Learn the essential pronunciation rules to help you sound more fluent
English pronunciation can be a challenging aspect for many language learners, but it's also an essential part of effective communication. Whether you're a native speaker or a non-native speaker, having a good grasp of English pronunciation rules can greatly improve your speaking ability and help you communicate with confidence.
In this blog post, we'll delve into the basics of English pronunciation and uncover some of the key rules that can help you sound more fluent and clearer. So, if you're ready to take your English-speaking skills to the next level, read on!
Pronunciation of stressed vowels
- When a single vowel is under stress, you have a choice between two different values:
- the short value, typically used before a before a final consonant : sad, beg, slim, pot, put
- the long value, or alphabetic value (the vowel is pronounced as in the alphabet: A, E, I, O, U) typically used before a single consonant and a final –e : cake, these, time, rose, duke
- The short value is also normally used:
- anywhere, before two consonants : sadder, letter, slimming, pottery,
- under stress, in the last syllable but two (except for –u-) :
'Canada, 'African, A'merican, 'elephant, 'diplomat, 'politics, e'conomy, mo'notonous, 'tolerate, but –u- will have its alphabetic value : im'punity, 'luminous, 'purify, co'mmunicate
- before a pattern consisting of -u- or –y- + another vowel, g. -uous -ual –uent 'fatuous, in'genuous, in'nocuous
but again the alphabetic value for –u- : 'usual, 'mutual
- before such endings as –ic(s)- / -id- / -it- ( also -ish- in the case of verbs) : 'comic, in'sipid, 'timid, 'explicit, 'limit, to 'polish, to 'vanish.
- The alphabetic value is used in the following contexts :
- in final position (few cases): he, she, Hi-Fi, no, so, mu, gnu
- before a final e : Mae, tree, pie, toe, due
- before a single consonant followed by –l- or –r- and a final –e table, acre, metre, title, fibre, ogre
- before a single consonant (that can be followed by –l- or –r-) and a final vowel other than -e veto, yogi, puma, lumbago / 'negro, 'cobra /
- before a single consonant, followed by a pattern consisting of e or i + another vowel: spontaneous, homogeneous, associate, association, deviate, deviation, alienate, alienation
But –i- is given its short value : position, official, efficient
- when the stressed vowel is followed immediately by another vowel : archaic, chaos, museum, giant, liar, pious, he'roic, triumph, so'ciety, alliance, va'cuity, riot, defiant, trial, lion, dual, client, diet
g) in the last syllable but one, before a single consonant:
homi'cidal, sar'coma, ho'rizon, com'placent, bron'chitis, neu'rosis (and other names for diseases)
- in the first syllable of words of two syllables ending with a vowel followed by –s- or -x: 'crisis, 'basis, 'helix, 'climax
- if the vowel is u followed by a single consonant : super, humour, luminous, tutor
- A digraph, which consists of two successive written vowels pronounced as one, almost always corresponds to a long vowel or a diphthong:
plain, re'ceive, be'lieve, bam'boo, shout, fraud, 'author, weigh
Pronunciation of unstressed vowels
- In English, most of the energy is given to stressed syllables. As a result, in an unstressed syllable, a written vowel is often reduced (it is also said to be weakened). The vowels A and O, and also in many cases E, are reduced to the colourless sound you make when you hesitate, and therefore are not making any effort: “er...”. That sound (known as a schwa) is very weak indeed, you hear it (very faintly) in the first syllable of the word about, or the last one of China. The weak value for –i- is the sound (very weak too) heard in the last syllable of city.
- The schwa is used
For unstressed -a- and -o- : about, China, ornament, collision, abandon, pilot For -e- after the main stress: 'parent, em'ployment
Sometimes also for -u- : suc'cess, 'circus
- The weak value for –i- is used in words such as 'citizen, 'beautiful, im'plicit, i'nimitable but also for –e- before the main stress to pre'sent, to de'tect, to de'lay, to re'turn, to pre'pare and in –ed after –t- or –d- : 'wanted, de'tected, de'fended, 'landed
- In the unstressed final syllable of a non-verb, an –a- followed by one consonant and a final -e generally reduces to the weak value of –i- or to the schwa:
Ex. : 'climate, 'pirate, 'palate, 'senate, 'private, 'marriage, 'average, 'beverage, 'menace, 'purchase
Not so with verbs ! to 'separate has an alphabetic value for the second –a- but to be 'separate has a reduced value for that same vowel. This reminds one of the contrast between the verb to ex'periment (where the vowel in the last syllable is not reduced), and the noun an ex'periment (in which the final vowel is reduced).
N.B. Always remember that one of the keys to successful pronunciation is to give all your energy to stressed vowels. As far as unstressed vowels are concerned, the more you neglect them, the better.
- Grammatical words, such as prepositions, pronouns, auxiliaries, conjunctions and articles, very often have, beside their full phonetic form, a reduced form, used when they are unstressed:
She can tell them he was from Paris.
However, an isolated preposition is never reduced:
Where do you come from? What are you waiting for? What are you looking at? An isolated auxiliary is not reduced either:
I'll do it if I can. (the –a- in can has its short value, just as in cat)
He won’t have to go but I shall. (again as in cat)
10. A vowel may not reduce in an unstressed syllable
- before –r- : car'nation, per'cipient, flir'tation, or'ganic, tur'bidity.
- before two consonants : plas'ticity, tech'nique, hos'tility, rus'ticity.
- if it is an –i- : i'dentity, i'dea, i'conic, fi'nancial.
- if it is a digraph : au'thentic, au'thority, aug'ment, ae'robic,
- if it is a final -o-, which keeps its alphabetic value : 'veto, 'negro, 'zero
Influence of –r- on the preceding vowel
- In final position or before a consonant, –r- modifies the sound of the preceding vowel: car, cart, compartment
nor, normal, cord, force
The three other vowels will be pronounced with the sound heard in the word bird: pre'fer, 'fertilizer, term, de'ssert, 'certain
shirt, fir, confirm, fur, hurt, purse, turn
- Before a final -e, the presence of an –r- has a different effect :
care, prepare mere, interfere fire, expire more, galore pure, a'llure
In all such cases, the stressed vowel is pronounced, not separately, but, so to speak, jointly with the –r-, and the result is always a long vowel, which can be a diphthong or even a triphthong (e.g. in fire).
In the following words, the normally alphabetic value of the stressed vowel is affected in the same way by the presence of –r- : gra'mmarian, mys'terious, no'torious, 'curious. This simply means that grammarian contains the same sound as mare etc. (but de'lirious has a short value for the stressed –i-).
- In a unstressed final syllable, a group consisting of a vowel + -r is usually reduced to a schwa : par'ticular, 'litter, 'janitor, 'murmur, de'tector
- The presence of /w/ often modifies the value of the vowel that follows. Compare the following words:
wash rhymes with posh (same sound in want, what, squander, squash, squatter, swan, wander) warm rhymes with storm (same sound in wart, swarm, wharf, warden, warble)
word rhymes with bird (same sound in work, world, worse, worm)
- The written vowel –a- is pronounced with the same sound as in car in a number of words:
half, calf, balm, calm, palm / branch, command, can't, glance, advantage / ask, mask, mast, pass, basket / staff, after / bath, father
- In words borrowed from other languages, a vowel can take its so-called foreign value, which is
always a long vowel or a diphthong.
Iran rhymes with barn fête rhymes with Kate naïve rhymes with sleeve
The foreign value for –o- is the same as its alphabetic value
- Many words borrowed from romance languages, such as Italian or Spanish, and which have a final vowel (-a, -i or –o, but not –y) preceded by one of the consonants t, d, n, s, or z, have the main stress on the last syllable but one (the penultimate), and the stressed vowel often has its foreign value, or sometimes its alphabetic value (as in the last word).
Mar'tini, mos'quito, Argen'tina, balle'rina, ba'nana, po'tato
- Primary stress and secondary stress
As we saw earlier, grammatical words may be unstressed. But apart from that, every word (noun, verb, adjective etc.) carries a primary stress (stress 1) and also sometimes a secondary stress (stress 2), always separated from stress 1 by at least one unstressed syllable (absence of stress is noted as 0) :
ˌconver'sation : stress pattern /2010/ - ˌmodifi'cation : stress pattern /20010/
As in these last two examples, the stress is indicated, in ordinary spelling, right before the stressed
syllable (lower position for stress 2, upper position for stress 1).
- Words of two syllables tend to be stressed on the first syllable, the pattern is then /10/:
a 'village, 'happy, 'honest, to 'follow, to 'gather, 'planet, 'steward, 'cancel, 'biscuit, 'luggage Exceptions to this general principle will be presented later.
Stress patterns for verbs
- True and false prefixes
In the case of verbs, it is vital to know
- whether or not they contain a prefix;
- if they do, whether the prefix is a true or a false
True prefixes have a precise, stable and easily identifiable meaning, unlike false prefixes, most of which are latin prefixes, and which are not detachable (if you take them away, usually you are not left with a verb that has a meaning of its own). For example, re- is a false prefix in ,re-'cover (cover again) or ,re- col'lect (collect again), but neither in ,recol'lect (e.g. in the sense of « remember »), nor in re'cover (e.g. in the sense of « come back to health ») . Of course re- is a false prefix in respond, retain, or reply.
In verbs, in principle, false prefixes are unstressed (no meaning, no stress).
- As a consequence, verbs of two syllables with a false prefix are stressed on the second syllable, the pattern is /01/ : to be'gin, to re'sist, to ex'pect, to em'bark, to ex'plain, to ob'ject, to pre'sent, to re'cord,
Not so with many nouns that have the same spelling and the same latin origin:
an 'object, a 'present, a 'record (compare these last three nouns with the last three verbs listed above)
- Two-syllable verbs in –ate are stressed on the second syllable The pattern is /01/ : re'late, cre'ate, nar'rate
- Other two-syllable verbs follow the general pattern, being stressed on the first syllable: to 'follow, to 'gather, to 'cancel, to 'swallow, to 'cater, to 'stumble, to 'carry
- Whatever the number of syllables, if a verb starts with a true prefix, that prefix has to be stressed, but the main stress is on what follows, which could be an independent verb, with a meaning of its own: to ˌre'build, to ˌde'ice, to ˌre-con'nect, to ˌreˌintro'duce, ˌun'said, ˌun'finished
- Verbs ending with –ish follow the pattern /-10/ (the main stress is on the last syllable but one): to 'vanish, to 'polish, to 'finish, to a'bolish, to ac'complish, to di'minish
- Verbs ending with –ify follow the pattern /-100/ (the main stress is on the last syllable but two): to 'amplify, to 'stupefy, to 'modify, to e'lectrify, to 'classify
- For verbs in –ize, the stress remains where it was in the noun or adjective the verb is derived from to 'harmonize, to 'legalize, to 'socialize, to ro'manticize, to 'criticize
compare this with 'harmony, 'legal, 'social, ro'mantic, 'critic If there is no recognizable derivation, the pattern is /100/ :
to 'mechanize, to 'exercise, to 'analyse (note variations in the spelling at the end)
- Verbs in –ate of more than two syllables (about 1,000 of them): their final pattern is /-100/ : to e'vaporate, to com'municate, to 'delegate, to 'deviate (very few exceptions, they can be ignored)
29 In prefixed verbs, a false prefix is unstressed.. Stress 1 is usually on the first syllable after the last prefix: de'termine, con'tinue, de'liver, recol'lect
This rule does not apply to verbs with a strong ending such as –ate (see preceding paragraph) 'contemplate, 'confiscate, 'replicate, 'implicate, 'delegate
- The addition of grammatical suffixes such as –ing or –ed, which are always neutral, never displaces the main stress : 'irritate, 'irritating, 'irritatingly, but it does modify the final pattern (/10000/ for 'irritatingly), a frequent cause of errors (due to the large number of unstressed syllables after stress 1).
Stress patterns for nouns and adjectives
- The rules concerning true and false prefixes (cf. rules 20 and 21) applies for adjectives:
'happy, 'honest (no prefix)
e'xact, pre'cise (false prefix, unstressed)
ˌun'pleasant, ˌun'happy (true prefix, stressed, though normally with secondary stress)
- A number of principles apply both to nouns and adjectives:
A strong ending (e.g. –ic, -ical, -ify, -ity) determines by its very presence where stress 1 should be, unlike
a weak ending, which has no direct influence on the position of stress 1.
- Some weak endings are always neutral, i.e. they never affect stress 1, their addition leaves the stressed syllable unchanged. Such are
- grammatical suffixes : -er –est (compare these with -ing –ed in the case of verbs)
- so-called saxon suffixes: -dom -ful -hood -ship -some -less -ness –ly
- a number of latin suffixes: -ment, –or, -ure, -ty
Compare em'ploy/em'ployment, pro'ceed/pro'cedure, de'tect/de'tector
- A strong pre-final group is one in which the final vowel is preceded by two or more consonants (e.g. in funda'mental or or'chestral). A weak pre-final group has only one consonant in that position (e.g. longi'tudinal or u'nanimous). The nature of the pre-final group often has an influence on the position of stress 1 in non-verbs. If it is strong, the stress pattern is /-10/; if weak, the pattern is /-100/.
- Some weak endings can behave in two different ways:
- sometimes they are totally neutral, they have no influence at all on the position of stress 1
- in other cases, they have an indirect influence on the position of stress 1, in that their presence triggers the application of the rules concerning the pre-final group. Such endings are known as mixed endings. For example, -ous est neutral in de'sirous, which is derived from de'sire, but non-neutral in hor'rendous or u'biquitous (which are not derived words).
- The following endings (mostly of French origin) are strong endings, they fix the stress on the last syllable, i.e. the pattern is /-1/ : -ee(r) -ere -ese -esce -esque -et(t)e -oo(n) -ier -ique -igue
- The following strong endings fix the stress on the last syllable but one – the pattern is /-10/ :
-ic –ish : ˌeco'nomic, a'bolish, 'Polish etc.
-sive : res'ponsive, ag'gressive
-itis, -oma, -osis : gas'tritis, mi'tosis, glau'coma
- The following strong endings (-i- or –e- + vowel + rest of the final syllable) fix the stress on the last syllable but one (the one right before them) - the pattern is /-10/ :
-ia -iac -ial -ian -iarch -ient -ious - ion –io -eal -ean -eous …
With -uous, ual… the pattern is /-100/ but compare in'genious and in'genuous
- With a weak pre-final group, the stress is on the last syllable but two, (the one immediately before the ending) and the pattern is /-100/ :
-alous -amous -atal -acle -ament -adent etc.
-eral -enal -erous -erant -emy -enous etc.
-ical -icize -icist -ity - ify -imal -ital -itude -imous -inent etc. (for –ic, see rule 37)
-orous -onous -orant -oral -ocent -ocal etc.
-ular -ural -ulant -ula -ulous -umous -ument etc.
- With a strong pre-final group, in return, the pattern is /-10/ (the endings following the two consonants are often -ant -ance -ent –ence, -al –ous etc.):
re'membrance, mo'mentous, senti'mental, per'sistent
- One notorious exception is that of words ending with two consonants followed by –y, which have the pattern /-100/ : 'energy, 'amnesty, 'industry
Some mixed endings
- –ory/-ary, -ative, and -able are always unstressed, and always neutral in a derived Compare: an'ticipate, com'municate, ac'cept
an'ticipatory, com'municative, ac'ceptable
N.B. -ory behaves as if it were only one syllable, and then the rules concerning the pre-final group (34, 39 and 40) apply, which means that –itory works like –itude, and that territory can be considered as having a weak pre-final group (the second –t-, one consonant), but compulsory a strong one (–ls-, two consonants).
- -al is neutral in a word derived from a noun ending in –ion, or from a verb with a false Compare: pro'pose - pro'posal; e'motion – e'motional.
Otherwise, the rules concerning the nature of the pre-final group apply:
'origin - ori'ginal (weak pre-final group) 'orchestra - or'chestral (strong pre-final group)
- Compound words that combine two words usually have only one (primary) stress on the first : 'night club / 'horse race / 'race horse. There are sometimes two stresses, notably when each of the two words is a direct qualification of what is qualified by the compound: ˌdark-'blue, the ˌLord 'Mayor, ˌApril
'showers, a ˌman 'servant (he is a man +he is a servant ; one can compare this with an ˌold 'servant)
the general rules concerning weak pre-final groups are applied, yielding the
pattern /100/ : 'telephone / te'lephonist - 'democrat / de'mocracy - 'pentagon / pen'tagonal.
Note that a) Some normally neutral endings are not so in this case (–er 'photograph/pho'tographer)
- b) There are exceptions, such as: 'category, 'ceremony, 'pedagogy, 'orthodoxy, 'catalepsy
46. Position of stress 2 (secondary stress)
With only 2 syllabes before the main stress → /201-/ ˌcorres'pondent, ˌeco'nomical, ˌabo'litionism
With over two syllabes before the main stress → stress 2 in the derived word corresponds to stress 1 of the root word: com'municate → comˌmuni'cation - 'modify → ˌmodifi'cation