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.