Tricky Consonant Sounds  

Many consonants have a one-to-one relationship with the sounds they make—that is, a certain consonant letter will generally make the same consonant sound no matter where it appears 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, which is what we’ll focus on in this section. We’ll also take a close look at the letter S, as it can produce a wide range of speech sounds.

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.

Formed from the letter C

C most often produces the hard /k/ sound when it come before the vowels A, O, and U; when it is followed by the consonants L, R, and T; or when it is the last letter of a word with two or more syllables. For example:
  • decade (/ˈdɛkeɪd/)
  • cover (vər/)
  • focus (/ˈfoʊs/)
  • declare (/dɪˈklɛr/)
  • create (/kriˈeɪt/)
  • act (kt/)
  • basic (/ˈbeɪsɪk/)

Formed from the letter K

As a single letter, K is most often used to form the /k/ sound when it is followed by the vowels E, I, or Y, or at the end of one-syllable words when preceded by another consonant or a vowel digraph. For example:
  • kennel (/ˈkɛnəl/)
  • kick (/k/)
  • ask (/æsk/)
  • oak (/oʊk/)
  • risky (/ˈrɪski/)

Formed from the letter X

While the letter X does commonly create the /k/ sound, it does so in combination with the sibilant speech sounds /s/ and /ʃ/, which are pronounced much more distinctly than /k/.
X forms the /ks/ sound when it appears at the end of a word, after a consonant, or between two vowels (if the first one is stressed in the word). For example:
  • box (/bɑks/)
  • expert (/ˈɛkspərt/)
  • fix (/fɪks/)
  • galaxy (/ˈgæləksi/)
  • phoenix (/ˈfinɪks/)
  • toxic (/ˈtɑksɪk/)
The much less common /kʃ/ sound occurs when X is followed by the suffixes “-ious,” “-ion,” and “-ual.” For instance:
  • anxious (/ˈæŋəs/)
  • noxious (/ˈnɑəs/)
  • obnoxious (/əbˈnɑəs/)
  • complexion (/kəmˈpɛən/)
  • sexual (/ˈsɛkʃuəl/)

Formed from the digraph CC

We can also form the /k/ sound with the digraph CC following most of the same rules for “hard C” that we’ve seen already—that is, CC will produce the /k/ sound when it is followed by A, O, U, L or R. (No words are spelled CCT.)
  • occasion (/əˈkeɪʒən/)
  • accomplish (/əˈmplɪʃ/)
  • accuse (/əˈkjuz/)
  • acclaim (/əˈkleɪm/)
  • accrue (/əˈkru/)
CC also creates the /ks/ sound when it is followed by E, I, or, in one case, Y:
  • accident (/ˈæksɪdənt/)
  • accent (/ˈæksɛnt/)
  • coccyx (/ˈkɑksɪks/)

Formed from the digraph CK

While K is used on its own to form the /k/ sound at the ends of words when it comes after vowel digraphs or other consonants, the consonant digraph CK is used when the /k/ sound is at the end of single-syllable words following a short vowel sound.
For example:
  • back (/bæk/)
  • check (/tʃɛk/)
  • stick (/stɪk/)
  • rock (/rɑk/)
  • puck (/pʌk/)
In multi-syllable words, it more often appears in the middle when it is followed by ET, LE, or, less commonly, O.
For example:
  • bracket (/ˈbrækɪt/)
  • cackle (/ˈkækəl/)
  • beckon (/ˈbɛn/)

Formed from the letter Q

Other than in certain foreign loanwords, the consonant Q is always followed by the letter U, and the two letters together usually form the sound /kw/. If the sound /kw/ occurs within a single syllable, and the word is not a compound, it will almost always be spelled QU. For example:
  • equipment (ˈkwɪpmənt/)
  • inquire (/ɪnˈkwaɪər/)
  • quiet (/ˈkwaɪət/)
  • quick (/kwɪk/)
  • request (/rɪˈkwɛst/)
  • squeeze (/skwiz/)
Less commonly, QU simply forms a hard /k/ sound. This can occur when QU is followed by a silent E at the end of a word, or when it is followed by a vowel + R or T in the middle of a word. For example:
  • antique (/ænˈtik/)
  • boutique (/buˈtik/)
  • critique (/krɪˈtik/)
  • grotesque (/groʊˈtɛsk/)
  • technique (/tɛkˈnik/)
  • unique (/juˈnik/)
  • bouquet (/buˈkeɪ/; T is silent)
  • conquer (/ˈkɑŋkər/)
  • etiquette (/ˈɛtɪkɪt/)
  • lacquer (/ˈlækər/)
  • mosquito (/məsˈkitoʊ/)
  • tourniquet (/ˈtɜrnɪkɪt/)

Forming the /z/ Sound

The consonant sound /z/ is most often associated with the consonant letter Z, because the correlation between the sound and that letter is very reliable. However, there are a few other letters (and combinations of letters) that can also result in the /z/ sound.

Formed from the letter Z

Z most often appears in the middle of a word after a vowel, but it can also appear at the beginning or (less commonly) end of a word. For example:
  • bizarre (/bəˈzɑr/)
  • brazen (/ˈbreɪzən/)
  • citizen (/ˈsɪtəzən/)
  • zig (/zɪg/)
  • zag (/zæg/)
  • topaz (/ˈtoʊˌpæz/)
Z also usually maintains the /z/ pronunciation if it is doubled in the middle or at the end of a word, as in:
  • blizzard (/ˈblɪzərd/)
  • dazzle (/ˈdæzəl/)
  • fuzzy (/ˈfʌzi/)
  • buzz (/bʌz/)
  • fizz (/fɪz/)
  • jazz (/jæz/)

Formed from the letter S

S only produces the /z/ sound when it appears in the middle or at the end of certain words. Unfortunately, there are no reliable spelling cues to indicate when S is pronounced /z/ rather than /s/ in this position, so we just have to memorize such words or check a dictionary. For example:
  • acquisition (/ˌækwəˈzɪʃən/)
  • cousin (/ˈkʌzən/)
  • liaison (/liˈeɪzən/)
  • president (/ˈprɛzɪdənt/)
  • visit (/ˈvɪzɪt/)
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/)
At the end of a word, S will be pronounced /z/ if it follows any vowel sound or any consonant sound other than /f/, /k/, /p/, /t/, and /θ/.
  • has (/hæz/)
  • was (/wʌz/)
  • his (/hɪz/)
  • she’s (/ʃiz/)
  • qualms (/kwɑmz/)
  • runs (/rʌnz/)
  • serves (/sɜrvz/)
  • ages (/ˈeɪdʒɪz/)
  • halves (/hævz//)
There are also a handful of words in which the consonant digraph SS forms the /z/ sound (as opposed to its usual /s/ sound) when it appears between two vowels:
  • brassiere (/brəˈzɪər/)
  • dessert (/dɪˈzɜrt/)
  • dissolve (/dɪˈzɑlv/)
  • Missouri (/məˈzʊri/)
  • possess (/pəˈzɛs/; note that the second SS is pronounced /s/)
  • scissors (/ˈsɪzərz/)

Formed with the letter X

The letter X almost always forms a blend of consonant sounds. Most of the time, it is the blend /ks/, as in tax (/tæks/). However, when it appears immediately before a stressed vowel sound (and almost always after the letter E) at the beginning of a word, it becomes voiced as the combination /gz/. For instance:
  • example (gˈzæmpəl/)
  • exaggerate (gˈzædʒ əˌreɪt)
  • exist (gˈzɪst/)
  • exhaust (gˈzɑst/)
  • exhibit (gˈzɪbɪt/)
(Note that the H is silent in the last two of these examples.)
There are also a few words in which X only forms the /z/ sound, though most of these are not common in everyday speech and writing. For example:
  • xanthan (zænθən/)
  • xenolith (zɛnəlɪθ/)
  • xerography (/zɪˈrɑgrəfi/)
  • xylophone (zaɪləˌfoʊn/)

Forming the /ʒ/ Sound

Unlike most consonant sounds, the sound /ʒ/ does not have a specific letter or digraph commonly associated with it. Instead, the /ʒ/ sound occurs when various consonants appear next to or between certain vowels.

Formed with the letter S

The most common consonant that forms the /ʒ/ sound is S when it is followed by a specific suffix and (usually) preceded by a vowel. For example:
Vowel + S + “-ion”
Vowel + S + “-ure”
Vowel + S + “-ia”
Vowel + S + “-ual”
invasion
(/ɪnˈvʒən/)
cohesion
(/koʊˈhiʒən/)
decision
(/dɪˈsɪʒən/)
explosion
(/ɪkˈsplʒən/)
inclusion
(/ɪnˈkluʒən/)
closure
(/ˈklʒər/)
composure
(/kəmˈpʒər/)
exposure
(/ɪkˈspʒər/)
leisure
(/ˈliʒər/)
measure
(/ˈmɛʒər/)
ambrosia
(/æmˈbrʒə/)
amnesia
(/æmˈniʒə/)
dysplasia
(/dɪsˈplʒə/)
fantasia
(/fænˈtʒə/)
casual
(/ˈkæʒuəl/)
usual
(juʒuəl/)
visual
(/ˈvɪʒuəl/)

Formed from the letter G

The letter G takes a “soft” pronunciation when it appears after a vowel and immediately before an E, I, or Y. While /ʤ/ is the most common speech sound used for a soft G, the /ʒ/ sound is formed in some French loanwords ending in GE. For example:
  • beige (/bʒ/)
  • camouflage (/ˈkæməˌflɑʒ/)
  • garage (/gəˈrɑʒ/)
  • massage (/məˈsɑʒ/)
  • rouge (/ruʒ/)

Formed from the letter 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/)

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/, made by forcing air between the tongue and roof of the mouth and out past the teeth without engaging the vocal cords. As we saw previously, S also commonly represents this sound’s voiced counterpart, /z/, formed the same way but with the vocal cords engaged.
Which pronunciation the letter forms is much easier to determine when it appears at the beginning or end of a word.

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, both of which begin with the /ʃ/ sound (the sound associated with the consonant digraph SH).

At the end of a word

Suffixes, contractions, and possessives

When the suffixes “-s,” “-es,” or “-’s” are added to a word to form a plural, the grammatical third person, a contraction, or a possessive, then we can determine how it will be pronounced by looking at the speech sound immediately before it.
S is always pronounced /s/ when 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/)
If 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/)

Words ending in a single S

When a word ends naturally in a single S (that is, it is not a suffix), it usually tends to be the unvoiced /s/ pronunciation. However, there are a few words that are pronounced /z/ instead, with no indication from the spelling alone. For example:
Pronounced /s/
Pronounced /z/
atlas
(/ˈætləs/)
bus
(/bʌs/)
circus
(/ˈsɜrkəs/)
diagnosis
(/ˌdaɪəgˈnoʊsəs/)
gas
(/gæs/)
plus
(/plʌs/)
this
(ɪs/)
yes
(/jɛs/)
as
(z/)
has
(/hæz/)
his
(/hɪz/)
is
(z/)
was
(/wʌz/)

Words ending in SS

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 “-se” comes after a vowel sound, it is much trickier to predict. Unfortunately, the only time we can be sure of S’s pronunciation is when a word has the same spelling but has two pronunciations, one for a noun (or adjective) and one for a verb. When this is the case, the noun form will be pronounced with a final /s/, while the verb form will be pronounced with a final /z/. Otherwise, there is no clear pattern to when “-se” will be pronounced /s/ or /z/.
For example:
Pronounced /s/
Pronounced /z/
abuse
(noun: /əˈbjus/)
cease
(/sis/)
close
(adj.: /kls/)
concise
(/kənˈss/)
diagnose
(/ˌdaɪəgˈns/)
excuse
(noun: /ɪˈkskjus/)
goose
(/gus/)
house
(noun: /hs/)
loose
(/lus/)
louse
(/ls/)
mouse
(/ms/)
refuse
(noun: /ˈrɛˌfjus/)
use
(noun: /jus/)
abuse
(verb: /əˈbjuz/)
appease
(/əˈpiz/)
cheese
(iz/)
choose
(uz/)
close
(verb: /klz/)
demise
(/dɪˈmz/)
excuse
(verb: /ɪˈkskjuz/)
house
(verb: /hz/)
please
(/pliz/)
refuse
(verb: /rɪˈfjuz/)
those
(z/)
use
(verb: /juz/)
wise
(/wz/)

In the middle of a word

The conventions and patterns for how to pronounce S in the middle of a word are too varied and extensive to summarize here, but you can continue on to the section Pronouncing the Letter S to learn more.

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/)
Quiz

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





2. The combination QU most often forms which of the following speech sounds?





3. In which of the following word endings is S always pronounced /z/?





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






5. In which of the following words does X produce the /z/ sound?





6. Which of the following consonant digraphs is associated with the /ʒ/ speech sound?





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