132: ea spelling: long e or short e

Which pronunciation is the most common for this spelling?


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 132nd episode.

This week I went back to my copy of A Frequency Dictionary of Contemporary American English to see which words spelled ea are pronounced with a long e and which are pronounced with a short e.

The long e sounds like (long e); it's the vowel sound in the word keep. My tongue is held very high in my mouth during this sound: (long e).

The short e (short e) is not just a long e held for less time. The shape of the tongue is actually different. To create the short e sound, my tongue much lower in my mouth, and is only slightly rounded upward. Listen to the short e sound: (short e). It's the sound in the word bed.

An example of a word spelled ea and pronounced with a long e sound is the word team, t-e-a-m. An example of a word spelled ea that is pronounced with a short e sound is head, h-e-a-d.

I was hoping my frequency dictionary would show me a very straightforward pattern with few exceptions. Unfortunately, I found a list of words much more complicated than I was expecting.

There are 116 words in the top 2000 most frequently used words that include the ea spelling. 68 of those words, or 59%, are pronounced with a long e sound. So, if you want the very simple answer, long e is the better guess for the pronunciation of the ea spelling in an unfamiliar word. If you don't want to get confused with the messy, complicated details, stop listening here.

The problem, you see, is that the remaining 41% of the words are not all pronounced with the short e sound. Instead, the remaining words are broken into a number of different categories. Thankfully, the largest category is the short e sound, with 22 words.

So the good news is that a total of 78% of the words spelled ea are pronounced with either a long e or a short e.

But what about the rest of them?

First we have the eight words that are spelled ear and pronounced as schwa+r. Remember, schwa+r really just sounds like an r sound. So the word earth, for instance, is essentially a two-sound word, (schwa+r) and (unvoiced th), earth.

But, we don't just get to assume that all words spelled ear are pronounced as schwa+r because 15 of our words in the original long e list are also spelled ear. This includes words like clear, near, and appearance. So, if you were to guess at the pronunciation of a word spelled ear, the long e plus an r sound is the better guess.

The next largest chunk of pronunciations for the ea spelling is breaking it up into two separate vowel sounds in two separate syllables. This includes the words area, idea, and create. In the top 2000 words, only seven words follow this pattern. So it isn't very common, but you might still want to be aware of it.

After all of this, we still have the 11 words that don't follow any of the four patterns I highlighted so far. If a pronunciation for a certain spelling occurs less than five percent of the time, I consider those pronunciations to be exceptions, and those words must be learned individually. Among these words, heart and wear, despite their ear spelling are pronounced with neither a long e or schwa+r, great and break are pronounced with a long a, and beautiful and beauty are a part of the long u pronunciation.

This is all very difficult to comprehend from just listening to a podcast, and so I created two exercises on Pronuncian to help you. These exercises include audio for all the words in the top 1000 most frequently used words, including the different pronunciations I just talked about. Only Pronuncian subscribers have access to the exercises, but everyone can visit the free lessons for long e and short e, which include all the common spelling patterns for those sounds. I'll link to those lessons from this episode's transcript which you can find by going to www.pronuncian.com/podcast.

For now, let's do a little practice. I'm going to say the top five words in the categories of long e, short e, schwa+r, and other pronunciations. I'll leave time for you to repeat after me.


long e



short e



research (noun)


It was not a mistake that I said early twice. It's listed in the frequency dictionary first as an adjective, then as an adverb. That's why I include the part of speech in which each word is listed in the exercises. Since the frequency dictionary does not include the word's pronunciation, this also helps to know the pronunciation of words that have different pronunciations based on the part of speech. This includes words like research as a noun, and research as a verb.

Moving on, we have the top five words that aren't in any of the three categories above:



Listening to an audio book while seeing the text in a physical book can really help you notice both common spelling patterns as well as the exceptions. You can get a free audio book by signing up for a free 2-week trial of Audible.com. You get to keep your book even if you cancel your subscription before the trial is complete. Just go to www.audiblepodcast.com/pronuncian. It's a great way to learn!

Also, don't forget, becoming a Pronuncian member gives you access to all of Pronuncian's exercises, quizzes, and videos, plus provides us with the necessary financial support to keep creating free content like the lessons and these podcasts. Go to www.pronuncian.com/join for details.

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.