Forming the /ʒ/ (ZH) Sound  

The consonant sound /ʒ/ can be especially tricky because, unlike most consonant sounds, it does not have a specific letter or digraph commonly associated with it. It is sometimes transcribed as ZH, but there are no native English words that feature this digraph; instead, the /ʒ/ sound occurs when various consonants appear next to or between certain vowels.

Formed with the letter S

The consonant that most commonly forms the /ʒ/ sound is S when it is followed by specific suffixes. Other than a certain set of exceptions in which it comes after an R, S is always preceded by a vowel when it forms the /ʒ/ sound. Let’s look at examples of the various suffixes that combine with S to form this pronunciation.

Vowel + “-s-” + “-ion”

The most common suffix to form the /ʒ/ sound with S is “-ion,” which is used to create nouns indicating an action or process, or the result thereof. Note that this combination only produces this sound when it follows a vowel or the letter R (as we’ll see further on); if it comes after any other consonant, it produces the /ʃ/ sound (i.e., the sound of the digraph SH).
For example:
A + “-sion”
E + “-sion”
I + “-sion”
O + “-sion”
U + “-sion”
abrasion (/əˈbrʒən/)
evasion (/əˈvʒən/)
invasion (/ɪnˈvʒən/)
occasion (/əˈkʒən/)
persuasion (/pərˈswʒən/)
pervasion (/pərˈvʒən/)
adhesion (/ædˈhiʒən/)
cohesion (/koʊˈhiʒən/)
lesion (/ˈliʒən/)
collision (/kəˈlɪʒən/)
decision (/dɪˈsɪʒən/)
division (/dɪˈvɪʒən/)
incision (/ɪnˈsɪʒən/)
precision (/priˈsɪʒən/)
provision (/prəˈvɪʒən/)
vision (/ˈvɪʒən/)
corrosion (/kəˈrʒən/)
erosion (/ɪˈrʒən/)
explosion (/ɪkˈsplʒən/)
implosion (/ɪmˈplʒən/)
allusion (/əˈluʒən/)
collusion (/kəˈluʒən/)
conclusion (/kənˈkluʒən/)
delusion (/dɪˈluʒən/)
exclusion (/ɪksˈkluʒən/)
illusion (/ɪˈluʒən/)
inclusion (/ɪnˈkluʒən/)
intrusion (/ɪnˈtruʒən/)
protrusion (/proʊˈtruʒən/)
seclusion (/sɪˈkluʒən/)

R + “-sion”

The only consonant that S can follow while forming the /ʒ/ sound is R, and it only occurs with the suffix “-ion.” For example:
  • aversion (/əˈvɜrʒən/)
  • conversion (/kənˈvɜrʒən/)
  • diversion (/dɪˈvɜrʒən/)
  • excursion (/ɪkˈskɜrʒən/)
  • incursion (/ɪnˈkɜrʒən/)
  • immersion (/ɪˈmɜrʒən/)
  • submersion (/səbˈmɜrʒən/)
  • subversion (/səbˈvɜrʒən/)
Note that these pronunciations are often specific to American English; in British English (or even different dialects within American English), this combination can form the /ʃ/ (SH) sound instead.

Vowel + S + “-ure”

The suffix “-ure” is used to form nouns describing a condition, process, act, or function. S only forms the /ʒ/ sound with this suffix when it is preceded by the letter O, the digraph EA (pronounced /ɛ/), or (in one instance) the digraph EI (pronounced either /i/ or /ɛ/).
For example:
  • closure (/ˈklʒər/)
  • composure (/kəmˈpʒər/)
  • disclosure /dɪsˈklʒər/
  • exposure (/ɪkˈspʒər/)
  • enclosure (/ɪnˈklʒər/)
  • leisure (/ˈliʒər/)
  • measure (/ˈmɛʒər/)
  • pleasure (/ˈplɛʒər/)
  • treasure (/ˈtrɛʒər/)

Forming the /ʒ/ sound with the letter Z

There are two other words ending in “-ure” that create the /ʒ/ sound, but they are spelled with a Z rather than an S: seizure (/ˈsiʒər/) and azure (æʒər/). These are the only two instances in which Z can form the /ʒ/ sound.

Vowel + S + “-ia”

The suffix “-ia” is most often used to indicate the names of diseases and pathological conditions, territories or countries, or certain conditions or qualities. For example:
  • ambrosia (/æmˈbrʒə/)
  • amnesia (/æmˈniʒə/)
  • Asia (ʒə/)
  • dysplasia (/dɪsˈplʒə/)
  • fantasia (/fænˈtʒə/)
  • kinesthesia (/ˌkɪnəsˈθiʒə/)
  • magnesia (/mægˈniʒə/)
  • synesthesia (/ˌsɪnəsˈθiʒə/)

Vowel + “-sual”

This ending is not really a suffix, but rather appears in adaptations of Latin root words. At its most basic, it only appears in three adjectives, but these words can be expanded, using other suffixes, to form nouns, verbs, and adverbs.
For example:
  • casual (/ˈkæʒuəl/); also forms casually (adv.), casualty (n.), and casualness (n.)
  • usual (juʒuəl/); also forms usually (adv.) and usualness (n.)
  • visual (/ˈvɪʒuəl/); also forms casually (adv.), casualty (n.), and casualness (n.)

Formed from the letter G

After the letter S, the consonant that most commonly forms the /ʒ/ sound is “soft G.”
The letter G can be considered “soft” when it appears after a vowel and immediately before an E, I, or Y. While /ʤ/ (the sound of the letter J) is the most common speech sound used for a soft G (as in age, logic, or biology), the /ʒ/ sound is formed in some French loanwords ending in GE (especially after the letter A). For this reason, it can be thought of as the “French soft G.”
There is no reliable spelling pattern that dictates when a soft G will be pronounced /ʒ/ rather than /ʤ/, so we simply have to memorize these pronunciations:
  • arbitrage (/ˈɑrbɪˌtrɑʒ/)
  • beige (/bʒ/)
  • barrage (/bəˈrɑʒ/)
  • camouflage (/ˈkæməˌflɑʒ/)
  • collage (/kəˈlɑʒ/)
  • corsage (/kɔrˈsɑʒ/)
  • dressage (/drəˈsɑʒ/)
  • entourage (/ˌɑntʊˈrɑʒ/)
  • garage (/gəˈrɑʒ/)*
  • massage (/məˈsɑʒ/)
  • montage (mɑnˈtɑʒ/)
  • mirage (/mɪˈrɑʒ/)
  • rouge (/ruʒ/)
  • sabotage (ˈsæbəˌtɑʒ/)
(*It is also common to hear this word pronounced with the standard soft G at the end: /gəˈrɑʤ/.)
There are also a few words in which G takes the /ʒ/ sound but does not appear at the end of the word:
  • genre (ʒɑnrə/)
  • lingerie (/ˌlɑnʒəˈreɪ/)
  • regime (/rəˈʒim/)

Formed from other letters

J

Like soft G, the letter J occasionally produces the /ʒ/ sound instead of the normal /ʤ/ sound, though this only happens in foreign loanwords. For example:
  • Beijing (/ˌbeɪʒˈɪŋ/)
  • bijou (/ˈbiʒu/)
  • jà vu (/ˈdeɪʒæ ˈvu/
  • Dijon (ˌdiˈʒɑn/)
  • force majeure (/ˈfɔrs mæˈʒɜr/)
  • Taj Mahal (/tɑʒ məˈhɑl)

T and X

There is only one word in which T produces the /ʒ/ sound: equation (/ɪˈkweɪʒən/).
Likewise, there is one word in which X forms the /ʒ/ sound (in the combination /gʒ/): luxury (/ˈlʌəri/).
Quiz

1. Which letter most commonly produces the /ʒ/ sound?





2. Which of the following words produces the /ʒ/ sound?





3. Which of the following words is usually pronounced with the /ʒ/ sound?





4. True or False: The letter J only forms the /ʒ/ sound in foreign loanwords.



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