73: Reducing the word 'of' to /ə/

When the word 'of' links into a consonant, the /v/ is often dropped


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 73rd episode.

In the Pronuncian forums, Svcrow asked when the word of can be reduced to just /ə/, also known as the schwa sound. First of all, I was glad that svcrow didn't ask when of is pronounced with any kind of sound the o spelling typically uses, because it isn't any of them. It is, in fact, the schwa sound. Remember, schwa is a reduced vowel sound. It occurs on an unstressed syllable, often next to a stressed syllable in a word that has more than one syllable.

Here is pop quiz for you listeners who have been listening for a long time:


1. What two sounds do Americans use for the schwa sound?
2. Which of those sounds is more common?


Ready for the answers?

The schwa can be pronounced as either the short i or short u sound, and the short u is more common. An example of the short i being used for schwa is in the -ed endings that follow a t sound or a d sound, as in blasted and listed. Could you hear the short i sound (short i) in those -ed endings? Blasted, listed.

An example of schwa being pronounced as a short u sound is the first syllable of the word connect or the second syllable of the word vitamin? Could you hear the short u (short u), in the words connect and vitamin? Connect, vitamin. Remember, nearly any vowel spelling can be pronounced as schwa, as long as it is an unstressed syllable.

Schwa occurs in another place besides the unstressed syllable of word with more than one syllable. It can also occur in single syllable function words. Let's review function words and content words, since I haven't talked about them in quite a while.

Way back in episode 20 I told you the following:

Content words are usually nouns, verbs, adjectives, and some adverbs. Those are the words that help us form a picture in our head; they give us the contents of our story. We want our listener to be able to quickly grasp the main content of our story, so we make the content words easier to hear by bringing attention to them.

Function words are the words we use to make our sentences grammatically correct. Function words are words like pronouns, determiners, and prepositions. If our function words were missing or used incorrectly, we would be considered poor speakers of English, but our listener would probably still get the main idea of what we're saying. Since function words don't give us the main information, we don't usually want or need to do anything to give them added attention. In fact, sometimes we do things to deliberately push them into the background.

The word of is a preposition, and a function word. The vowel sound of that word is pronounced as schwa, and in this case we use the short u pronunciation, (short u), of.

Many times, however, we do more than use the weakest vowel sound in English to make the word of as small as possible. We also can take the consonant off the word. We just get rid of it; don't say it. Although of is spelled with an f, I hope you all are aware that it is pronounced with a v sound, of.

If the word that comes after the word of begins with a consonant sound, we can remove the v sound. If we do this we need to link the schwa sound into the following word, or it will sound strange.

Let's listen to some example sentences that use the word of whole, and reduce it to schwa. I am going to say the word of before the words the, my, cake, money, and Canada. All those words begin with consonants, so the word of can be reduced to just the schwa sound. Ready? Listen for the word of.

Incorrect spelling is only part of the problem.

That was: part of the problem
Repeat that after me: part of the problem

Two of my friends came along.

That was: two of my friends
Repeat that after me: two of my friends

I'd like another piece of cake.

That was: piece of cake
piece of cake

A million dollars is a lot of money.

That was: a lot of money
a lot of money

The United States is south of Canada.

That was: south of Canada
Repeat that after me: south of Canada

Now compare that to of linked to a word that begins with a vowel sound. In the following phrases, the v sound of the of should be said, and linked to the word that follows it. I'll say the word of before the words an, all, and each. Listen closely.

It only took part of an afternoon to make the cookies.

That was: part of an afternoon
Repeat that after me: part of an afternoon

She likes strawberries best of all.

That was: best of all
Repeat after me: best of all

I'll take two of each kind.

That was: two of each
Repeat that after me: two of each

Can you now hear the difference between the word being pronounced as of, and as just the schwa sound? Compare these two phrases:

part of the problem
part of an afternoon

Here those examples are again:

part of the problem
part of an afternoon

Linking the words together is what makes this work. Spoken English does not say each word separately, it transitions smoothly from one word to the next, often blending them together. It is a very important skill to have if you want to sound fluent in your own spoken English. To me, pronunciation practice really has nothing to do with accent reduction. Instead, it is about showing your listeners the level of English fluency you have by allowing your spoken word to match the fluency level of your written word. Almost all of my students come to me with far better written communication than spoken. Our goal is to make those two skills equal and allow you to communicate your ideas more clearly.

If you want to learn more about linking, there is an entire chapter devoted to different linking skills practice in my book, "Rhythm and Intonation of American English." You can buy it as a PDF download, including all the MP3 audio files, or as a physical book and CD's that we ship to you. Go to Pronuncian.com to learn more about that, and our other great pronunciation learning aids.

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

This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.