The “English Pronunciation: General Rules and Tips (Part 1)” post talked about the importance of learners’ background when starting with English and how it can affect learning English pronunciation, especially in the beginning.
We mentioned homophones and homographs. Then we moved on to the sounds of the vowels A, O, U, E, and I (as in their names), giving different examples and exceptions if any.
Here we move on with some letter combinations that may look confusing at first glance.
1. Letter combinations (with A)
Many letter combinations, be it between vowels or vowels and consonants produce specific sounds, so it’s worth mentioning a few.
1. 1 A followed by L (LL, LK, LT, etc.)
A before L or (LL, LK, and LT, etc.) is often pronounced as [ɔ], especially with one /two syllable words.
–ALL ➡️ all [ɔl], in‧stall [ɪnˈstɔl], small [smɔl], baseball [ˈbeɪsˈbɔl]
BUT❗ allow [əˈlaʊ], allergic [əˈlɜrʤɪk], challenge [ˈʧælənʤ], etc.
–ALK ➡️ chalk [ʧɔk], talk [tɔk], stalk [stɔk], walk [wɔk]
BUT❗ alkaline [ˈælkəˌlaɪn], etc.
-ALT ➡️ salt [sɔlt], halt [hɔlt], al‧ter [ˈɔltər], malt [mɔlt]
BUT❗ asphalt [ˈæˌsfɒ:lt], penalty [ˈpɛnəlti], loyalty [ˈlɔɪəlti], etc.
*Usually, words ending in -alty sound [əlti], and not [ɔlti]
When a vowel follows -al (-all), you can expect a different sound (often that would be the schwa sound [ə].)
➡️alone [əˈloʊn], alike [əˈlaɪk], allegation [ˌæləˈgeɪʃən]
1. 2 The vowels – AU
The vowel combination AU is usually (not always ❗) pronounced [ɔ] as in the following words:
[ɔ] A1-A2 ➡️ autumn [ˈɔtəm], taught [tɔt], daughter [ˈdɔtər], because [bɪˈkɔz]
[ɔ] B1-B2 ➡️ author [ˈɔːθər], clause [klɔːz], laundry [ˈlɔndri], launch [lɔːnʧ]
BUT ❗laugh [læf], aunt [ænt] or [ɑnt]
1. 3 The letters – AW
More often than not, when we see words spelled with AW, we hear the sound [ɔː], especially in one-syllable words or when aw is followed by a consonant/semivowel.
[ɔː] A1-A2 draw [drɔː], saw [sɔː], awful [ˈɔːfəl]
[ɔː] B1-B2 paw [pɔː], claw [klɔː], law [lɔː]
BUT ❗away [əˈweɪ], awake [əˈweɪk], award [əˈwɔrd]
Usually, words that have any of the above combinations produce the schwa sound [ə (r)]. As always, there are exceptions. Have a look at the details below.
2. Double E (ee)
Words that have double e (ee) in them are usually pronounced as [iː] (long sound ) as in:
between [bɪˈtwiːn], squeeze [skwiːz], needle [ˈniːdəl]
However, when double E (ee) is followed by the letter R, the pronunciation changes:
deer [dɪ(ə)r], peer [pɪ(ə)r], steer [stɪ(ə)r], beer [bɪ(ə)r]
3. Double O (oo)
When a word is spelled with double oo, double oo is usually (not always ❗) pronounced [uː] (long u).
[uː] A1-A2 ➡️ school [skuːl], room [ruːm], shampoo [ʃæmˈpuː]
[uː] B1-B2 ➡️ proof [pruːf], fool [fuːl], root[ruːt], smooth [smuːð]
BUT ❗door [dɔr], floor [flɔr], blood [blʌd], flood [flʌd]
4. The letters -ar, -er, -ir, -ur, etc.
Maybe the -AR combination should have its own section because it has quite a few exceptions but let’s try to mention them all here. Basically, there are two ways (remember, there can always be exceptions) to pronounce the -ar combination:
- like like [ɑ] as in star
- like [ə (r)] as in familiar
Usually, in one-syllable words or in closed syllable words, -ar sounds like [ɑ] as in the words :
[ɑ] A1-A2 star [stɑr], bar [bɑr], car [kɑr], mar‧ket [ˈmɑrkɪt], part‧ner [ˈpɑrtnər]
However, with many 2+ syllable words ending in -ar, the pronunciation changes to the schwa sound [ə (r)].
modular /ˈmɒdjʊlə/; familiar /fəˈmɪlɪə/; similar /ˈsɪmɪlə/; popular /ˈpɒpjʊlə/; regular /ˈrɛɡjʊlə/
Generally speaking, there are three ways to pronounce the -er letter combination (of course, there are exceptions):
- [ɪ] as in imperial [ɪmˈpɪriəl]
- [ɛ] as in heritage [ˈhɛrɪtɪʤ]
- [ə] as in tiger [ˈtaɪgər] (most often)
[ɪ]➡️ experience [ɪkˈspɪriəns]; criterion [kraɪˈtɪriən]; serious [ˈsɪriəs] bacteria [bækˈtɪriə]; cereal [ˈsɪriəl]
[ɛ]➡️heritage [ˈhɛrɪtɪʤ]; therapy [ˈθɛrəpi]; sheriff [ˈʃɛrɪf]; verify[ˈvɛrəˌfaɪ]; territo‧ry [ˈtɛrɪˌtɔri]; ceremony [ˈsɛrəˌmoʊni]
Notice a pattern? It’s the first syllable!
[ə]➡️ later [ˈleɪtər]; explorer [ɪkˈsplɔrər]; gardener [ˈgɑrdənər]; over [ˈoʊvər]; chapter [ˈʧæptər]; number [ˈnʌmbər]
Notice a pattern? It’s at the end of the words!
[ə]➡️ stir /stəː/, girl /ɡəːl/, skirt /skəːt/, firm /fəːm/, shirt /ʃəːt/, bird /bəːd/
BUT❗ vampire /ˈvampʌɪə/, inspiration /ˌɪnspəˈreɪʃən, ɪnspɪˈreɪʃ(ə)n/; direction /dɪˈrɛkʃ(ə)n, dʌɪˈrɛkʃ(ə)n/; miracle /ˈmɪrəkəl/; pirate /ˈpʌɪrət/; irre‧sponsible /ɪrɪˈspɒnsɪb(ə)l/, etc.
You will notice below that the -or combination is pronounced differently depending on where it is in the word. (Exceptions are always possible!)
- [ɔr] as in born [bɔrn]
- [ər] as in doctor [ˈdɑktər]
[ɔr] A1-A2 ➡️ born [bɔrn]; forest [ˈfɔrɪst]; sport [spɔrt]; short [ʃɔrt]; order [ˈɔrdər]
[ɔr] B1-B2 ➡️ majority [məˈʤɔrəti]; portrait [ˈpɔrtrət]; storage [ˈstɔrɪʤ]; landord [ˈlænˌdlɔrd]
*The above is the American spelling of the word. In British English, it is spelled as “colour” but that doesn’t affect the pronunciation.
[ər] A1-A2 ➡️ doctor [ˈdɑktər]; visitor [ˈvɪzɪtər]
[ər] B1-B2 ➡️ calculator [ˈkælkjəˌleɪtər], inspector [ɪnˈspɛktər], password [ˈpæˌswəː(r)d], paperwork [ˈpeɪpərˌwəː(r)k]
There are a number of ways to pronounce the combination -UR. Let’s have a look.
- [əː(r)] as in turn [təː(r)n] ( usually, closed syllable)
- [jʊ] as in to endure [ɪnˈdjʊ(r)]
[əː(r)] ➡️ fur [fəː(r)], turn [təː(r)n], urban [ˈəː(r)b(ə)n], survive [səˈ(r)vʌɪv], turkey [ˈtəː(r)ki]
[jʊ] ➡️ durable [ˈdjʊrəbəl], secure [sɪˈkjʊr], purity [ˈpjʊrɪti]