74: Are 'for' and 'four' pronounced the same or differently?

for/four: When do the words for and four sound the same, and when are they different?


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 74th episode.

Last week another forum post came up that I thought would be great to demonstrate in a podcast. This question about the pronunciations of for f-o-r, and four f-o-u-r, came from ShortHair and really linked in well to last week's episode about the word of asked by Svcrow. Svcrow left me a comment about last week's show saying that is was still difficult to hear the linking of the word of, so I thought I'd repeat it again this week before getting into the new question.

Last week I said that the word of, o-f, is often said as schwa, and will sound like (schwa) when the word coming after the word of begins with a consonant sound. I also said that we tend to reduce the word of word so dramatically because it is a function word serving a more grammatical purpose than content words. Remember, content words give the main content of what we are saying.

I'm going to link the reduced form of the word of to the word questions. First I'm going to say it as of, with the v sound, then without.

The phrase is:


a couple of questions


Now, here it is with the v sound. I'm going to say it slower than you would typically hear, but I'm still going to link the words.


a couple of questions


One more time:


a couple of questions


And here it is reduced to just the (schwa), or schwa sound:


a couple of questions


One more time:


a couple of questions


I'll say them both again, faster. First I'll demonstrate with the v sound, then without.


a couple of questions
a couple of questions


And one more time:


a couple of questions
a couple of questions


You can absolutely choose which way you prefer to say it, with or without the v sound. When I'm speaking for a podcast I tend to say the entire word because I'm trying to be as articulate, and as easy to understand by my audience, as possible. Since non-native speakers expect the v sound to be a part of the word, I keep it in. In my everyday speech, I am more likely to drop the v sound of the word of, but only when it occurs before a consonant sound.

Okay, on to the words for, f-o-r and four, f-o-u-r. Do they sound the same, or are they different? Well, it depends. Sometimes they do sound the same, and sometimes they don't. I know, it's enough to make you crazy. Before I get into the details of these two words, I need to review a couple of topics from previous episodes. If you haven't listened to the episodes I'm referring back to, I would highly recommend that you do go back and listen to them. If you don't, much of what I'm talking about today may be lost.

Let's review two r-controlled vowel sounds and the long o sound.

I first talked about r-controlled vowels in Episode 6. The r-controlled vowels are special sounds that occur when an r sound follows a vowel sound. Here is a quick quiz:

How many r-controlled vowel sounds are there?
What are those sounds?

Ready for the answers? There are four r-controlled vowels. They are:

  1. schwa + r
  2. or sound
  3. ar sound
  4. air sound

Today I'm only going to talk about the first two r-controlled vowels that I just mentioned, the schwa+r and the or sound.

Schwa+r commonly occurs in the spellings er, ir, and ur, as in the words her, h-e-r, stir, s-t-i-r, and blur, b-l-u-r. Those words have barely any vowel sound at all. The pronunciation travels almost directly from the consonant sound to the r sound. Listen to the words again, and notice the lack of vowel sound.


her, it goes straight from the h sound to the r sound, her
stir, it is pronounced straight from the t sound to the r sound, stir
blur goes straight from the l sound to the r sound, blur


The or sound is similar to a long o sound plus an r sound. I first talked about the long o way back in Episode 8, which was about all the long vowel sounds. Video podcast 5 was about the long o sound, so you can watch or listen to that episode again for another review. In both of those episodes, I said that the long o is a two-sound vowel, and that it ends in a slight w sound. And example is the word boat, b-o-a-t. Boat. Another example is the word stone, s-t-o-n-e. Both of those words are pronounced with a long o sound. Boat, stone.

The vowel portion of the or sound begins the same as a long o sound does, but it does not go all the way to a w sound, and instead links to an r sound. An example is the word store, s-t-o-r-e. Compare the long o in the word stone to the or sound in the word store.


stone, store
stone, store


Okay. Enough review for now; let's get back to the words for and four. The word four, f-o-u-r, will always be pronounced as the f sound plus or sound, four. The words four, f-o-u-r and store will always rhyme. Four, store.

The word for, f-o-r, however, is different. If I'm saying that word alone, and not as a preposition in a sentence, it will sound identical to f-o-u-r. If I'm emphasizing the word in a sentence, it will also sound identical to f-o-u-r. If there is any reason for me to give added attention to the word, I will say for, as an f sound plus an or sound.

Most of the time, though, I'm simply using f-o-r as a preposition. Just like the word of, from last week, it is serving a more grammatical purpose, and it gets pushed into the background by reducing it. To reduce the word for, I change the nature of the vowel sound, and the r-controlled vowel changes from an or sound to schwa+r. The pronunciation of for changes to "fer". Just like all the other schwa+r words, I will go straight from the consonant sound to the r sound. The reduced pronunciation of the word for, which sounds like fer, will rhyme with her and stir and blur.


for, her, stir, blur


That reduced pronunciation (fer) is what is almost always used in a sentence. Here's an example, listen to f-o-r pronounced as fer.


I went for (fer) a walk.
I went for (fer) a walk.


Here is f-o-r and f-o-u-r in a sentence, so you can hear them as different pronunciations:


I went for (fer) four walks.


Listen again:


I went for (fer) four walks.


Repeat that after me:


I went for (fer) four walks.


Try this:


I practiced for (fer) four hours.


Now try this:


I kept four apples for (fer) myself.




I kept four apples for (fer) myself.


It would be rather uncommon to need to say f-o-r as for, but here are some examples of that, too. Repeat after me.


I voted FOR the incumbent mayor.
I'm practicing the words for and four.
She's FOR free trade, not against it.


I know the listenership of this podcast keeps growing, and so I expect some of you listening to this episode are new to the American English Pronunciation podcast. If that is you, I expect that this episode had too many new pronunciation concepts for you to have really understood some of the individual sounds I talked about. I publish the transcripts for each podcast at pronuncian.com, that p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n.com, and I link to previous episodes I mention in each show. I would strongly recommend going back and listening to the episodes that this show referred to.

I also link to the free lessons and sounds mentioned during each episode on the transcripts pages, so if there is anything more that you want to learn more about, that is a good place to start.

These podcasts, the forum answers, and the Pronuncan.com lessons are available to you only because of your financial support. If you find these podcasts valuable, please go to Pronuncian and check out our products page and make a purchase, or you can also donate through PayPal. Even the smallest donations are highly appreciated!

That's all for today. Thanks for listening everyone.

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