The brain speaks to self: Every E in Mercedes, and every C in the Pacific Ocean is pronounced differently.

English Pronunciation: General Rules and Tips (Part 1)

Yes, the title says, “rules” but, in reality, when it comes to pronunciation and spelling in English, “rules” is not the correct term because there are too many exceptions and seemingly contradictory occurrences.

That being said, there are patterns that can help learners understand the logic behind spelling and pronunciation in English. 

In the following series, we will focus on these patterns and try to shed some more light on this mystical creature called English pronunciation. 

Before we talk about some letters (specifically the vowels in English), let’s briefly mention a few things which are key when it comes to spelling and pronunciation.

1. Learners’ background

The “linguistic background” (if we can call it that) of learners as well as the knowledge they have about the new language they are starting to learn are, perhaps, the two most important things to consider. It is true that technologies have made things much more accessible, and most learners are fully aware of the Latin letters, specifically, the English alphabet. However, there still may be many other confusions and challenges, especially among very young or inexperienced learners. 

Most commonly, these are related to sounds rather than letters. After all, English is notorious for its challenging pronunciation for a reason.

For example, when working with people who use only the Cyrillic alphabet, which is “currently used exclusively or as one of several alphabets for more than 50 languages“, it may be challenging because some letters look the same, or at least very similar, but produce quite the opposite sounds. 

For example, the Latin letter Pp [p] has a Cyrillic counterpart, and although the letters look the same, they produce different sounds altogether. 

While Pa (short for father) in English is pronounced [pɑ], the same Ра written in the Cyrillic alphabet is pronounced roughly as [rɑ] (with a very strong sound) and it stands for Ra, the god of the sun.

Not to mention that sometimes some vowels (a, o, e, etc.) look the same, but the sounds they produce in English can be unexpected for a learner of such background and no experience. 

For example, the Cyrillic letter usually only produces a sound similar to the Aa in father [ˈfɑðər], but nothing like Aa in water [ˈwɔtər] or Aa in plate [plt]. E almost always sounds like the E in ste[stɛp] and never like in the verb to be [bi]. O sounds like O in strong [strɔŋ] but not like O in t[tu].

The consonants C and X present similar problems. Learners of the background mentioned above, pronounce C as in the word city sɪti] but never like C in the word car [kɑr]. They have a separate letter for that – К.

The letter X is a different story because, from the standpoint of a person who speaks a Slavic language that uses the Cyrillic alphabet, it sounds like the letter H in hold [hoʊld] and not at all like the sound we hear in the word tax [tæks]. For that sound, you need to combine the letters К and С from the Cyrillic alphabet. 

Did you know?

People whose native language is a Slavic language laugh, in writing, xa-xa-xa, and not ha ha ha. Spanish people, on the other hand, laugh like jajaja. For most speakers of English as a native language, xa-xa-xa doesn’t ring a bell.

There are many more examples, of course, and some challenges can also be found even with languages that use Latin letters, but the above is enough to make a few points and describe things in general.

Keeping an open mind, and remembering that it is not impossible, let’s jump to the following sections.

2. Homophones

In short, homophones are words that sound the same but are different.

Sometimes words that sound the same are spelled differently and mean different things. Context is the only way to understand which one the speaker means.

*To illustrate the (American English) pronunciation, we use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) generated by the toPhonetics website

For example:

a photo of a plane in the air

I’m so late! I have a plane [pleɪn] to catch!

I’m so late! I have a plain [pleɪn] to catch!

an areal photo of a plain

Other examples include:

flower [ˈflaʊər] vs. flour [ˈflaʊər]

a photo of daisies

Daisies are my favorite flower.

a wooden spoon with flour in it, a roller pin

To make muffins you need flour.✅

I [aɪ] vs. eye [aɪ]

I have something in my eye.✅

to [tu] vs. two [tu]

 a person with a coffee in hand headed for work

I always get some coffee on my way to work.

a photo of two cat looking  intensely at a wall

I have two cats.

by [baɪ] vs. buy [baɪ] vs. bye [baɪ]

I’ll come by later this evening.

I need to go to the store and buy some food.

See you later! Bye!

3. Homographs

Simply put, homographs look the same but are different.

Many words are spelled the same and sound the same but have different meanings. Again, we need context to decide which is which.

For example:

He leaves [liːvz] for work at 7.30 in the morning.

The path was covered with leaves [liːvz].

And some more examples just to mention a few:

can [kæn]

  1. verb – to be able to do sth
  2. noun – a metal container
a man cooking food

Of course, he can cook!

I need two cans of tomatoes.

tomato can

fall [fɔl]

  1. verb – to go from a higher to a lower level usually unwillingly ( I am afraid I might fall.)
  2. noun – the act of falling;  the season when leaves fall from trees  (I am going on vacation this fall.)

bear [bɛr]

  1. noun – a large animal with thick brown fur (Panda bears are the cutest bears.)
  2. verb – to carry, to endure (I can’t bear his sarcasm anymore.)

4. Vowels’ names

The letters in the English alphabet have names, and that is usually the first thing a student learns, their ABCs, right? 

Sometimes, letter names coincide with (one of the sounds) the letter makes.

For example, it is safe to say that the vowels (except for the semivowel Y) produce the same sounds as their names when found in an open syllable (meaning there is no consonant after the vowel within the syllable 💁🏽).

Let’s have a look below. (Here, the focus is on vowels, not all letters.)

4.1 The vowel A [eɪ] 

There are more than 5 ways to pronounce the letter A, but here we will only focus on the pronunciation as in the letter name when A stands alone in open-syllable words. The sound [eɪ] in English is very common, and it can be produced when different letters (specifically, vowels) are combined, for example, AI as in mail, EI as in eight, etc. To learn more about in what other cases A is pronounced as [eɪ] jump over to the “English pronunciation 1.1: The Letter A as in [eɪ]” article (opens in a new tab.)

a girl standing outside a caravan looking towards a lake

nature [ˈnʧər]

trace [trs], embrace [ɛmˈbrs], reputation [ˌrɛpjəˈtʃən]

4. 2 The vowel O [oʊ] 

The letter O in English, compared to other languages, can also be pronounced in more than one way.
For example, O in stop [stɑp] and drop [drɑp] is not the same as in slope [sloʊp] or cope [koʊp], and that is what we focus on here.

More examples of the letter O as [oʊ]

stroke [strk], closed [klzd], moment [ˈmmənt], probation [prˈbeɪʃən]

4.3 The vowel U [ju]

The same can be said about the letter U – it too can be pronounced differently. But here, we focus only on when it is pronounced as its name (ju) which is usually when in an open syllable.

document [ˈdɑkjumɛnt]

 tube [tjub], evaluate [ɪˈvæljuˌeɪt], monument [ˈmɑnjumənt]

4.4 The vowel E [iː] 

The letter E is no exception. When in a closed syllable, it sounds different than its name [iː], for example, step [stɛp], dress [drɛs]. Below are examples of words where the letter E is pronounced the same as its name.

legal [ˈliːgəl], ego [ˈiːgoʊ], people [ˈpiːpəl], region [ˈriːʤən]

4.5 The vowel I [aɪ]

And again, we will notice the same thing here. The letter I, in a closed syllable, is not pronounced as its name [aɪ]. Some examples are tip [tɪp] and lip [lɪp]. Otherwise, it goes by its name.

a picture of a laptop, and a phone

device [dɪˈvs]

file [fl], time [tm], climate [ˈklmət]

Where to go from here?

English Pronunciation: General Rules and Tips (Part 2)

English pronunciation 1.1: The Letter A as in [eɪ]

Coming soon…

English Pronunciation 1.2: The Letter A as in [æ]

English Pronunciation 1.3: The Letter A as in [ə]

English Pronunciation 1.4: The Letter A as in [ɑː]

English pronunciation 1.5: The Letter A as in [ɔː]

English pronunciation 1.6: The Letter A as in [ɒ]

Coming later…

The (not so) lovely schwa [ə] sound in English

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