75: 'can' and 'can't,' how are they different? Not how you expect!

Change in vowel sounds, sentence stress, and a glottal stop: lots of details make the pronunciation of these words different.

Transcript

Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 75th episode.

Lately the forums have had a lot of questions that were originally about sound production of certain words, but the answers were directly related to sentence stress and specifically function words and content words. We learned that the word of can have the v sound dropped, and that the word for, spelled f-o-r, can have an altered r-controlled vowel, depending on if the word is being stressed in a sentence. People often have a greater preference to learn about sound production than sentence stress and intonation patterns. I hope these recent podcasts are helping you understand how the concepts of sound and stress are related, and how they rely on one another.

Let me warn any new listeners to the podcast that today's topic is an advanced lesson, and I would highly recommend that you listen to Episodes 73 and 74 before trying to fully comprehend this one.

Now, let's get started!

Today's episode is about the pronunciation of the words can, c-a-n, and can't, c-a-n-'-t and how to correctly hear and comprehend what a native speaker has said. I want you all to ask yourself, right now, if you use the word can't, c-a-n-'-t, or if you prefer to say cannot and not use the contraction at all. I will bet more of you use the word cannot, and avoid can't in your spoken English. And I'll bet that you do this because people kept misunderstanding you when you said the word can't. So you stopped saying it.

The reason can't is so difficult to use is not intuitive. The only difference we see in the spelling of the word is the addition of the apostrophe and t. So, it is natural to think that the only difference in pronunciation is the t sound. This is absolutely not true. In spoken English, there is a difference in sentence stress and vowel quality in sentences that use the words can or can't. To make it more difficult, the t sound of the word can't is quite difficult to hear when linked to another word.

I need to thank Simon for posting this question in the forums. Simon said he sometimes can't differentiate the sentences, I can do it from I can't do it. Simon was correct in putting the question in the linking section of the forums. He could already tell that something was going on with the t sound in the word can't.

Here are the example sentences again:

 

I can do it.
I can't do it.

 

In my original forum post answer, I misspoke a bit. For some reason, I answered that we sometimes drop the t sound of the word can't, or use a glottal stop in it's place. This isn't quite accurate, and I want to clear it up here. We don't usually drop the t sound of the word can't; instead we don't aspirate the t sound. Before I explain what I mean by not aspirating the sound, let's have a review quiz!

Today's mini-quiz will be multiple-choice:

What kind of a sound is a t sound?

  1. an affricate
  2. a fricative
  3. a stop
  4. a vowel

The answer is c, a stop. A stop means that we stop all the air from leaving our mouth, and then we release it. The release of the air is called the aspiration, and that is where most of the actual sound comes from. An unaspirated stop can be quite difficult for non-native speakers and ESL students to hear. Often, when native speakers link a stop sound to another consonant sound, the stop is not aspirated.

So, right from the beginning, we know that the t sound of the word can't is going to be very hard to hear because it isn't usually aspirated. When the t sound is released, it often merges with the sound that comes after it.

Another option that many native speakers use is the glottal stop in the place of the t sound of the word can't. A glottal stop is when the air is stopped deep in our throat, in our vocal cords. I'm not going to get into the glottal stop today. If you want to know more about it, you can listen to Episode 65. If you already understand the glottal stop, you should know it that is okay to use at the end of the word can't, no matter what sound follows it.

Enough about the t sound of the word can't and the fact that it is difficult to hear and is not fully produced. Let's talk about what actually makes the words can and can't different. Once again, we need to talk about function words and content words. Remember, function words are more grammatical in nature and do not provide the main contents of whatever we are saying. The word can is an auxiliary verb. Specifically, it is a modal auxiliary, but that doesn't matter right now. What matters is that is it an auxiliary verb, and auxiliary verbs are reduced in our sentences. Do you remember what the most common way of reducing a function word is? Often, the vowel of function words is reduced by changing it to schwa. We really can't get far in an in-depth conversation about English pronunciation without coming back to schwa, can we? Schwa has two common pronunciations, the short u (short u) and the short i (short i). The word can we will reduce by using the short i sound. Can, when it is used in the middle of a sentence, will sound like kin, k-i-n.

Listen to Simon's example:

 

I can do it.

 

Notice that the pitch word of that sentence is the word do. The word do is carrying the main stress of the entire sentence, and the word can is reduced to kin.

 

I can do it.

 

The word can't is not a function word. Because it is negative, and the negation of a sentence is a big deal and very important for correct comprehension, we do not reduce negatives or contractions with the word not.

Listen to Simon's example with the word can't.

 

I can't do it.

 

The word can't becomes the most stressed word of the sentence.

 

I can't do it.

 

Because it is stressed, it is pronounced with the pronunciation the dictionary shows. The dictionary shows it with a short a sound (short a), and that is exactly what we use.

Listen again:

 

I can't do it.

 

Notice how difficult it is to hear the t sound of the word can't. I stop the air with my tongue, as I normally would for a t sound, and I release it as the d sound of the word do.

 

I can't do it.

 

As I said before, I could also use the glottal stop for the t sound, and it would sound nearly identical to most listeners.

 

I can't (g.s.) do it.

 

Here's a bit more about sentence stress that is important to notice. Native speakers do not generally stress two syllables in a row. The sentence I can't do it only has single syllable words, so, even though I have the negative word can't, and the main verb, do, that could both be content words, I will only choose one. I will generally choose the negative. So, the word do in the sentence I can't do it is not stressed, at least not as much as the word can't. To learn more about how to choose the words to stress on a sentence, listen to episode 20, The Rhythm Rule.

I'm going to say some pairs of sentences, first using the word can, then the word can't so you can hear the difference in the vowel sound used and in the sentence stress patterns.

I'm actually going to say each pair twice, first slower, then faster.

 

Julie can speak French. (slow)
Julie can't speak French.

Julie can speak French. (normal)
Julie can't speak French.

Jerod can teach Physics. (slow)
Jerod can't teach Physics.

Jerod can teach Physics. (normal)
Jerod can't teach Physics.

Juan can walk the dog. (slow)
Juan can't walk the dog.

Juan can walk the dog. (normal)
Juan can't walk the dog.

 

Now I'd like you to repeat after me, if you can. I'm going to say each pair, then pause for you to repeat. Practice changing the vowel quality, shifting the stress, and linking the t sound into the next word. It's a lot to think about.

Julie can speak French.
Julie can't speak French.

Jerod can teach Physics.
Jerod can't teach Physics.

Juan can walk the dog.
Juan can't walk the dog.

Let's practice those one more time.

 

Julie can speak French.
Julie can't speak French.

Jerod can teach Physics.
Jerod can't teach Physics.

Juan can walk the dog.
Juan can't walk the dog.

 

Very good. This was another tough topic, with difficult concepts. Like the last few podcasts, this episode was based on a forum question. The forums on Pronuncian are for everyone, and they are free to use. You can ask any English related question you want, and I'll try to get you an answer as soon as I can. Just go to www.pronuncian.com/forums.

I want to send a great big thank you out to the people who have made purchases from Pronuncian or have subscribed to the additional Pronuncian content. We absolutely rely on you, the podcast listeners and Pronuncian user to help us keep improving Pronuncian content and functionality. So, thank you very, very much. The material included in the podcast about schwa and sentence stress and linking can also be found in the books we sell on Pronuncian. Most of this content is covered in the second book, Rhythm and Intonation of American English. You can learn more, get extra practice, and support more content creation by going to Pronuncian and downloading an ebook or buying a physical book, which we will be happy to ship to you.

Transcripts for this show and links to free online lessons can be found at www.pronuncian.com/podcast.

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

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