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.

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Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.