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. First, let’s go over the letter Z, and then we’ll look at other letters that can form this sound.

Forming the /z/ sound with Z

The letter Z (pronounced “zee,” IPA: /zi/, in American English and “zed,” IPA: /zɛd/, in British English) almost always produces the same consonant sound, transcribed in IPA as /z/. It is formed the same way as the sound /s/—by forcing air between the tongue and the roof of the mouth and out past the teeth—except that the vocal cords are vibrated to create sound, making /z/ a voiced speech sound.

In the middle of a word

Z most often appears in the middle of a word after a vowel. For example:
  • amazing (/əˈmeɪzɪŋ/)
  • Amazon (/ˈæməˌzɑn/)
  • bizarre (/bəˈzɑr/)
  • breeze (/briz/)
  • brazen (/ˈbreɪzən/)
  • citizen (/ˈsɪtəzən/)
  • emblazon (/ɛmˈbleɪzən/)
  • freezing (/frizɪŋ/)
  • size (/saɪz/)
Z also usually maintains the /z/ pronunciation if it is doubled in the middle of a word, as in:
  • blizzard (/ˈblɪzərd/)
  • dazzle (/ˈdæzəl/)
  • fuzzy (/ˈfʌzi/)
  • muzzle (/ˈmʌzəl/)
  • nozzle (/ˈnɑzəl/)
  • tizzy (/ˈtɪzi/)

When ZZ is pronounced /ts/

In a few Italian loan words, ZZ has the same pronunciation as the consonant cluster TZ, /ts/ (as in pretzel, quartz, waltz, etc.). For example:
  • mezzo (/ˈmɛtsoʊ/)
  • mozzarella (/ˌmɑtsəˈrɛlə/)
  • paparazzi (/ˌpɑpəˈrɑtsi/)
  • pizza (/ˈpitsə/)

Z in other positions

Z can appear at the beginning or end of a word, but this is much less common. If it does end the word, it is usually (but not always) doubled. For instance:
  • zig (/zɪg/)
  • zag (/zæg/)
  • zeal (/zil/)
  • zucchini (/zuˈkini/)
  • buzz (/bʌz/)
  • fizz (/fɪz/)
  • jazz (/jæz/)
  • topaz (/ˈtoʊˌpæz/)
Z can also appear after the letter T at the end of some words, but its pronunciation changes (which we’ll look at a little later).

“-ize” and “-ization”

Perhaps the most common use of Z is in the suffix “-ize” (which indicates a verb formed from a noun or adjective) and its derivative “-ization” (which indicates a noun formed from such a verb).* For example:
IZE
IZATION
realize
(/ˈriəˌlz/)
specialize
(/ˈspɛʃəˌlz/)
visualize
(/ˈvɪʒwəˌlz/)
realization
(/ˈriələˈzeɪʃən/)
specialization
(/ˌspɛʃələˈzeɪʃən/)
visualization
(/ˌvɪʒwələˈzeɪʃən/)
In British English, these suffixes are more commonly spelled “-ise” and “-isation,” with the same pronunciation. There are a few words that are spelled this way in American English, though, which we’ll look at further on.

Forming the /z/ sound with S

S only produces the /z/ sound when it appears in the middle or at the end of certain words. We’ll briefly go over examples of these here, but there is more detail in the section on Pronouncing the Letter S.

In the middle of words

When S appears in the middle of a word, it can sometimes produce the /z/ sound if it comes between two vowels. For example:
  • acquisition (/ˌækwəˈzɪʃən/)
  • busy (/ˈbɪzi/)
  • cousin (/ˈkʌzən/)
  • desert (n. /ˈdɛzərt/)
  • easy (/ˈizi/)
  • incisor (/ɪnˈsaɪzər/)
  • liaison (/liˈeɪzən/)
  • music (/ˈmjuzɪk/)
  • poison (/ˈpɔɪzən/)
  • present (adj. /ˈprɛzənt/)
  • president (/ˈprɛzɪdənt/)
  • prison (/ˈprɪzən/)
  • reason (/ˈrizən/)
  • visit (/ˈvɪzɪt/)
Unfortunately, this is not a reliable convention, and it can be pronounced /s/ in many other words.

At the end of words

Forming plurals, possessives, and the third-person singular

We use the suffix “-s” to create plurals of nouns and to inflect verbs for third-person singular subjects, and we use “-’s” to indicate possession for most nouns. When either of these endings comes after the consonant sounds /f/, /k/, /p/, /t/, and /θ/, they will produce the /s/ sound; after any other consonant or vowel sounds, “-s” or “-’s” (or “-es”) is pronounced /-z/.
For example:
Pronounced /s/
Pronounced /z/
antics
(/ˈæntɪks/)
bishop’s
(/ˈbɪʃəps/)
creates
(/kriˈeɪts/)
Derrick’s
(/ˈdɛrɪks/)
engulfs
(/ɛnˈgʌlfs/)
gets
(/gɛts/)
kicks
(/kɪks/)
laughs
(/læfs/)
monoliths
(/ˈmɑnəlɪθs/)
Pat’s
(/pæts/)
traps
(/træps/)
unearths
(/ʌnˈɜrθs/)
ages
(/ˈeɪdʒɪz/)
bathes
(/beɪðz/)
buzzes
(/ˈbʌzɪz/)
coach’s
(/koʊtʃɪz/)
duties
(/dutiz/)
frogs
(/frɑgz/)
Georgina’s
(/ˌʤɔrˈʤinəz/)
holds
(/hoʊtldz/)
judges
(/ˈdʒʌdʒɪz/)
marshes
(/mɑrʃɪz/)
numerals
(/ˈnumərəlz/)
Peter’s
(/pitərz/)
qualms
(/kwɑmz/)
runs
(/rʌnz/)
serves
(/sɜrvz/)
watches
(/wɑʧɪz/)
Note that some nouns ending in “-f” or “-fe” change their spelling to “-ves” when becoming plural, and the pronunciation of the S changes accordingly:
  • half (/hæf/)→halves (/hævz/)
  • knife (/naɪf/)→knives (/naɪvz/)
  • life (/laɪf/)→lives (/laɪvz/)
  • loaf (/loʊf/)→loaves (/loʊvz/)
  • shelf (/ʃɛlf/)→shelves (/ʃɛlvz/)
  • thief (/θif/)→thieves (/θivz/)
The pluralization of several nouns ending in “-th” produces a similar effect. While the spelling doesn’t change at all, the pronunciation changes from /θ/ to /ðz/. For example:
  • booth (/buθ/)→booths (/buðz/)
  • mouth (/maʊθ/)→mouths (/maʊðz/)
  • oath (/oʊθ/)→oaths (/oʊðz/)
  • path (/pæθ/)→paths (/pæðz/)
  • truth (/truθ/)→truths (/truðz/)
  • wreath (/riθ/)→wreaths (/riðz/)

Words ending “-sm”

One instance in which S is always pronounced /z/ is when the letter combination SM appears at the end of a word (most often as a part of the suffix “-ism”), in which case a reduced vowel sound (the schwa, /ə/) is pronounced between S and M. For example:
  • activism (/ˈæktɪˌvɪzəm/)
  • baptism (/ˈbæptɪzəm/)
  • chasm (/ˈkæzəm/)
  • humanism (/ˈhjuməˌnɪzəm/)
  • materialism (/məˈtɪriəˌlɪzəm/)
  • nationalism (/ˈnæʃənəˌlɪzəm/)
  • organism (/ˈɔrgəˌnɪzəm/)
  • phantasm (/ˌfænˈtæzəm/)
  • sarcasm (/ˈsɑrˌkæzəm/)
  • spiritualism (/ˈspɪrɪʧəwəlɪzəm/)

Vowel + -se

If a word ends in “-se” preceded by a vowel, the S will often form the /z/ sound. For example:
  • appease (/əˈpiz/)
  • browse (/braʊz/)
  • bruise (/bruz/)
  • cause (/kɔz/)
  • cheese (/ʧiz/)
  • choose (/ʧuz/)
  • these (/ðiz/)
  • espouse (/ɪˈspaʊz/)
  • phase (/feɪz/)
  • praise (/preɪz/)
  • rose (/roʊz/)
  • wise (/waɪz/)
Unfortunately, this is not a very reliable convention. In fact, several pairs of words have the exact same vowel + “-se” spelling, but have different pronunciations. For instance:
Pronounced /s/
Pronounced /z/
case
(/keɪs/)
phrase
(/freɪz/)
dose
(/doʊs/)
nose
(/noʊz/)
geese
(/gis/)
cheese
(/ʧiz/)
moose
(/mus/)
choose
(/ʧuz/)
mouse
(/maʊs/)
carouse
(/kəˈraʊz/)
grease
(/gris/)
ease
(/iz/)
obese
(/oʊˈbis/)
Chinese
(/ʧaɪˈniz/)
premise
(/ˈprɛmɪs/)
demise
(/dɪˈmaɪz/)
There are also a few pairs of words that have the same spelling, but whose pronunciation changes depending on meaning. For example:
Pronounced /s/
Pronounced /z/
abuse (noun)
(/əˈbjus/)
abuse (verb)
(/əˈbjuz/)
close (adjective)
(/kloʊs/)
close (verb)
(/kloʊz/)
diffuse (adjective)
(/dɪˈfjus/)
diffuse (verb)
(/dɪˈfjuz/)
excuse (noun)
(/ɪkˈskjus/)
excuse (verb)
(/ɪkˈskjuz/)
house (noun)
(/haʊs/)
house (verb)
(/haʊz/)
use (noun)
(/jus/)
use (verb)
(/juz/)
One specific ending that will reliably produce the /z/ sound is the suffix “-ise” when it is used to form verbs. In American English, these are much more commonly represented by “-ize” instead, but there are a few words that must be spelled “-ise.” This is because, rather than attaching to an existing base word to form a verb, this ending is part of the word’s etymological origin. For example:
  • advertise (/ˈædvərˌtaɪz/)
  • advise (/ædˈvaɪz/)
  • chastise (/tʃæsˈtaɪz/)
  • compromise (/ˈkɑmprəˌmaɪz/)
  • despise (/dɪˈspaɪz/)
  • devise (/dɪˈvaɪz/)
  • disguise (/dɪsˈgaɪz/)
  • excise (/ɪkˈsaɪz/)
  • exercise (/ˈɛksərˌsaɪz/)
  • improvise (/ˈɪmprəˌvaɪz/)
  • incise (/ɪnˈsaɪz/)
  • revise (/rɪˈvaɪz/)
  • supervise (/ˈsupərˌvaɪz/)
  • surmise (/sərˈmaɪz/)
  • surprise (/sərˈpraɪz/)
  • televise (/ˈtɛləˌvaɪz/)
One exception to this is the verb promise, which is pronounced /ˈprɑmɪs/.

Forming the /z/ sound with SS

While the consonant digraph SS most often forms the /s/ sound, it can occasionally form the /z/ sound in certain words in which it appears between two vowels. There are only a few words in which this is the case:
  • brassiere (/brəˈz/ɪər/)
  • dessert (/dɪˈz/ɜrt/)
  • dissolve (/dɪˈz/ɑlv/)
  • Missouri (/məˈz/ʊri/)
  • possess (/pəˈz/ɛs/; note that the second ss is pronounced /s/)
  • scissors (/ˈsɪz/ərz/)
For all other words, SS between vowels will make the /s/ sound (as in assess, /əˈsɛs/) or the /ʃ/ sound (as in session, /ˈsɛʃən/).

Forming the /z/ sound with X

The letter X most often forms a blend of two unvoiced consonant sounds: /k/ and /s/. 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 of the sounds /g/ and /z/. For instance:
  • Alexander (/ˌælɪzændər/)
  • example (zæmpəl/)
  • exact (zækt/)
  • exaggerate (zædʒ əˌreɪt)
  • executive (zɛkjətɪv/)
  • exist (zɪst/)
  • exude (zud/)
  • exotic (zɑtɪk/)
  • exhaust (zɑst/)
  • exhibit (zɪbɪt/)
(Note that the H is silent in the last two of these examples.)
There is also another word in which x has this pronunciation but does not come after an E: auxiliary (zɪləri/).
Finally, 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/)
Quiz

1. In which of the following words is ZZ not pronounced /z/?





2. When is S pronounced /z/ when it is used to form plurals, possessives, and the third-person singular?





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





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





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