211: Compare /æ/ and /ɑ/ ('short a' and 'short o')

Let’s compare the 'short a' /æ/ and 'short o' /ɑ/, the sounds in the words ‘hat’ and ‘hot.’ Both of these sounds are horribly named because they are NOT quick or ‘short’ sounds. I continue to use their historic names so you can find more information from sources other than me on the Internet. /æ/ and /ɑ/ are just the common spoken names used for the sounds /æ/ and /ɑ/. The critical thing to remember that neither /æ/ nor /ɑ/are quick, little sounds. They’re most likely to occur on stressed or secondarily stress syllables or single-syllable words. Practice with minimal pairs.

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209: The difference between /ə/ and /ʌ/: schwa and short u

The differences between /ə/ and /ʌ/ ('schwa' and 'short u') are mostly based on syllable stress--the vocal tract is very similar for both sounds. For example, in the word 'custom,' the vowel sound of the first syllable is a 'short u' because it's stressed; the unstressed second syllable is 'schwa': /ˈkʌs təm/. Since schwa has so many different vowel spellings, understanding it based on syllable stress allows English pronunciation to become more obvious to learners of English.

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208: Cone/corn, coat/court

Practice the difference between the or sound and the long o sound.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 208th episode.

Today I want to talk about something that is definitely more important for American English than British English, and that's the difference between the or sound (or sound) and the long o sound (long o).

I want to thank Christopher, a native Korean speaker, for bringing this topic to my attention!

If you learned British English, you probably learned to not really say the /r/ part of the or sound except in specific circumstances when other vowels are involved. To American ears, not including the /r/ makes words like corn sound like cone or court sound like coat. Can you hear the problem?

In American English, we include the r sound of all four r-controlled vowels. These are:

schwa+r (schwa+r), as in the word stir
the ar sound (ar sound), as in the word star
the air sound (air sound), as in stair
and the or sound (or sound), as in store

Let's talk about how exactly the or sound and long o sound are alike and different, except for the obvious necessity of the r sound in the or sound in American English.

The long o is what we call a two-sound vowel, or diphthong. Two-sound vowels, like their name implies, include two sounds in their pronunciation. The long o begins with a sound like (uh) and then moves into a w sound (long o). If your lips don't close into the small circle that creates the w sound at the end of the long o, you stand a good chance of being misunderstood.

Say the long o sound after me (long o, long o).

Let's say some long o words:


To say the or sound, the beginning of the sound is similar to the beginning of the long o, but we don't move into the w sound. Instead, we move into an r sound (or sound).

Say the or sound after me (or sound, or sound).

Did you get all the way to a nice, clear r sound?

If not, here are some tips for the r sound. First, I recommend creating the /r/ by using the back of the tongue. This is a little confusing at first, but let's give it a try.

The back of the tongue is raised so the sides of the tongue touch the back teeth. The center of the back of the tongue is lower and the air travels through the groove to create the sound. The tip of the tongue might point upward, or might be left low.

Let's try just the r sound (r sound, r sound).

Now, when we create the or sound, the sound begins with the mouth more open and the jaw lowered. Then, when you move into the r-part of the sound, let the mouth close a little. This will help you get the back of the tongue high enough to create a solid r sound.

Let's try the or sound again (or sound, or sound).

Repeat these words after me:


Did you do okay?

Now we're going to do some long o sound, or sound minimal pairs. A minimal pair is two words that are the same except for one sound. I'm going to say both words, then leave time for you to repeat after me. I'll say the word pronounced with the long o sound first.

scone, scorn
coat, court
tone, torn
cone, corn
row, roar
so, soar
code, cord
poke, pork
bone, born
foam, form
snow, snore

If you want more practice with these sounds, our textbook, Pronunciation Pages 2 includes practice word lists with almost one hundred high-frequency words, including audio, for you to use as listen-and-repeat practice. There is no other resource with so much sound practice all in one place. You can get a downloadable copy of Pronunciation Pages 2, with the audio in MP3 format, by going to www.pronuncian.com.

Don't forget, if you want to suggest a podcast topic, you can let us know on social media. We're on Facebook at facebook.com/pronuncian, and our Twitter handle is @pronuncian. We'd love to hear your comments and questions at any time.

Christopher, I hope this podcast helps you with these troublesome sounds!

That's all for today everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. Seattle Learning Academy is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.

207: Why is 'quarter' so hard to say?

Rhyming with 'shorter' and 'border,' this is a quirky word.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 207th episode.

Today's show is a special request from listener Nick. Nick wants to know how to pronounce the word quarter. Actually, I enjoyed Nick's email so much, I want to read it aloud here. Here it is:

I struggle with the word quarter, and I know many other ESL learners see this word in their nightmare dreams too. I have had the same awful dialog in the store or bank:

Me: Could you please change/split my dollar bill into QUARTERS?
Person at the counter: Sorry… What do you want?
Me: I want some Q-U-A-R-T-E-R-S for my laundry machine.
[Deep thinking]
Person at the counter: Ahh! You need QUARTERS. Here you are, sir!
Me: Thank you.

The problem is, I do not see the difference between me and Americans pronouncing this word. However, they do not understand me.

Please help me with this word.

Thanks Nick. I especially liked the "pause, deep thinking, revelation," part!

So, what's going on with this word? Kind of a lot, actually. We have to deal with the letters q-u, then we have two different r-controlled-vowels, and we have a t sound allophone. It's no wonder that Nick is having problems!

To begin with, let's talk about the q-u sounding like k plus w (k sound+w sound). Some people really miss the w part of this sound. If Nick was missing the w sound, he'd be saying quarter as quarter (no w sound). If I heard quarter (no w sound) I might have a really hard time understanding, even with context.

The next issue is the or sound (or sound) part of the word. If I put the k sound plus w sound plus or sound together, I get (quar-). This is the same as in the words quart, quartz, quarrel, and quarantine.

Now we need to deal with that letter t. If you've listened to very many of these podcasts already, you know the trouble the letter t can be. The letter t has a lot of pronunciations in American English and the one you might be the most familiar with is when it sounds like a d sound. It's easier to hear in words like water or meeting, but it also happens in the word quarter. If I slow the word down, you can probably hear it more easily: quar-ter.

The reason the t sound turns into that quick d sound, also called an alveolar stop, in the word quarter is that the t is between two r-controlled vowels: it has an or sound before it, and schwa+r after it. I'll link to the pronuncian.com lesson from this page's transcript so you can see the t sound allophone charts. For now, know that the letter t in the word quarter sounds like a quick d sound.

That same t-as-d pattern also works in the words that rhyme with quarter. Those are words like shorter, reporter, and supporter. Oddly, though, the word quarter is nearly a rhyme with the word order o-r-d-e-r, because of that d-like transformation. I'll say those two words side by side so you can hear it: quarter, order. We could also nearly rhyme it with border, recorder, and disorder.

I like to tell you these rhymes because sometimes seeing different spellings for the same sound can help your brain get unstuck when it was a weird spelling pattern that was causing a mispronunciation.

Now, one last thing to talk about in the word quarter, and that's the final sound, schwa+r. The key thing to remember about schwa+r is that it's pronounced as just an r sound. Don't add any vowel sound to it. Really. Just say the r sound, no matter how much it is not intuitive to do that!

This means that in the word quarter, you need to transition directly from the d-like sound into the r sound (d sound+r sound). If you try to add a vowel between the d sound and r sound, you might be misunderstood. This is true with all the words we've talked about as rhyming words and near rhyming words to the word quarter. Listen closely:


Notice, too, that quarter is the only word in that list that is not spelled with o-r. If it helps you to think of it as spelled o-r in order to say it correctly, go ahead and do that. It's always okay to trick your brain a little when working with pronunciation.

I'm going to say that list of words again, this time leaving time for you to repeat the words after me. Ready? Here we go:


If you want to see the transcripts for this episode, go to www.pronuncian.com and click 'podcasts' and then click episode 207. I'll also include links for the or sound, schwa+r, and t sound allophone lessons. That way you can learn and practice even more! Those lessons are also available in our textbook, Pronunciation Pages 2. Pronunciation Pages 2 also comes with MP3 audio files so you can get lots and lots of that valuable listen-and-repeat practice.

Don't forget, if you have a pronunciation question and would like us to do a podcast about it, you can tell us on social media by finding us on Facebook, www.facebook.com/pronuncian, or on Twitter, where our handle is @pronuncian.

That's all for today everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. Seattle Learning Academy is where the world come to learn.

Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.

206: I like/I'd like... bacon!

Rhythm and linking from /d/.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 206th episode.

Today I want to talk about the contraction I'd, (I-apostrophe-e) which can be used to contract either I would or I had. I notice that some contractions are embraced by non-native speakers much more than others. For instance, many of my students willingly use don't for do not, or won't for will not. However, as I've mentioned in previous podcasts, many non-native English speakers don't like the contraction can't. I'd is another contraction people shy away from. Just like can't, though, I'd is an important contraction.

One of the biggest benefits of using contractions is that they help the rhythm of your spoken English sound more fluent. Contractions often allow us to remove an entire syllable of function words. This is true in both the contractions, I would (two syllables) becoming I'd (one syllable) and I had (two syllables) becoming I'd (one syllable).

Let me be absolutely clear that the contractions for both of these words is I'd, pronounced exactly the same. We rely on context and the grammar of the rest of the sentence to tell which contraction we're using.

I'd can be especially tricky to pronounce because we have special linking rules when we link from the d sound into either an l sound or an n sound. Remember in the past when I talked about lateral aspirations and nasal aspirations?

I'm going to focus on I'd representing I would today, and I'm going to link it into the word like because it makes a nice example of of how tiny, and how grammatically important, that little d sound of the contraction is.

Listen to the two following sentences and see if you can hear the difference:

I like bacon.
I'd like bacon.

Could you hear it? The first sentence, I like bacon, states a preference, while the second sentence, I'd like bacon, is more of a request. That d sound is so hard to hear because it isn't fully released before the l sound of the word like. Instead, the two sounds blend a little bit. The blending of the d sound into the l sound is called a lateral aspiration. Let me explain.

Think of the position of the tongue for the stop portion of the d sound. The front of the tongue is blocking the air from leaving the mouth by pressing against the tooth ridge (that bony bump inside our mouth) just behind the top front teeth. When the tongue releases from this position, a small puff of air leaves the mouth.

Say the d sound after me and notice both the stop part of the sound and the release part of the sound: (d sound).

Now say the word I'd: I'd.

Now think about the pronunciation of the l sound. At the beginning of words, the l sound is created when just the very tip of the tongue presses into the tooth ridge and air is released out the mouth alongside the tip of the tongue.

Say the l sound after me: (l sound).

Now say the word like and pay special attention to the tip of your tongue: like.

If we put the words I'd like together, a special thing happens. The tongue touches the the tooth ridge for the d sound, but it doesn't release like a typical d sound. Instead, it releases like an l sound. This is a really subtle movement, but it's like magic for sounding fluent.

I'll demonstrate this both ways. First I'll say I like, with the words linked, then I'll say I'd like with the words linked. Listen carefully.

I like
I'd like

Can you hear the difference in sound?

Now I'll compare the less-fluently linked I'd like to the more fluently linked I'd like. Listen carefully.

I'd like (no lateral aspiration)
I'd like (linked fluently)

I'm going to repeat those:

I'd like (no lateral aspiration)
I'd like (linked fluently)

Now let me compare the contraction I'd like to the uncontracted form I would like. Listen carefully.

I'd like
I would like

Can you hear the difference in rhythm?

As I said before, these small changes are magic for sounding more fluent. You don't even need to learn any new vocabulary or grammar! All you need to do is to learn a tiny piece of muscle control for your tongue. I think it's pretty cool.

We're going to do some practice, but I also want to mention that the new Linking ebook also has a lesson and exercise specific to lateral aspiration, so you can get even more practice. The ebook also comes with audio for all 425 practice sentences--yes 425 sentences to practice linking. I really wanted to make sure you had enough practice to master these skills.

You can find more information on the products page of pronuncian.com.

Now, let's practice I'd like in some sentence and see how you do. I'll say the sentence, then leave time for you to repeat after me. Ready?

I'd like a puppy.
I'd like a new boat.
I'd like a new car.
I'd like a vacation.
I'd like some bacon.
I'd like you to practice this skill!

There you go.

You can find transcripts for this episode by going to www.pronuncian.com and clicking "transcripts," then finding episode 206. Also, we've changed our Facebook page to match our webpage. So you can now find us on Facebook by searching for Pronuncian. Our Twitter handle is also Pronuncian. It's spelled p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n in all of those places.

That's all for today everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. Seattle Learning Academy is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.

205: Dealing with 'o-u-g-h'

No English spelling could be more confusing.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 205th episode.

How many of you are frustrated by trying to understand the pronunciation of the 'o-u-g-h' spelling? I'm sure many of you are.

Here's the trouble with the 'o-u-g-h' spelling; its pronunciation almost completely unpredictable. In just the words 'through,' 'though,' and 'thought,' we hear three different pronunciations: the oo sound /u/, the long o /oʊ/, and the aw sound /ɔ/. Then there are words like 'cough,' which has the same vowel sound as 'thought,' but with an added f sound /f/. The word 'enough' also has an f sound /f/, but with a different vowel sound than 'cough.' Of all the words I've used as examples so far, only one, the word 'thought' follows a predictable pattern.

If there are so few patterns to follow, how on earth can you learn these pronunciations? Don't worry, I'm here to help you. In place of patterns, we'll use categories. Grouping words together is a good way to learn.

Since I know many of you out there are pronouncing these words incorrectly, I'd recommend reading the transcript while listening to this episode so you can see the word I'm saying. I'll also provide symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet, so those of you who can read sounds that way can see what I'm talking about. You can find this transcript by going to Pronuncian.com--spelled p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n--and clicking 'Podcasts.' Then click on 'Episode 205.'

Let's start with the known pattern and the word 'thought,' which we pronounce with the aw sound (aw sound) In the International Phonetic Alphabet, the symbol for this looks like a backward letter 'c' /ɔ/. Besides the aw sound, what do the following words have in common?

thought /θɔt/
bought /bɔt/
brought /brɔt/
fought /fɔt/
ought /ɔt/
wrought /rɔt/

Have you figured it out? All of those words have a letter t following the 'o-u-g-h.' So, if you see 'o-u-g-h-t,' you can assume an /ɔt/ pronunciation. There is, of course, a word that doesn't fit the pattern, and that is the word 'drought,' which uses the ow sound /aʊ/ instead.

Now let's look at the words that we can group with the word 'though,' pronounced with a long o /aʊ/ sound. Some of these words are not very common, so if you're not familiar with them yet, don't worry. Words with the same pronunciation pattern as 'though' are:

thorough /θɚoʊ/
dough /doʊ/
although /ɔlðoʊ/
borough /bɚoʊ/
furlough /fɚloʊ/

Let's move on to words that include an f sound in their pronunciation. The vowel sound in the second syllable of the word 'enough' /ənʌf/ is a short u sound (short u). We have two matching words in English:

tough /tʌf/
rough /rʌf/

The vowel sound in the word 'cough' is the aw sound /ɔ/. The only other word that has the aw sound plus f sound pronunciation is the word 'trough' /trɔf/. 'Trough,' however, is really not a very common word.

Finally, we have the oddball (oo sound) pronunciation of the word 'through,' there is only one word that matches, and that's the word 'slough' /slu/ which means 'swamp.' The word 'slough' might be even less common than the word 'trough,' so in some ways, the word 'through' is all my itself.

And that's it. Now that wasn't so hard, was it? Now that you know all the pattern and categories for 'o-u-g-h,' let's recap. I'll leave time for you to repeat each word after I say it.

Category 1 is the 'o-u-g-h-t' words, including:

thought /θɔt/
bought /bɔt/
brought /brɔt/
fought /fɔt/
ought /ɔt/
wrought /rɔt/

The word 'draught' /dræft/ of course, does not fit that pattern.

Category 2 is the long o words, including:

though /θroʊ/
thorough /θɚoʊ/
dough /doʊ/
although /ɔlðoʊ/
borough /bɚoʊ/
furlough /fɚloʊ/

Category 3 is the words that include an f sound. We can break this into short u plus f, which includes the words:

enough /ənʌf/
tough /tʌf/
rough /rʌf/

and the aw sound plus the f sound, including:

cough /cɔf/
trough /trɔf/

Then we we're left with just those last two words which are pronounced with the oo sound:

through /θru/
slough /slu/

And there you have it. You have three major categories, plus a few words left over. Memorize these words and their spellings, and you probably won't come across many other 'o-u-g-h' words in English. If you do, your best bet is to consult a dictionary and let it tell you the pronunciation.

Don't forget, you can leave comments or suggestions for us on social media. You can find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pronuncian, or on Twitter by also searching for 'Pronuncian' p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n.

That's all for today, everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.

204: How 'have to' becomes 'hafta'

Informal contractions for fluency!


Happy new year again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 204th episode.

Yes, here I am, with another podcast episode right on schedule! Yay!

In other good news, our January coupon code of "Happy2015" is still good for 15% off any book, ebook, or class purchase from Pronuncian.com or www.seattlelearning.com. That was h-a-p-p-y-2-0-1-5 for 15% off your purchase. This special ends on January 31st, 2015, so don't put it off!

I recently received an email from Nick asking about pronouncing the word "have" h-a-v-e, as "haf." Specifically, he wrote:

"I found it really confusing that sometimes people say the word "have" as "hafe". Especially when they are doing the phrase "have to".

Why so people do that? And when to use that? I'm really puzzled."

Nick realized two important things there. First, he's right; we do often say the word "have" as "haf." Second, this is more likely to occur when the word "to" follows it. Nice job, Nick!

What Nick is asking about is the informal contraction "hafta," usually spelled h-a-f-t-a. After I received this question from Nick, I searched Pronuncian.com for the word "hafta," expecting to see that I had talked about this particular informal contraction in the past. I was surprised to see that, in the past 203 episodes, I never actually talked about "hafta"! So, thanks Nick, for bringing this to my attention so I can do a podcast about it today!

The word "hafta" is an informal contraction that joins the word "have" to the word "to." We use it in sentences like:

I hafta call my mom.
Do we really hafta go?
You hafta see that movie.

Now, I said "hafta" is an informal contraction, but what are informal contractions?

Contractions in general are words that are created by combining words in order to shorten them from their original form. Common contractions are words like she's and don't and can be both written (informally) and spoken. Common contractions are usually written with an apostrophe.

Informal contractions often combine common words with the words: to, you, of, or would have. They're spoken but aren't usually written in anything but informal writing among people who know each other quite well. When informal contractions are written, there usually is not an apostrophe.

Another tricky thing is the number of potential informal contractions. We list 30 of them--yes 30--on our Pronuncian.com lesson on the topic.

Then there is the insistence by some native English speakers that using informal contractions is lazy and inarticulate, even though those same people then use an informal contraction within the next minute or two. Spoken informal contractions really are everywhere, even if they go unnoticed. Non-native speakers who use them will sound more conversational and actually more fluent, since contractions in general help to create the rhythm of spoken English.

So why would saying "hafta" sound more fluent than saying "have to"? There are a few things going on here. First, as Nick pointed out, the v sound is changed to an f sound. The next most obvious change is that the vowel in the word "to" is reduced to schwa. This allows "to" to sound like "tuh." Thirdly, the short a sound in the word "have" is said more quickly when it is followed by an f sound than when it's followed by a v sound. This is because we say vowels faster before an unvoiced consonant sound than a voiced consonant sound.

When we put all of these things together, the words "have to" become "hafta."

I'm going to say the sentences that I used as examples at the beginning of this show again, first using the full "have to" pronunciation, then using the informal contraction "hafta." I'm going to give you time to repeat all the sentences after me, one by one, both ways. I want you to notice which way you've been saying it in the past and see which way sounds more fluent to you. Ready?

I have to call my mom. / I hafta call my mom.
Do we really have to go? / Do we really hafta go?
You have to see that movie. / You hafta see that movie.

If you want to read those sentences as you say them, you can find the transcripts for this episode by going to www.pronuncian.com and clicking on "Podcasts." Then click episode 204.

Also, don't forget about our Pronuncian Facebook page: www.facebook.com/pronuncian. If you have ideas for future podcasts, you can post them there, or on our Twitter page, www.twitter.com/pronuncian, or you can email us at podcast@p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n.com. Pronuncian is spelled p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n.

That's all for today, everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. Seattle Learning Academy is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.

203: When /t/ sounds like /d/ during linking: alveolar stop

Many English language learners are already aware of the quick 'd sound' /t̬/ Americans often use in place of the /t/ in words like 'little,' and 'water,' and 'meeting.' However, many of those same people don't realize that the same change occurs when linking from one word into another in English. An example of this is linking the words "out‿of". Linking "out‿of" sounds like /'aʊ t̬əv/.

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202: How similar are /n/ and /l/?

Even small differences in vocal tract profiles can make a big difference.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 202nd podcast.

One of my students recently asked me how different the tongue positions are for the n sound and l sound. She said they look quite similar in the illustrations online and in the book, and she's right. They do look a lot alike, especially in side profile drawings. But a very small vocal tract difference between these sounds makes them sound hugely different to the ears of native English speakers.

One big difference between these sounds is that the n sound is a nasal sound and the l sound is not. Wait--what's a nasal sound? Well, it's pretty simple. A nasal sound is a sound that comes out our nose. As odd at that sounds, it's easy to demonstrate nasal sounds with the m sound. Put your lips together and say the m sound (m sound). Now hold your nose shut while you try to say the m sound… You can't do it because the air has no way of leaving your vocal tract when both your nose is blocked and your lips are closed. The n sound is the same concept, only it's not quite as easy to demonstrate. With the n sound, the tongue blocks the air from leaving the mouth instead of the lips. Make an n sound (n sound) and feel the tip of your tongue press against your tooth ridge--that's the bump right behind your top front teeth--while the front sides of your tongue also press into your front side teeth. Pressing your tongue into your teeth and tooth ridge like this blocks the air from leaving your mouth.

Then, if we think about the most basic form of the l sound, the tip of the tongue is in a similar place in the mouth as it is for the n sound, but the area right behind the tip of the tongue is not touching our side teeth. Instead, there's a gap for air to go through. This allows the air to leave out our mouth instead of our nose.

Listen to the difference:

n sound (n sound)
l sound (l sound)

If you're from the south of China, the sounds (n sound) and (l sound) might be interchangeable. However, to native English-speaking listeners, these are very different sounds. If you're from anywhere that uses the n sound and l sound interchangeably, words that include both of these sounds can be especially difficult. So for those of you who have trouble with the n sound or with the l sound or especially with words that have both sounds, this practice is for you.

I'll say a word, then leave time for you to repeat after me. Ready?


Let's repeat that last one again because it's so hard: nostalgia

If these words were difficult for you, we have resources to help. If you want to support Pronuncian.com and this podcast, you can buy yourself a copy of Pronunciation Pages 2 which includes lessons, exercises and sound drills for both of these sounds, (and all the other sounds of English, of course) or you can buy the Sound Drills which include just the practice lists for all of the sounds of English.

For free practice, go to Pronuncian.com and click the "Sounds" link. Then click the "Consonants" tab and you'll find free word drills, with audio, for all of the consonant sounds of English.

That's all for today, everyone. Thanks for listening. This Seattle Learning Academy digital publication.


201: Why is 'symptom' pronounced that way?

Learn the many variations of the letter 'o' pronunciation.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 201st podcast.

I recently received a quick little email from a person named Sara who said:

Hey, I have a question about a word. The pronunciation book says that "consonant-o-consonant" should always sound the short "o" sound, but the word 'symptom' (----tom) sounds different. I hope you can answer my question. Thank you.

Sara's question talks about the pronunciation book, but I want all you listeners to know that the same information she's referring to is available on the website: www.pronuncian.com. I'll link to the lessons I talk about here on this episode's transcript page.

Sara's question actually brings up a lot of things. First, be careful with thinking that anything should always be pronounced a certain way in English. English just has very few instances of something always be pronounced only one way. Because of this, there a few areas of the book and website to help with this problem. Both the book and the website cover all of the sounds of English, and, along with listing common spellings for each sound, it also lists pronunciations that are also possible for that spelling.

So, if I look at the short o lesson I see one common spelling, the consonant-o-consonant spelling. This means that if a single letter 'o' is between two consonants, or even is the first letter of the word, it might be pronounced as a short o. The examples in the lesson are the words 'odd,' 'box,' and 'shock.'

Then the next column of the spelling table lists other pronunciations for each spelling. For the consonant-o-consonant spelling, it lists both the long o sound and the aw sound. An example of the 'o' spelling being pronounced as a long o is the word 'most,' and an example of it being pronounced as the aw sound is the word 'dog.'

Now that I've told you all that confusing stuff about the consonant-o-consonant spelling, let me tell you that the letter 'o' in the word 'symptom' is none of those pronunciations. Yay!

Before you get too frustrated with this, though, know that there is still a reason that the 'o' in the word 'symptom' is not pronounced with the long o, short o, or aw sound. The reason is syllable stress and schwa. The word 'symptom' is a two-syllable noun. The two-syllable noun stress pattern tells us that two-syllable nouns tend to be stressed on the first syllable, and the word 'symptom' does follow this pattern. Yay again!

This leads us to schwa, that nasty little sound that also happens to be the most common vowel sound in English. Schwa sounds like (uh) and it usually occurs on syllables adjacent to a stressed syllable in a word. Schwa is also nearly easiest to hear when it is spelled 'o' because it is so different from the other typical pronunciations for the letter 'o' when it's on a stressed syllable.

Listed for the (uh) in 'symptom.' Symptom.

Other examples of the letter o pronounced as schwa are following words:


Now that you know the three common pronunciations for the letter 'o' on a stressed syllable, and the fact that it is usually pronounced as schwa, or (uh) on if it falls on an unstressed syllable next to a stressed syllable, there is still one last thing to know about, and those are non-phonetic words. Non-phonetic words just don't follow a pattern. You can think of them as exceptions to the patterns.

The book and the website address non-phonetic words for each sound and in the non-phonetic words sections you'll find that sometimes there is still a letter 'o' between two consonants that still doesn't follow the patterns I told you about just a bit ago. For instance, the words 'from' and 'mother' and 'brother' are all pronounced with a short u sound.

My point of getting into so much detail with the word 'symptom' is so you really can see how you have to take all the phonetic patterns and the whole word into account when using spelling to help you with pronunciation.

Thanks for the question, Sara, and thanks to all of you for listening to this Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn. Thanks for listening.


199: Would you like some coffee or tea?

Practice intonation patterns of choice questions.


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 199th episode.

Most of you know that intonation, or the up and down, or rise and fall of pitch can signal that a speaker has just asked a question. But question intonation patterns are not as straightforward as you might think. First, there are all those different kinds of questions, such as:

  • Yes/no questions
  • Wh- questions
  • Choice questions
  • Declarative questions
  • Tag questions (and more)

Today I'm going to talk about choice questions. This is from a lesson in our Rhythm and Intonation book, which covers the intonation patterns of all of the question types I just listed. Choice questions are questions that include a list of options. It can be as few as two options, such as:

Could I get you a cup of coffee (up) or tea (down)?

Or many options:

Could I get you some juice, water, coffee, tea (all up), or maybe some hot chocolate (down)?

For now, let's keep it simple and look at how we use intonation in choice questions when only two options are listed; this was the "Could I get you a cup of coffee or tea," question. I'm going to repeat that question using two different intonation patterns. See if you can hear the difference between them. Listen specifically to the words "coffee" and "tea."

Could I get you a cup of coffee (up) or tea (down)?
Could I get you a cup of coffee (neutral) or tea (up)?

In the first example, I raised my pitch on the word "coffee" and dropped it on "tea." I'll say it again:

Could I get you a cup of coffee (up) or tea (down)?

In the second example, I didn't change the pitch on the word coffee, and then I used a rising pitch on the word "tea." Here it is to listen to again:

Could I get you a cup of coffee (neutral) or tea (up)?

Why would I do that? More specifically, what am I telling you, my listener, when I do that?

The difference is that in the first example, I'm offering only the choices of coffee or tea. I note that by raising my pitch on the first option (coffee), and letting it fall after the final option (tea). That's called a closed-choice question. You choices are only A) coffee, or, B) tea.

In the second example, "Could I get you a cup of coffee (neutral) or tea (up)?" I'm offering a drink, and coffee and tea are examples of what you could have. They're examples, but not the entire set of options. That's an open-choice question because I'm not limiting your choices to coffee or tea. I tell you that by not changing my pitch on the first option (the coffee), and then by rising it after the final option (the tea). Again, it was: "Could I get you a cup of coffee (neutral) or tea (up)?"

Now let's look at the longer example sentence. I'll say it two ways as well:

Could I get you some juice, water, coffee, tea (all up), or maybe some hot chocolate (down)?
Could I get you some juice, water, coffee, tea (all neutral), or maybe some hot chocolate (up)?

Which of those was the open-choice question? Or to think of it another way, which was giving examples of things to drink, but not limiting the choices to just only examples? I'll say them both again:

Could I get you some juice, water, coffee, tea (all up), or maybe some hot chocolate (down)?
Could I get you some juice, water, coffee, tea (all neutral), or maybe some hot chocolate (up)?

I hope you said that the second example was the open-choice question. That rising pitch at the end helps give it away. The first example, the example where my pitch fell on "hot chocolate" was more like a server at a restaurant telling you what's available. The second example is more like you're at someone's house and they're giving suggestions, and your host might have something else to offer as well, but they might not be able to think of what it is. If you suggest it, though, maybe they do have it. Maybe what you really want is a glass of wine.

Like I said at the beginning, this topic is included in our Rhythm and Intonation book, which you can order on Pronuncian.com as a physical book, which we'll ship to you, or as a PDF ebook, which you can download immediately. Both options come with MP3 audio. For the physical book, we'll send you an MP3 CD, and for the ebook the audio downloads right alongside the book. Our best--and most popular option--is to purchase the bundle of the Rhythm and Intonation and Pronunciation Pages ebooks together. Then you get all the content on rhythm, plus all the sounds lessons and exercises as well as the sound drills. The sound drills are those long lists of words for you to listen to and repeat for specific sound practice. So if you're having lots of trouble with the short i sound, voiced th, and unvoiced th sounds, you'd get all that practice included.

That's all for today, everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn. Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.