Pronunciation Conventions  

Like spelling, English pronunciation is especially tricky due its seeming lack of consistency and intuitive structure.
The basic elements of pronunciation all relate to the specific vowel and consonant letters, all of which are described in the section on The Alphabet. In this section, we’ll look at some of the more difficult aspects of pronunciation, specifically focusing on tricky vowel sounds and tricky consonant sounds that are hard to guess simply by looking at the letters of a word. We’ll also look at the various silent letters, paying particular attention to the various roles of Silent E.
After that, we will discuss the ways in which syllables are formed and divided within words, and then we’ll conclude by looking at the stress we place on syllables within a word and on particular words within a sentence.

Tricky Vowel Sounds

Vowel sounds are an especially tricky part of English pronunciation because of how flexible and malleable they can be. One particular aspect of vowel sounds that can be confusing is when multiple vowel sounds blend together within a single syllable, because there are no clear divisions between the sounds like there are for consonants. We’ll briefly look at the three different ranges of vowel sounds in this section; continue on to the full section on Tricky Vowel Sounds to learn more about each.

Monophthongs

The most basic vowel sound is known as a monophthong, which is a single vowel sound within a single syllable. Most of these are short vowels, though there are some long vowel monophthongs as well. For example:
Short Vowel Monophthongs
Long Vowel Monophthongs
apple
(æpəl/)
bend
(/bɛnd/)
tip
(/tɪp/)
pollen
(/ˈpɑlən/)
cup
(/kʌp/)
put
(/pʊt/)
myth
(/mɪθ/)
concrete
(/ˈkɑnkrit/)
friendly
(/ˈfrɛndli/)
feet
(/fit/)
exclude
(/ɪkˈsklud/)
across
(/əˈkrɔs/)
curve
(/kɜrv/)

Diphthongs

A diphthong (pronounced /ˈdɪfθɔŋ/) is a single-syllable vowel sound in which the beginning of the sound glides to another, slightly different vowel sound. For this reason, diphthongs are often referred to as gliding vowels.
There are eight diphthongs in American English, four of which are “traditional” long vowels (vowel sounds that are pronounced the same way as the names of the letters), and four of which are produced by certain vowel digraphs or in combination with the letter R.
For example:
Traditional Long Vowel
Diphthongs
Other Long Vowel
Diphthongs
tape
(/tp/)
nice
(/ns/)
rope
(/rp/)
cube
(/kjub/)
boy
(/bɔɪ/)
pout
(/pt/)
deer
(/dɪər/)
stairs
(/stɛərz/)

Triphthongs

Very rarely, a single syllable may contain three vowel sounds that quickly glide together; these sounds are known as triphthongs.
There are three triphthongs that are generally agreed upon in American English: /aʊə/ (“ah-oo-uh”), /aɪə/ (“ah-ih-uh”), and /jʊə/ (“ee-oo-uh”). The first occurs when the digraph OU is followed by an R, the second occurs with the letter combination IRE, and the third occurs when UR is followed by a Y, I, or silent E. For example:
  • sour (/saʊər/)
  • fire (/faɪər/)
  • fury (/ˈfjʊəri/)

Tricky Consonant Sounds

Unlike vowels, many consonant letters will generally make the same consonant sound no matter where they appear in a word. However, some consonant sounds can be made by several different letters when they appear in certain parts of a word or in combination with other consonants. Many of these are covered in the section on consonant digraphs, but there are a few sounds that can be made by several different single letters as well. We’ll very briefly look at these sounds here, but you can continue on to the full section on Tricky Consonant Sounds to learn more.

Forming the /k/ Sound

The consonant sound /k/ can be produced by the consonants C, K, and X, as well as the consonant digraphs CC and CK and the combination QU. For example:
Letter(s)
Examples
C
cover
(vər/)
decade
(/ˈdɛkeɪd/)
basic
(/ˈbeɪsɪk/)
K
kennel
(/ˈkɛnəl/)
risky
(/ˈrɪski/)
oak
(/oʊk/)
X
(in the sound combinations /ks/ and /kʃ/)
box
(/bɑks/)
toxic
(/ˈtɑksɪk/)
anxious
(/ˈæŋəs/)
CC
occasion
(/əˈkeɪʒən/)
accomplish
(/əˈkɑmplɪʃ/)
accuse
(/əˈkjuz/)
CK
back
(/bæk/)
rock
(/rɑk/)
cackle
(/ˈkækəl/)
QU
equipment
(ˈkwɪpmənt/)
technique
(/tɛkˈnik/)
conquer
(/ˈkɑŋkər/)

Forming the /z/ Sound

The consonant sound /z/ is most often associated with the consonant Z, because the correlation between the sound and that letter is very reliable, but it can also be formed from the letters S and X. For example:
Letter(s)
Examples
Z
bizarre
(/bəˈzɑr/)
zap
(/zæp/)
buzz
(/bʌz/)
S
cousin
(/ˈkʌzən/)
activism
(/ˈæktɪˌvɪzəm/)
has
(/hæz/)
X
example
(gˈzæmpəl/)
exhaust
(gˈzɑst/)
xylophone
(zaɪləˌfoʊn/)

Forming the /ʒ/ Sound

The sound /ʒ/ does not have a specific letter or digraph commonly associated with it. Instead, the /ʒ/ sound occurs when the consonants S, G, and J appear next to or between certain vowels. For example:
Letter(s)
Examples
S
decision
(/dɪˈsɪʒən/)
composure
(/kəmˈpʒər/)
amnesia
(/æmˈniʒə/)
G
beige
(/bʒ/)
camouflage
(/ˈkæməˌflɑʒ/)
rouge
(/ruʒ/)
J
jà vu
(/ˈdeɪʒæ ˈvu/)
Dijon
(/ˌdiˈʒɑn/)
Taj Mahal
(/tɑʒ məˈhɑl/)

Pronouncing the Letter S

The letter S can sometimes be problematic for pronunciation due to the wide range of speech sounds it can represent. Its most common sound is the unvoiced sibilant /s/, but it also makes the /z/ sound (formed the same way, but with the vocal cords engaged), the /ʃ/ sound (the sound associated with the digraph SH), and the /ʒ/ sound (made like the /ʃ/ sound, but with the vocal cords engaged).
We’ll go over some examples of how S reliably forms each of these sounds, but go to the full section on Pronouncing the Letter S to find out more information.

When S is only pronounced /s/

At the beginning of a word

S is almost always pronounced /s/ if it appears at the beginning of a word, as in:
  • sat (/sæt/)
  • social (soʊʃəl/)
  • syllable (sɪləbəl/)
  • skip (/skɪp/)
  • small (/smɔl/)
  • start (/stɑrt/)
The only exceptions to this rule are the words sugar and sure, pronounced ʃʊgər/ and /ʃʊər/, respectively.

As a suffix

S is also always pronounced /s/ when it functions as a suffix coming after an unvoiced, non-sibilant consonant sound—that is, after /k/, /f/, /p/, /t/, and /θ/ (the unvoiced TH sound). For example:
  • books (/bʊks/)
  • laughs (/læfs/)
  • keeps (/kips/)
  • let’s (/lɛts/)
  • strengths (/strɛŋkθs/)

SS at the end of a word

Like words that begin with S, words that end in SS always make the /s/ sound. For example:
  • abyss (/əˈbɪs/)
  • crass (/kræs/)
  • dress (/drɛs/)
  • fuss (/fʌs/)
  • hiss (/hɪs/)
  • toss (/tɑs/)

Words ending in “-se”

When S is followed by a silent E, it will reliably create the /s/ sound when it follows four specific consonants: L, N, P, and R. For example:
  • false (/fɔls/)
  • response (/rɪˈspɑns/)
  • eclipse (/ɪˈklɪps/)
  • traverse (/trəˈvɜrs/)

When S is only pronounced /z/

As a suffix

If the suffix “-s” comes after a voiced consonant sound (/b/, /d/, /g/, /l/, /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, /r/, /ð/, /v/) or a vowel sound, the S will be pronounced as /z/. When adding “-s” to a word that ends in a voiced or unvoiced sibilant speech sound (/s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /ʧ/, /ʤ/), the suffix becomes “-es” and is pronounced /ɪz/. (The same pronunciation is used if an apostrophe-S is added to a word with a sibilant speech sound at the end.)
For example:
  • barbs (/bɑrbz/)
  • dreads (/drɛdz/)
  • eggs (gz/)
  • lulls (/lʌlz/)
  • Malcolm’s (/ˈmælkəmz/)
  • wives (/waɪvz/)
  • buses (/bʌz/)
  • comprises (/kəmˈpraɪz/)
  • Trish’s (/ˈtrɪʃɪz/)
  • garages (/gəˈrɑʒɪz/)
  • pitches (/ˈpɪʧɪz/)
  • smudges (/ˈsmʌʤɪz/)

In the suffixes “-ism” and “-ise”

One of the few instances in which S is reliably pronounced /z/ is when the letter combination SM appears at the end of a word (most often as a part of the suffix “-ism”). For example:
  • activism (/ˈæktɪˌvɪzəm/)
  • chasm (/ˈkæzəm/)
  • materialism (/məˈtɪriəˌlɪzəm/)
  • organism (/ˈɔrgəˌnɪzəm/)
  • sarcasm (/ˈsɑrˌkæzəm/)
The suffix “-ise” (used to form verbs, especially in British English) is also very reliable in producing the /z/ sound. For example:
  • advertise (/ˈædvərˌtz/)
  • advise (/ˌædˈvz/)
  • arise (/əˈrz/)
  • compromise (/ˈkɑmprəˌmz/)
  • devise (/dəˈvz/)
  • exercise (/ˈɛksərˌsz/)
  • improvise (/ˈɪmprəˌvz/)
  • revise (/rəˈvz/)
  • surprise (/sərˈprz/)
  • televise (/ˈtɛləˌvz/)
(One exception to this convention is promise, which is pronounced /ˈprɑmɪs/.)

Forming the /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ sounds

In addition to /s/ and /z/, S can also form the /ʃ/ (as in wash) and /ʒ/ (as in beige) sounds when it appears in combination with certain suffixes. We saw earlier how it forms the /ʒ/ sound when this combination comes after a vowel; however, several of the same combinations will yield the /ʃ/ sound if they come after L, N, or another S. For example:
S + “-ion”
S + “-ure”
S + “-ual”
propulsion
(/prəˈpʌlʃən/)
dimension
(/dɪˈmɛnʃən/)
passion
(/ˈpæʃən/)
censure
(/ˈsɛnʃər/)
insure
(ʃʊər/)
pressure
(/ˈprɛʃər/)
consensual
(/kənˈsɛnʃuəl/)
sensual
(/ˈsɛnʃuəl/)

Silent Letters

Because English has evolved from several different sources (Latin, Greek, French, German, Old English, etc.), it has had to assimilate the various spelling and pronunciation quirks of its predecessors. This has resulted in many instances in which particular letters become silent. While it may seem like silent letters serve no purpose in a word, they can actually help distinguish two words that are otherwise homophonous, help indicate the meaning or origin of a word, or even help us determine the overall pronunciation of a word.
We’ll briefly look at the various silent letters here, but continue on to the full section on Silent Letters to learn more.

Silent Vowels

While silent consonants tend to give people the most difficulty due to how unpredictable and illogical they seem, there are also a few truly silent vowels (as opposed to vowel digraphs, which work together to form specific sounds). By far the most common of these is the silent E, but the letter U can also be truly silent in some cases.

Silent E

Silent E has a wide range of functions in determining the pronunciation of a word. We’ll have a brief look at some of the most common of these conventions, but go to the full section on Silent E for more examples and in-depth information.
Dictating a word’s pronunciation and meaning
One of the most common purposes of silent E is to help the reader determine the pronunciation of a vowel sound that comes before the previous consonant. In many cases, silent E also helps indicate a difference in meaning between a similarly spelled word that doesn’t have an E at the end. Here are some examples:
Word without Silent E
Meaning
Word with Silent E
Meaning
bad
(/bæd/)
(adj.) Not good or undesirable.
bade
(/bd/)
(verb) The simple past tense of bid.
them
(ɛm/)
(pron.) The objective case of the personal pronoun they.
theme
(im/)
(noun) A topic, subject, or idea.
grip
(/grɪp/)
(verb) To hold onto something.
gripe
(/grp/)
(verb) To complain in a nagging or petulant manner.
hop
(/hɑp/)
(verb) To jump or leap a short distance.
hope
(/hp/)
(verb) To wish for or desire (something).
cub
(/kʌb/)
(noun) A young bear, lion, wolf, or certain other animal.
cube
(/kjub/)
(noun) A solid shape comprising six equal square faces.
Forming Soft C and G
In addition to changing vowel sounds, silent E changes the pronunciation of both C and G, indicating when they take their soft pronunciations (/s/ and /ʤ/, respectively). This most commonly occurs when CE comes after the letter I and when GE comes after the letter A, but it can occur with other vowels as well. For example:
Soft C
Soft G
ice
(/aɪs/)
age
(/eɪʤ/)
advice
(/ædˈvaɪs/)
cage
(/keɪʤ/)
sacrifice
(/ˈsækrɪˌfaɪs/)
stage
(/steɪʤ/)
face
(/feɪs/)
oblige
(/əˈblaɪʤ/)

Silent U

The letter Q is almost always followed by U to help it form the /k/ sound. However, QU is only silent in the QU combination when it appears at the end of a word (in which case it will always be followed by silent E); if it comes before any vowel other than silent E, the U creates a /w/ sound, as in require (/rɪˈkwaɪr/) or quality (kwɑlɪtɪ/).
For example:
  • antique (/ænˈtik/)
  • bisque (/bɪsk/)
  • critique (/krɪˈtik/)
  • grotesque (/groʊˈtɛsk/)
  • physique (/fɪˈsik/)
  • plaque (/plæk/)
  • technique (/tɛkˈnik/)
  • unique (/juˈnik/)
This pattern also occurs when U follows G at the end of a word, usually resulting in a “hard” G sound, /g/. For example:
  • colleague (/ˈkɑlig/)
  • epilogue (/ˈɛpəˌlɔg/)
  • fatigue (/fəˈtig/)
  • intrigue (/ɪnˈtrig/)
  • league (/lig/)
  • plague (/pleɪg/)
  • rogue (/roʊg/)
  • vague (/veɪg/)
Unlike QU, GU can result in a silent U in various positions within a word when it precedes another vowel, as in:
  • guarantee (r ənˈti/)
  • beleaguer (/bɪˈlir/)
  • guess (/s/)
  • disguise (/dɪsˈgaɪz/)
  • languor (/ˈlæŋr/)
  • guitar (/ˈtɑr/)
It’s important to note, however, that this pattern is not a concrete rule, and U is often pronounced as /w/ or /ju/ in these same letter patterns in other words. If you’re ever unsure, check the word’s pronunciation in a good dictionary.

Silent Consonants

Because consonants generally make distinct speech sounds (unlike vowels, which can be malleable and inconsistent, depending on the word), it is much more striking when they are silent in a word, because it looks quite odd.
There are many different silent consonants, so rather than look at all the specific circumstances that indicate when they are silent, we’ll just look at some common examples of each. Go to the full section on Silent Letters for more complete information.

Silent B

  • bomb (/bɔm/)
  • climb (/klaɪm/)
  • dumb (/dʌm/)
  • lamb (/læm/)
  • debt (/dɛt/)
  • doubt (/daʊt/)
  • subtle (/ˈsʌtəl/)

Silent C

  • acquiesce (/ˌækwiˈɛs/)
  • ascend (/əˈsɛnd/)
  • fluorescent (/flʊˈrɛsənt/)
  • muscle (/ˈmʌsəl/)
  • scent (/sɛnt/)
  • discipline (/ˈdɪsəplɪn/)
  • fascinate (/ˈfæsɪˌneɪt/)
  • science (saɪəns/)
  • scissors (sɪzərz/)

Silent D

  • handkerchief (/ˈhæŋkərʧɪf/)
  • handsome (/ˈhænsəm/)
  • grandfather (/ˈgrænfɑðər/)
  • sandwich (/ˈsænwɪʧ/)
  • Wednesday (/ˈwɛnzdeɪ/)
(Note that, other than handkerchief, the D may be pronounced in some dialects but left out in others.)

Silent G

  • align (/əˈlaɪn/)
  • benign (/bəˈnaɪn/)
  • campaign (/kæmˈpeɪn/)
  • design (/dəˈzaɪn/)
  • foreign (/ˈfɔrɪn/)
  • gnome (/noʊm/)
  • malign (/məˈlaɪn/)
  • resign (/rəˈzaɪn/)
  • sovereign (/ˈsɑvrɪn/)

Silent H

  • annihilate (/əˈnaɪəˌleɪt/)
  • cheetah (/ˈʧitə/)
  • graham (/ˈgreɪəm/ or /græm/)
  • heir (/ɛr/)
  • honest (/ˈɑnɪst/)
  • hour (/aʊər/)
  • rhetoric (rɛtərɪk/)
  • rhyme (/raɪm/)
  • savannah (/səˈvænə/)
  • vehicle (/ˈviɪkəl/)
  • whale (/weɪl/)
  • what (/wʌt/)

Silent K

  • knead (/nid/)
  • knee (/ni/)
  • knife (/naɪf/)
  • knight (/naɪt/)
  • knit (/nɪt/)
  • knock (/nɑk/)
  • knot (/nɑt/)
  • know (/noʊ/)

Silent L

  • calf (/kæf/)
  • calm (/kɑm/)
  • chalk (ɔk/)
  • half (/hæf/)
  • halve (/hæv/)
  • salmon (/ˈsæmən/)
  • salve (/sæv/)
  • talk (/tɔk/)
  • could (/kʊd/)
  • should (ʊd/)

Silent M

  • mnemonic (/nɪˈmɑnɪk/)

Silent N

  • autumn (/ˈɔtəm/)
  • condemn (/kənˈdɛm/)
  • column (/ˈkɑləm/)
  • hymn (/hɪm/)
  • solemn (/ˈsɑləm/)

Silent P

  • cupboard (/ˈkʌbərd/)
  • pneumatic (/nuˈmætɪk/)
  • pneumonia (/nuˈmoʊnjə/)
  • psalm (/sɑm/)
  • pseudo (sudoʊ/)
  • psychiatry (/saɪˈkaɪətrɪ/)
  • raspberry (/ˈræzˌbɛri/)
  • receipt (/rɪˈsit/)

Silent T

  • ballet (/bæˈl/)
  • bristle (/ˈbrɪsəl/)
  • castle (/ˈkæsəl/)
  • christen (/ˈkrɪsən/)
  • glisten (/ˈglɪsən/)
  • hustle (/ˈhʌsəl/)
  • listen (/ˈlɪsən/)
  • nestle (/ˈnɛsəl/)
  • whistle (/ˈwɪsəl/)
  • wrestle (/ˈrɛsəl/)

Silent W

  • answer (/ˈænsər/)
  • sword (/sɔrd/)
  • two (/tu/)
  • wrap (/ræp/)
  • wreath (/riθ/)
  • wreck (/rɛk/)
  • wrestle (rɛsəl/)
  • wrist (/rɪst/)
  • write (/raɪt/)
  • who (/hu/)
  • whole (/hoʊl/)
  • wrong (/rɔŋ/)

Syllables

A syllable is a sequence of speech sounds (formed from vowels and consonants) organized into a single unit that acts as a building block of a spoken word.
Syllables can be structured several ways, but they always contain a nucleus (the core of the syllable), which is almost always formed from a vowel sound. Syllables may also contain consonant sounds that form an onset (a sound before the nucleus), a coda (a sound after the nucleus), or both, but they do not have to contain either.
We’ll briefly look at the different types of syllable structures here, but go to the full section on Syllables to learn more about each, as well as for in-depth information about rules for dividing syllables.
In this particular section, syllables will be marked by an interpunct ( · ) for “normal” words, and by a period in IPA transcriptions. Note that the syllable breakdowns in this section are based on the way dictionaries list them; in many cases, the syllable breaks in normal written words may be slightly different than the words’ IPA transcriptions. For example, the word application is divided in the dictionary as ap·pli·ca·tion, while its IPA transcription is /ˌæp.lɪˈkeɪ.ʃən/ (the two Ps are divided by an interpunct in the written form, but the /p/ sound only occurs in the first syllable in the IPA form). This variation has to do with the technical aspects of how different types of syllables are categorized, rather than the phonetic aspects of the word. (We will use a slightly different method when looking at Word Stress, which we’ll cover further on.)

Types of syllables

Although syllables all perform the same basic function, not all syllables are structured the same way. There are six types of syllables that are identified in English based on a word’s spelling and the type of sound the syllable’s nucleus creates. The two most basic categories are open and closed syllables, but we also distinguish silent E syllables, vowel-combination syllables, vowel-R syllables, and syllabic consonants.

Open syllables

An open syllable (also known as a free syllable) is one that has a single vowel letter for its nucleus and does not have a consonant sound after the vowel. An open syllable can be a vowel sound on its own, or else have one or more consonant sounds that precede the nucleus.
When an open syllable is stressed, it will have a “traditional” long vowel sound forming its nucleus—that is, a vowel sound that “says the name” of the vowel letter. When an open syllable is unstressed, it is often shortened into a schwa (/ə/) or the “short I” sound (/ɪ/).
For example:
Multiple syllables
(vowel is stressed)
Multiple syllables
(vowel is unstressed)
a·corn
(/ˈeɪ.kɔrn/)
cu·bi·cal
(/ˈkju.bɪ.kəl/)
e·ven
(/ˈi.vɪn/)
gra·vy
(/ˈgreɪ.vi/)
hel·lo
(/hɛˈloʊ/)
i·tem
(/ˈaɪ.təm/)
mu·tate
(/ˈmju.teɪt/)
o·cean
(/ˈoʊ.ʃən/)
se·cret
(/ˈsi.krɪt/)
vol·ca·no
(/vɑlˈkeɪ.noʊ/)
a·loft
(/əˈlɔft/)
be·neath
(/ˈniθ/)
cu·bi·cal
(/ˈkju..kəl/)
de·bate
(/ˈbeɪt/)
de·ter·mine
(/ˈtɜr.mɪn/)
e·vent
(/ɪˈvɛnt/)
grav·i·tate
(/ˈɡræv.ɪˌteɪt/)
med·i·tate
(/ˈmɛd.ɪˌteɪt/)
re·lease
(/ˈlis/)
ze·bra
(/(ˈzi.brə/)
Notice that syllables formed with vowel digraphs in the nucleus are classed together in a separate category.

Closed syllables

A closed syllable is one in which a single vowel is followed by a coda, which consists of one or more consonant sounds at the end of the syllable (not including the consonant R, which is a separate category). Closed syllables often have an onset as well, but this is not always the case.
Closed syllables most often have short vowels forming their nuclei, but they may also have other long vowel sounds that do not “say the name” of the vowel letter. As in open syllables, the nuclei of closed syllables may be reduced to weak vowel sounds if the syllable is unstressed.
Multiple syllables
(stressed vowel)
Multiple syllables
(unstressed vowel)
ac·ci·dent
(/ˈæk.sɪ.dənt/)
com·mon
(/ˈkɑm.ən/)
vent
(ˈvɛnt/)
for·bid
(/fərˈbɪd/)
hap·pen
(/ˈhæp.ən/)
lad·der
(/ˈlæd.ər/)
pel·i·can
(/ˈpɛl.ɪ.kən/)
riv·er
(/ˈrɪv.ər/)
suc·cess
(/səkˈsɛs/)
tem·per
(/ˈtɛmp.ər/)
ac·ci·dent
(/ˈæk.sɪ.dənt/)
ap·par·ent
(/əˈpɛr.ənt/)
black·en
(/ˈblæk.ən/)
com·mon
(/ˈkɑm.ən/)
con·trol
(/kənˈtroʊl/)
ex·cept
(/ɪkˈsɛpt/)
hap·pen
(/ˈhæp.ən/)
mas·sage
(/ˈsɑʒ/)
suc·cess
(/səkˈsɛs/)
tra·di·tion
(/trəˈdɪ.ʃən/)

Silent E syllables

One of the most common and well-known functions of silent E is to indicate that a vowel has a “long” sound before a single consonant. Because the vowel sound of the nucleus becomes long, we distinguish syllables formed with a silent E from closed syllables, which always have short or weak vowels.
Silent E syllables are generally either the only or the final syllable of a word. For example:
One syllable
Multiple syllables
bike
(/baɪk/)
cake
(/keɪk/)
mute
(/mjut/)
rope
(/roʊp/)
theme
(/θim/)
con·crete
(/ˈkɑn.krit/)
de·mote
(/dɪˈmoʊt/)
vade
(/ɪˈveɪd/)
in·side
(/ɪnˈsaɪd/)
re·buke
(/rɪˈbjuk/)

Vowel-combination syllables

Syllables that have vowel sounds formed from a combination of letters as their nuclei are known as vowel-combination syllables (sometimes referred to as vowel team syllables).
Many of the nuclei in these types of syllables are vowel digraphs (pairs of vowel letters that form a single sound), but they can also be formed from certain combinations of vowels and consonants.
For example:
Vowel Digraphs
Vowel-Consonant Combinations
au·thor
(ɔ.θər/)
be·lieve
(/bɪˈliv/)
child·hood
(/ˈʧaɪldˌhʊd/)
en·dear·ing
(/ɛnˈdɪr.ɪŋ/)
her·oes
(/ˈhɪr.s/)
melt·down
(/ˈmɛltˌdn/)
pur·sue
(/pərˈsu/)
un·bear·a·ble
(/ʌnˈbɛr.ə.bəl/)
caught
(/kɔt/)
drought
(/drt/)
height·en
(/ˈht.ən/)
in·sight
(/ˈɪnˌst/)
neigh·bor
(/ˈn.bər/)
palm
(/pɑm/)
thor·ough
(/ˈθɜr./)

Vowel-R syllables

Vowel-R Syllables (also known as “R-controlled syllables”) are syllables in which the nucleus is made up of a single vowel letter followed by R. This has the effect of changing the pronunciation of the vowel, either subtly or dramatically, so we categorize these syllables separately.
For example:
  • far (/əˈfɑr/)
  • dis·em·bark (/ˌdɪs.ɛmˈbɑrk/)
  • lert (/əˈlɜrt/)
  • per·fect (/ˈpɜrˌfɪkt/)
  • af·firm (ˈfɜrm/)
  • sir·loin (/ˈsɜr.lɔɪn/)
  • re·morse (/rɪˈmɔrs/)
  • wor·thy (/ˈwɜr.ði/)
  • flur·ry (/ˈflɜr.i/)
  • tur·tle (/ˈtɜr.təl/)

Syllabic consonants

A syllabic consonant refers to a syllable that has a consonant as its nucleus, rather than a vowel. When these words are pronounced out loud, the consonant will have a short reduced-vowel sound (/ə/) before it.
In most cases, syllabic consonants occur when L comes after a consonant and is followed by a semi-silent E, which indicates that the schwa sound will occur before the syllable; less commonly, this can also occur with R rather than L. Finally, the letter M can also create syllabic consonants after S and TH.
For example:
Consonant + LE
Consonant + RE
S + M
TH + M
ap·ple
(/ˈæp.əl/)
bi·cy·cle
(/ˈbaɪ.sɪk.əl/)
cra·dle
(/ˈkreɪd.əl/)
fid·dle
(/ˈfɪd.əl/)
la·dle
(/ˈleɪd.əl/)
mus·cle
(/ˈmʌs.əl/)
star·tle
(/ˈstɑrt.əl/)
ti·tle
(/ˈtaɪt.əl/)
cre
(/ˈeɪ.kər/)
mas·sa·cre
(/ˈmæs.ə.kər/)
me·di·o·cre
(/ˌmi.diˈoʊ.kər/)
gre
(/ˈoʊ.gər/)
bap·tism
(/ˈbæp.tɪz.əm/)
cat·a·clysm
(/ˈkæt.əˌklɪz.əm/)
en·thu·si·asm
(/ɛnˈθu.ziˌæz.əm/)
her·o·ism
(/ˈhɛroʊˌɪz.əm/)
mi·cro·cosm
(/ˈmaɪ.krəˌkɑz.əm/)
par·ox·ysm
(/pərˈɑkˌsɪz.əm/)
sar·casm
(/ˈsɑrˌkæz.əm/)
tour·ism
(/ˈtʊəˌrɪz.əm/)
al·go·rithm
(/ˈæl.gəˌrɪð.əm/)
log·a·rithm
(/ˈlɑ.gəˌrɪ.ð.əm/)
rhythm
(/ˈrɪð.əm/)

Stress

Stress (sometimes known as accent) refers to the emphasis placed on syllables and words in speech. Stress on individual syllables is called word stress, while stress on words within a sentence is known as sentence stress.
Word stress can sometimes be determined by a word’s function (noun, verb, etc.), as well as by certain structural cues such as suffixes. However, these conventions are often unreliable, and there are typically many exceptions that contradict them. Sentence stress, meanwhile, is primarily determined by the type of words the sentence comprises.
We’ll briefly look each type of stress here, but you can continue on to their individual sections to learn more.

Word Stress

When we talk about word stress, we are describing the primary emphasis put on one specific syllable within a word—a word cannot have more than one syllable with primary emphasis. Because nearly all syllables must contain at least a vowel sound, we only apply stress to vowels, not consonant sounds.
While word stress can be very hard to predict for individual words, there are a few conventions that are commonly used. Just be aware that there are usually many exceptions to each of these conventions. (Go to the full article on Word Stress to learn more about these exceptions.)
Finally, note that the way we divide syllables will be slightly different in this section compared to the chapter on Syllables. In that section, we provide syllable breakdowns based on how they would be found in the dictionary. Because this part of the guide is more concerned with the phonetic placement of word stress, the examples we use will try to match the written form as closely as possible to the spoken form (the IPA transcriptions). For example, in this section we would divide the syllables of application as app·li·ca·tion to match the IPA transcription /ˌæp.lɪˈkeɪ.ʃən/ (with the /p/ sound of PP only occurring in the first syllable), while the way it would be divided in the dictionary is ap·pli·ca·tion. Just keep in mind that the syllable divisions in this section may not match up with how you might see them in the dictionary.

Determining stress based on word type

One common pronunciation convention many guides provide is that nouns and adjectives with two or more syllables will have stress placed on the first syllable, while verbs and prepositions tend to have their stress on the second syllable. For example:
Nouns
Adjectives
Verbs
Prepositions
app·le
(/ˈæp.əl/)
bott·le
(/ˈbɑt.əl/)
cherr·y
(/ˈʧɛr.i/)
dia·mond
(/ˈdaɪ.mənd/)
el·e·phant
(/ˈɛl.ə.fənt/)
fam·i·ly
(/ˈfæm.ə.li/)
knowl·edge
(/ˈnɑl.ɪʤ/)
mu·sic
(/ˈmju.zɪk/)
pa·per
(/ˈpeɪ.pər/)
sam·ple
(/ˈsæm.pəl/)
ta·ble
(/ˈteɪ.bəl/)
win·dow
(/ˈwɪn.doʊ/)
beau·ti·ful
(/ˈbyu.tə.fəl/)
clev·er
(/ˈklɛv.ər/)
diff·i·cult
(/ˈdɪf.ɪˌkʌlt/)
fa·vor·ite
(/ˈfeɪ.vər.ɪt/)
happ·y
(/ˈhæp.i/)
litt·le
(/ˈlɪt.əl/)
mas·cu·line
(/ˈmæs.kju.lɪn/)
nar·row
(/ˈnær.oʊ/)
or·ange
(/ˈɔr.ɪnʤ/)
pleas·ant
(/ˈplɛz.ənt/)
qui·et
(/ˈkwaɪ.ət/)
sim·ple
(/ˈsɪm.pəl/)
a·pply
(ˈplaɪ/)
be·come
(/bɪˈkʌm/)
com·pare
(/kəmˈpɛr/)
di·scuss
(/dɪˈskʌs/)
ex·plain
(/ɪkˈspleɪn/)
ful·fill
(/fʊlˈfɪl/)
la·ment
(/ləˈmɛnt/)
ne·glect
(/nɪˈglɛkt/)
pre·vent
(/prɪˈvɛnt/)
re·ply
(/rɪˈplaɪ/)
suc·ceed
(/səkˈsid/)
tra·verse
(/trəˈvɜrs/)
a·mong
(ˈmʌŋ/)
a·round
(ˈraʊnd/)
be·side
(/bɪˈsaɪd/)
be·tween
(/bɪˈtwin/)
de·spite
(/dɪˈspaɪt/)
ex·cept
(/ɪkˈsɛpt/)
in·side
(/ˌɪnˈsaɪd/)
out·side
(/ˌaʊtˈsaɪd/)
un·til
(/ʌnˈtɪl/)
u·pon
(ˈpɑn/)
with·in
(/wɪðˈɪn/)
with·out
(/wɪðˈaʊt/)

Initial-stress-derived nouns

When a word can operate as either a noun or a verb, we often differentiate the meanings by shifting the stress from the second syllable to the first (or initial) syllable—in other words, these nouns are derived from verbs according to their initial stress.
For example:
Word
Noun
Verb
contest
con·test
(/ˈkɑn.tɛst/)
con·test
(/kənˈtɛst/)
desert
des·ert
(/ˈdɛz.ərt/)
de·sert
(/dɪˈzɜrt/)
increase
in·crease
(/ˈɪn.kris/)
in·crease
(/ɪnˈkris/)
object
ob·ject
(/ˈɑb.ʤɛkt/)
ob·ject
(/əbˈʤɛkt/)
permit
per·mit
(/ˈpɜr.mɪt/)
per·mit
(/pərˈmɪt/)
record
rec·ord
(/ˈrɛk.ərd/)
re·cord
(/rəˈkɔrd/)
subject
sub·ject
(/ˈsʌb.ʤɛkt/)
sub·ject
(/səbˈʤɛkt/)

Word stress dictated by suffixes

While the stress in many words is very difficult to predict, certain suffixes and other word endings will reliably dictate where stress should be applied within the word, either on the suffix itself, one syllable before the suffix, or two syllables before the suffix. Other suffixes, however, don’t impact word stress at all. For example:
Stress is placed on the suffix
Stress is placed one syllable before the suffix
Stress is placed two syllables before the suffix
No change to stress
ab·sen·tee
(/ˌæb.sənˈti/)
en·gi·neer
(/ˌɛn.ʤɪˈnɪər/)
Jap·a·nese
(/ˌʤæp.əˈniz/)
car·di·ol·o·gy
(/ˌkɑr.diˈɑl.ə.ʤi/)
der·ma·to·sis
(/ˌdɜr.məˈtoʊ.sɪs/)
ad·van·ta·geous
(/ˌæd vənˈteɪ.ʤəs/)
my·ster·i·ous
(/mɪˈstɪr.i əs/)
bac·ter·i·a
(/bæk.ˈtɪər.i.ə/)
ed·i·tor·i·al
(/ˌɛd.ɪˈtɔr.i.əl/)
i·con·ic
(/aɪˈkɑn.ɪk/)
e·lec·tri·fy
(ˈlɛk.trəˌfaɪ/)
rec·i·proc·i·ty
(/ˌrɛs.əˈprɑs.ɪ.ti/)
ex·haus·tion
(/ɪgˈzɔs.tʃən/)
co·llab·o·rate
(/kəˈlæb.əˌreɪt/)
de·moc·ra·cy
(/dɪˈmɑk.rə.si/)
bib·li·og·ra·phy
(/ˌbɪb.liˈɑg.rə.fi/)
phi·los·o·phy
(/fɪˈlɑs.ə.fi/)
or·phan·age
(/ˈɔr.fə.nɪdʒ/)
car·too·nish
(/ˌkɑrˈtu.nɪʃ/)
par·ent·hood
(/ˈpɛər.əntˌhʊd/)
re·gard·less
(/rɪˈgɑrd.lɪs/)
to·geth·er·ness
(/təˈɡɛð.ər.nɪs/)
per·i·lous
(/ˈpɛr.ə.ləs/)

Sentence Stress

Sentence stress (also called prosodic stress) differs from the internal word stress placed on individual syllables, referring instead to the varying emphasis placed on certain words within a sentence.
In the most basic pattern, content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs) will always be stressed, while function words (pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, articles, determiners, and auxiliary verbs) will often be unstressed. The back-and-forth between these stressed and unstressed words creates the rhythm of a sentence. For example:
  • I have a favor to ask.”
  • Jonathan will be late because his car broke down.”
  • I’m going to the store later.”
  • We do not agree with the outcome.”
  • Please don’t tell me how the movie ends.”

Emphatic stress

English speakers often place additional emphasis on a specific word or words to provide clarity, emphasis, or contrast; doing so provides the listener with more information than the words can provide on their own. For example:
  • “I didn’t think that George was upset.” (No emphatic stress.)
  • I didn’t think that George was upset.” (Someone else might have thought George was upset.)
  • “I didn’t think that George was upset.” (It was only a guess that George wasn’t upset; alternatively, the statement may be a claim that one absolutely knew that George was upset, and was not merely guessing.)
  • “I didn’t think that George was upset.” (At the time, it seemed like George wasn’t upset at all.)
  • “I didn’t think that George was upset.” (It seemed like George was displaying a different emotion.)
Quiz

1. Which of the following traditional long vowels is not considered a diphthong?






2. Which of the following is another term for a diphthong?





3. When does the letter C not form the /k/ sound?





4. Which of the following sounds is not made by the letter S?






5. Which of the following is the most common silent letter?





6. What must a syllable contain?







7. What type of speech sound receives stress in a word?




8. Which type of word is typically stressed in a sentence?




Chapter Sub-sections

Get all volumes of The Farlex Grammar Book in paperback or eBook.
Share Tweet Share

Conversations