong /ɔɪ/

loin – /lɔɪn/

boy – /bɔɪ/

/aʊ/ Examples of spellings that represent the diphthong /aʊ/

down – /daʊn/

mouth – /maʊθ/

Rule: In the speech of most speakers, /aʊ/ does not occur before r: hour /ˈaʊər/, scour(ing) /ˈskaʊərɪ(ŋ)/ (clean or brighten the surface of (something) by rubbing it hard; to search thoroughly).

2.5 Spelling-pronunciation rules for vowels plus /r/

/ɪr/ Examples of spellings that represent /ɪr/

tear (traan) – /tɪr/

deer – /dɪr/

here – /hɪr/

Also: weird – /wɪrd/, pierce – /pɪrs/

Rule: Words with ear normally have /ɪr/, but /ɛr/ occurs in: bear (n/v), pear, sweat, tear (n/v: scheur(en)), wear.

bear (n/v)


tear (n/v: scheur(en))

/ʊr/ Examples of spellings that represent /ʊr/

tour – /tʊr/

Europe – /ˈjʊrəp/

cure – /kjʊr/

Note: In more frequent words, some speakers use /ɜr/ instead of /ʊr/, as in touring /tɜrɪŋ/, sure /ʃɜr/, though never in moor, for instance.

/ɛr/ Examples of spellings that represent /ɛr/

dare – /dɛr/

fair – /fɛr/

parent – /ˈpɛrənt/

/ɔr/ Examples of spellings that represent /ɔr/

war – /wɔr/

cord – /kɔrd/

moral -/ˈmɔrəl/

/ɑr/ Examples of spellings that represent /ɑr/

heart – /hɑrt/

card – /kɑrd/

starred – /stɑrd/

/ɜr/ Examples of spellings that represent /ɜr/

bird – /bɜrd/

learn – /lɜrn/

word – /wɜrd/

Exceptional spelling: with our adjourn (/əˈd͡ʒɜrn/ verdagen), journal, journey, courtesy, scourge (gesel(en)).

2.6 Spelling-pronunciation rules for weak vowels

We discuss the distribution of weak vowels on the basis of the position in the word.

1. Word-finally

Word-finally, three vowels occur in GA: /ə, i, oʊ/.

  • /ə/: villa, cantata, Hannah
  • /i/: happy, vary, psyche, committee
  • /oʊ/: fellow, motto, tomato

2. Internally

Internally, before vowels:

  • /i/: choreography, affiliation, stadium
  • /u/: influential, situation

Internally, before consonants:

  • /ə/: Pamela, family, common, Normandy
  • /ɪ/: particularly before velars, as in eating, peculiar

3. Word-initial

Word-initial syllables occurring before a strong syllable are a special case. All the weak vowels may occur here, but they are subject to variable reduction.

That is, we get weak vowels that are ‘on their way’ to /ə/, which is the most reduced (‘weakest’) vowel of the language. Take the word notation, for example. In formal speech it will be /noʊˈteɪʃən/, but in less formal speech /nəˈteɪʃən/, or perhaps something in between these two. Similarly, we may get /suˈpɪriər/ for superior when pronounced carefully, but /səˈpɪriər/ when pronounced more casually, or again, with some vowel quality in between.

Or emit, which may be /iˈmɪt/ or /əˈmɪt/. Such variable reduction may also occur with strong vowels. A careful pronunciation of abyss will be /æˈbɪs/ (more commonly /əˈbɪs/). Thus, these open word-initial syllables are weak, but the vowels tend to be subject to some variation. An exception is raccoon /ræˈkuːn/, which cannot be */rəˈkuːn/.

raccoon – /ræˈkuːn/

When the word-initial syllable is closed, it is strong, and no weak vowels are tolerated. Thus, ambivalent /æmˈbɪvələnt/ will never be */əmˈbɪvələnt/. Other examples are vulgarity, technique, pragmatics, September, October, pontoon. (Oh, yes, there is an exception, of course: Kentucky, pronounced /kənˈtʌki/.)

Kentucky – /kənˈtʌki/

‘Latinate’ prefixes are always weak, independently of whether they constitute open or closed syllables. So retain will have /i/ or /ə/, not the strong vowel /iː/, in its first syllable. Other such prefixes are ab-, ad-, ex- (but not the ex- meaning ‘former’) be-, con-, ob- (not re- meaning ‘again’), sub.

Note 1:

Some speakers may make a distinction between /ɪ/ and /ə/ in the same context, and making a difference between act of God and active God; except and accept; effect and affect; or parrot and pair it; Lenin and Lennon. You need not make such distinctions.

Note 2:

The ‘word’ that is referred to by terms like ‘word-final’ and ‘word-initial’ is strictly speaking the phonological word. For example, there are two phonological words in tablecloth (or if you prefer table cloth, or perhaps table-cloth).

That is, each of the words that a compound word is composed of is a phonological word, regardless of whether you use a hyphen or space or nothing between the component elements. Prefixes with independent meanings, like ex– ‘former’, neo– ‘new’, mini– ‘small’ also form independent phonological words, as in ex-priest, neo-Marxist, mini-city etc.

Thus, final weak /i/ occurs at the end of mini just as it occurs at the end of city. The phonological word corresponds to an element that (a) can be an independent word table, cloth, city, or (b) is a prefix with independent meaning, like mini, neo, ex, etc. In addition, suffixes like –hood, –ness, –wise are not included in the preceding phonological word, so that /i/ will occur in nanny-hood, happiness, money-wise.

2.7 Spelling-pronunciation rules for consonants

In this section, we discuss the spelling characteristics of a number of consonants that are often confused.

/θ/ or /ð/ ?

Note first of all that the only way that these phonemes can be spelled is th(e), but that th may also represent /t/. It does so in the following words:

posthumous – /ˈpɑːstjəməs/

thyme – /taɪm/

Chatham – t͡ʃæt̬əm/

Esther – /ˈɛstər/

Mathilda – /məˈtɪldə/

Thames – /tɛmz/

Theresa – /təˈriːsə/

Thomas – /ˈtɑːməs/

Thom(p)son – /ˈtɑːmpsən/

Thai(land) – /ˈtaɪ(lænd)/


Anthony – /ˈænθəni/

In words other than these, the situation is as follows:

Initial th (/ð/) only occurs in function words:

the – /ðə/

this – /ðɪs/

that – /ðæt/

these – /ðiːz/

those – /ðoʊz/

they – /ðeɪ/

them – /ðɛm/

their(s) – /ðɛr(z)/

there – /ðɛr/

then – /ðɛn/

than – /ðæn/

thus – /ðʌs/

(al)though – /ðoʊ/

All other words with initial th have /θ/ (‘major-class words’).

think – /θɪŋk/

thumb – /θʌm/

thorough – /ˈθɜroʊ/

  • Initial th: /ð/ only occurs in function words: the, this (/ðɪs/), that, these, those, they, them, their(s), there, then, than, thus, (al)though. (In Archaic English also thou, thee, thine, thy, thither, and thence.) All other words with initial th have /θ/: think, thumb, thorough, etc. (‘major-class words’).
  • Medial th: /ð/ normally occurs in words of Germanic origin, like gather, leather, mother, while /θ/ normally occurs in words that have come into English from Greek or Latin, like author, method, pathos /ˈpeɪθɑːs/. However, rhythm and logarithm have /ð/.
  • Final -the: always represents /ð/. Final -th almost always represents /θ/, except in to mouth and smooth. The verb to bequeath (nalaten van erfenis) has either /ð/ or /θ/.

Note: In the following cases a word with final /θ/ has a related word with /ð/: (north) northern/ˈnɔrðərn/, (south) southern /sʌðərn/, worthy/ˈwɔrði/. The word smithy (smidse) has either /ð/ or /θ/.

/s/ or /z/ ?

First of all, note that ss, c, sc represent /s/, as in lesson, mice, science.
In a number of words ss represents /z/, however. These are dessert /dɪˈzɜrt/ (id.), dissolve, hussar /hʊˈzɑr/, posses(ion) /pəˈzɛs, pəˈzɛʃn/ and scissors /ˈsɪzərz/.

Secondly, note that final s represents /s/, except:

  • in the words as, does, has, his, is, was
  • in lens, series (/ˈsɪriːz/ ag. And pl.), species (/ˈspiːʃiːz/ or /ˈspiːsiːz/ biologische soort, sg, and pl.), Mrs /ˈmɪsɪz/ and Ms (/mɪz/, used to avoid a choice between Miss and Mrs);
  • in many proper names geographical names, like Dickens, Knowles, Leeds, Williams. Note that Greek names in –es have / /i:z/, like Socrates (/ˈsɑːkrətiːz/), Ulysses (/ˈjuːləsiːz/), and Latin names in –us have /əs/, like Brutus, Tiberius (/taɪˈbɪriəs/).

Thirdly, note that ns is almost always /ns/, as in defensive, consonant, rinse, while rs is /rs/ conversation, university, coarse, except in –rsion, where /rʒən/ is used (e.g. immersion).
The following words are exceptional, because they end in /z/, not /s/: lens, to cleanse, Mars.
The prefix trans– has either /z/ or /s/.

Fourth, s before b, d, m, 1 usually represents /z/, as in husband, wisdom, prism, muslin (/ˈmʌzlɪn/ neteldoek, katoen).


  • For s as the plural of nouns or as the third person sg. of verbs there are separate rules: see 2.1.
  • In some words -s is not pronounced, as in chassis /ˈʃæsi/, Illinois /ɪləˈnɔɪ/, etc.
  • The prefix mis is always /mɪs/. The prefix dis is always /dɪs/, except when an accented vowel immediately follows, in which case usage varies between /dɪz/ and /dɪs/. Examples are dishonest and disorder. Note that disaster, disease, dismal and dissolve are pronounced with /z/: /dɪˈzæstr̩, dɪˈziːz, dɪzml/ and /dɪˈzɑːlv/.

/ʃ/ or /ʒ/ ?

/ʃ/ in Ci, ti, Csi, Csu /ʒ/ in Vsion, Vsu, Vzu, rsion
musician, Confucian vision, evasion
attention, nation measure, usual
mission, tension seizure
pressure, censure excursion, version

/g/ or /d͡ʒ/ ?

Before i, e and y, the letter g represents either / d͡ʒ /, as in German, or /g/, as in Gertrude.
In other situations, only /g/ occurs, as in bargain (n/v: koopje; onderhandelen), goal. An exception is margarine /ˈmɑrd͡ʒərɪn/). Note that veg /vɛd͡ʒ/ is short for vegetable(s) /ˈvɛd͡ʒ(ə)təbl(z)/.

/f/ or /v/ ?

f, ph only represent /v/ in Stephen(son) and of (/ʌv/ or /əv/, see Chapter 7.) In Stephen some speakers use /f/ (spelling pronunciation).

/j/ or /d͡ʒ/ ?

Initial j is always / d͡ʒ /, as in jam, jet, Jones, while initial y is always /j/, as in yet, yoke.

‘Silent’ Letters

  1. There is no /h/ in:
    • herb, heir, honest, honor, hour and their derivatives. (NB Herb(ert) hs an /h/!);
    • exhaust /ɪgˈzɑːst/ (n/v: uitlaat; uitputten), exhibit /ɛgˈzɪbɪt/ (n/v: tentoongesteld voorwerp; vertonen), exhibition /ˈɛksəˈbɪʃn/, exhilarate /ɪgˈzɪləreɪt/ (verblijden, opvrolijken), exhort /ɪgˈzɔrt/ (aansporen) and their derivatives;
    • annihilate /ənˈaɪəleɪt/ (vernietigen), shepherd, vehement /ˈviːəmənt/, vehicle /ˈviːəkl/.
  2. Word-final -gm and -gn are pronounced /m/ and /n/ respectively: diaphragm /ˈdaɪəfræm/, deign /deɪn/, reign /reɪn/, sign.
  3. Word-initial kn-, gn, and mn- are /n/: knight, gnat, mnemonic /niˈmɑːnɪk/noun/ adj.: ezelsbruggetje; geheugen-)
  4. Word-final -mb and -mn are pronounced /m/: climb, limb /lɪm/, plumb(er) /ˈplʌm(r̩)/, comb /koʊm/, tomb /tuːm/, womb /wuːm/ (baarmoeder); autumn, condemn, solemn, etc. However, /mn/ occurs in derivations like autumnal, condemnation, solemnity /səˈlɛmnəti/, etc.
  5. Word-initial ps- is /s/: psyche /ˈsaɪki/, pseudo /ˈsuːdoʊ/.
  6. Word-final -ten is pronounced /n̩/ after s and f: hasten, moisten, soften. Often /ɑːfn̩/ has an alternative pronunciation /ˈɑːftən/.
  7. Word-final -tle is pronounced /l̩/ after s: castle, jostle (tegen iemand aan­duwen), thistle, mistletoe.
  8. There is no /w/ in who(m), whose, whole, whooping-cough, whore and in words beginning with wr (wrench, write, wrong).
  9. There is no /b/ in debt, doubt, subtle(ty) /ˈsʌtl(ti)/.

Place Name Suffixes

The following regularities may be noted with respect to place name suffixes: -borough, -burgh are /bɜroʊ/: Middlesborough, Peterborough. A British-type /ˈɛdnbɜrə/ would be used for the well-known capital of Scotland, however. -bury is /bɛri/, as in Canterbury, Shaftesbury. (Note that also berry is pronounced this way; as in cranberry, strawberry.)