Y and W

Are “Y” and “W” consonants or vowels? The answer is: both are both.

Step One: watch for compounds

When you see a ”Y” or a “W” in the middle of a word, first look to see if the word is a compound. Inside of a compound word, a “Y” or a “W” will keep the same function that it has in the original smaller word. For example, the word “anyone” is a compound made from the words “any” plus “one”, and since the “Y” is the last letter of the word “any”, it still is pronounced as a word-final “Y”.

Here are some other compounds that have a “Y” or “W”.
Y: barnyard / boyfriend / copyright / daybreak / everybody / ladybug / layout / maybe / paycheck / playground / schoolyard.
W: cowboy / crewcut / forward / network / northward / sawhorse / showtime / southwest / viewpoint.
Y and W: anyway / citywide / keyword

Y as a consonant

The letter “Y” functions as a consonant when it comes before a vowel. There are two situations where this could happen:

  • As the first letter of a word, for example: ”you”, “yes”, “yard” or ”year”.
  • Between two vowels, for example: “royal”, “layer”, “voyage” or “beyond”.

Y as a vowel

The letter “Y” functions as a vowel in three situations:

  • As the last letter of a word, for example: “sky”, “rely”, “tiny” or “easy”.
  • As part of a vowel pair, for example: “play”, “they”, “toy”, or “buy”.
  • Between two consonants, for example: “cycle”, “type”, “myth” or “system”.

W as a consonant

The letter “W” is a consonant when it is in front of a vowel. This can happen in three situations:

  • As the first letter of a word, for example: “water”, “we”, or “with.
  • As part of a consonant pair, for example: “sweep”, “twenty”, “when” or “which”.
  • Between two vowels, for example: “vowel”, “coward”, “allowance” or “lower”.

W as a vowel

A “W” acts as a vowel only when it is the second partner of a vowel pair, for example: “brown”, “show”, “hawk” or “few”.

EXCEPTIONS: There are a few cases of silent “W”, as in: “answer”, “two”, “who”, “whole”, “wrap” or “wrong”.

One final thing to be aware of, is that a “Y” can function as a vowel independently, as in “lynx” or “gym”. When “Y” is a vowel, it uses the same sounds and spelling patterns as the Vowel “I”. (see Sounds of I – coming soon). However, a “W” cannot be a vowel independently, but is only a vowel when it is the second member of a vowel pair, as in “grow”. When “W” does have a vowel sound, it uses the Long-U sound, as in “grew”.

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Ends of Words — A Special Trick

Consonant sounds at the ends of English words are difficult for many students, but it is definitely important to pronounce them well. This is explained in Ends of Words.

If you have difficulty pronouncing word-final consonants in English, here is a special trick that can make it easier: link the end of the word to the beginning of the next word.

Let’s use the sentence “He saved up his money”, for an example. 

In the phrase “saved up”, pronouncing the “-ed” can be tricky, and skipping this “-ed” is a fairly common mistake for students. But in normal conversation, the [d] at the end of “saved” links to the beginning of the word “up”, and it actually sounds like: “save-dup”.

This kind of linking is a normal part of English pronunciation, so it is a trick that makes you sound more natural, and moving the [d] sound to the beginning of the next word makes it easier to pronounce.

Linking can also help to avoid the problem of added vowel sounds. In “saved up” the [e] is silent, but some students have trouble saying the [v] next to the [d] without sticking a vowel sound in the middle. But that could cause a problem, because if the [e] is not silent, then it will end up sounding like “save it up” instead.

Even though linking can make pronunciation easier, it can sometimes make listening harder. Some students have asked me “Why do we have to say the last letter, if native speakers don’t?” They mistakenly think that native speakers skip the last letter, because they don’t hear it at the end of the word, since it is delayed until the beginning of the next word.

Linking a consonant to a vowel

When the second word starts with a vowel, it is easier to hear the linked consonant:
talked about:  “talk-dabout”
hard enough: “har-denough”
stops it: “stop-sit”
turned off: “turn-doff”

Linking a consonant to a consonant

When the second word starts with a consonant, the ending of the first word is harder to hear, so it may seem like it is missing. However, if it is actually removed, then it would sound different. For example, in the phrase “keep speaking”, you might think that the [p] is missing, but if I acutally take it away, then it would sound like I am saying “key speaking”!

Here are a few more examples:
“might buy” (not “my by”)
“teen center” (not “tee center”)
“seat cover” (not “sea cover”)
“home plate” (not “hoe plate”)

Listen for linking when you hear native English speakers. And give it try yourself. It can help you speak more clearly.

S vs. Z

When you see the letter “S” how do you know if you should pronounce it with an S-sound or a Z-sound? Knowing how to pronounce “S” can be tricky. The bad news is that there are no clear-cut rules, so you really need to learn to use your ear.

Pronouncing the sounds of S and Z

Some students have trouble hearing the difference and pronouncing the two sounds correctly. Both “S” and “Z” are made in the same place in the mouth, but the factor that distinguishes them is: voicing. For “S” the voice is off, so there is only the sound of air coming from the mouth: /s/. For “Z” there is also the sound of air, but the voice is on, so the vocal cords need to be making sound: /z/.

Pronouncing words spelled with S

Now, even if you have no trouble hearing and saying these two sounds, the spelling can leave you totally confused. English spelling does not always indicate which sound you should use.

Frequent Words

The first step is to make sure that you are pronouncing the everyday words correctly. Here are the words from the 1,000 most frequently used words of English in which the [s] is pronounced as /z/. You should definitely make sure that you are saying these words right:

is, was, as, his, these, has, isn’t, does, doesn’t, because, those, wasn’t, easy, whose, thousand, lose, cause, reason, present, raise, phrase, surprise, design, rise, choose, visit, observe, nose, rose, confuse.

However, not every word with an “S” has a Z-sound. In these words the sound is /s/:

this, its, also, us, answer, listen, pass, person, course, less, base, yes, beside, case, let’s, possible, else, itself, thus, sense, necessary, various.

What can make it seem even more confusing, is that there are sometimes differences in American and British English spellings, such as: realize/realise. These small variations in spelling do not confuse native speakers of English because they already know how the words should sound. You just need to be aware that even though the spelling looks different, the pronunciation is the same, so don’t let it confuse you.

Pronouncing Words with [-s] endings

The S and Z-sounds are also important in words that end with [-s]. The good news is, there is a clear pattern for this. The sound of an “S” at the end of a word needs to match the voicing of the sound just before it. Here are some examples to illustrate:

take — the last sound in this word /k/ is voiceless. So when an “S” is added, it matches the voicing of the “K” and is pronounced as /s/: takes

live — the last sound in this word /v/ is voiced. So when an “S” is added, it follows the voicing of the “V” and is pronounced as /z/: lives

pass — the last sound in this word is already /s/, so when “S” is added, a small vowel sound is used to separate them. And since all vowel sounds are voiced, the [-s] ending is pronounced as /z/: passes. 

So remember, keep your ears open and listen carefully so that you are not confused about pronouncing “S” and “Z”.

Voicing

Voicing is an important factor for pronouncing consonants correctly. There are some consonants that are spoken with the voice off (voiceless) and others that need to have the voice on (voiced).

Let’s compare T and D. These two sounds are almost the same, because they are both made in the same place in the mouth, and with the same part of the tongue. The only factor that makes them different is the voicing.

T is voiceless — that means it is pronounced with the voice turned off; the vocal cords do not vibrate or make any sound: “t”, “bat”, “time”.

D is voiced — that means is it pronounced with the voice turned on; the vocal cords vibrate and the sound of the voice is heard: “d”, “bad”, “dime”.

The voiced and voiceless consonants of English
In this list, the consonants in each pair are pronounced in the same place in the mouth, and differ only in the voicing. For each of these pairs the first is voiceless and the second is voiced.

T: t, fat, tore
D: d, fad, door

P: p, lap, pat
B: b, lab, bat

C & K: k, pick, come
G: g, pig, gum

F: f, safe, feel
V: v, save, veal

S & C: s, price, sip
Z: z, prize, zip

CH: ch, rich, choke
J & G: j, ridge, joke

TH voiceless: th, bath, thigh
TH voiced: th, bathe, thy

SH: sh, sure
SH voiced: zh, azure

Besides being able to pronounce these consonant sounds correctly, another reason why it is important to know about voicing, is to be able to pronounce the word endings [-s] and [-ed] correctly.
So pay attention to your voice!

The Sound of R

The American English R-sound is different from the R-sound of most languages in the world. Many students of English feel that it is more like a vowel than a consonant, and there is good reason for this. R is different from the other consonants of English because there is no point of contact – the tip of the tongue does touch the top of the mouth. The tongue is actually used in a vowel-like way to produce the R-sound.

How to make the R-sound

Different native speakers seem to make the R-sound in slightly different ways, so you may see different kinds of explanations in different ESL or pronunciation books. However, there are a few basic features that are always the same:
1. R is more similar to pronouncing a vowel than a consonant.
2. The tip of the tongue should NOT touch the roof of the mouth.
3. There is a lot of tension in the tongue.
4. The lips are slightly rounded.

So, here is how I coach students to make the R-sound:

Step 1. The tongue should start out low in the mouth, like saying “ah”
Step 2. While keeping the tongue down, pull the front part of the tongue back a bit. The tongue should be quite tense, tightly contracted. (But try to keep your jaw relaxed!)
Step 3. Also round the lips a little bit – about half as much as for the O-sound.

Some other points:
If the sides of your tongue touch the back upper teeth – that’s ok.
Or, if the tip of your tongue seems to be turned back – that’s also ok.

Have fun with R!

The Power of R

R is an unusual letter. Normally it is a consonant. Sometimes it acts as a vowel. But something even more amazing is that it sometimes has the power to change the sound of a vowel in front of it.

R AS A CONSONANT

In words such as “run”, “carrot” or “free” R is a consonant.

R AS A VOWEL

In some words, the R takes the place of the vowel. That is, the vowel before the R becomes silent, because the R dominates — it takes away, or covers up the vowel sound.

Here are some examples: earth, chirp, curve, govern, her, iceberg, term, third, shirt, surf, verse, work, worst. This is a short list of examples — there are quite a few words like this.

The loss of the vowel sound also happens with -er and -or at the ends of words, as in “other” and “actor”.

R POWER

R can sometimes change the sound of a vowel, instead of covering it up.

A changing to O
This happens when an “a” is trapped between a “w” or “u” and an “r”. For example, the word “war” sounds like the word “wore” — they are homonyms. “Warn” and “worn” are also homonyms. However, “warm” and “worm” do not sound the same, because “worm” has R as a vowel.

Other words in which the “a” sounds like “o” are: award, dwarf, quart, quarter, quartz, thwart, ward, warm, warp, wart, wharf.

Why does this happen? The “w” or “u” sound and the American “r” sound are all made with rounded lips. So an “a” trapped between these sounds also gets pronounced with rounded lips — native speakers don’t unround their lips just for the “a” in between. An “a” with rounded lips ends up sounding like “o”.

E changing to A
This happens in a few words that have an “e” before an “r”. To make an “r” sound, the tongue needs to be very tense, and this tension affects the “e”, making it sound more like an “a”.

Here are some common words:
there
where (this is a homonym with “ware”)
merry (this is a homonym with “marry”)
very (this is a homonym with “vary”)

So, two good things to keep in mind when dealing with R are: First, don’t be surprised if you find some words that are pronounced with an unexpected vowel sound when R follows. Second, listen closely when R is involved, so that you can hear how to pronounce those words correctly.

Ends of Words

Another common problem is saying the ends of words clearly. I have seen a lot of students who skip the last letters of words, and it seems that many of them are not aware that they are doing that.

In English, most words end with a consonant sound, AND the majority of words that do have a vowel sound last are frequently used words such as “to” “do” “the” “you” “he” or have an ending such as “-ly” or “-y”. (Remember: for most words that are spelled with an “e” at the end, the “e” is silent in pronunciation.)

This is different from many other languages. There are many languages that do not have consonants at the ends of words (or they only use a limited set of consonant sounds). If your mouth is not accustomed to making a clear or strong consonant sound at the ends of words, it can be difficult to learn to do this in English.

Why it is important to pronounce the last letters of words clearly:
1. Skipping sounds can make you very difficult to understand in general.
2. In some cases, it can give you a “baby talk” kind of sound.
3. In many short words, it can cause some funny or confusing mix-ups.

Here is an example of a mix-up:
If you say the word “flute” but you skip the “t” sound (or say it too weakly), then it can sound like the word “flu”. So instead of saying “He is taking flute lessons” it could sound like you said “He is taking flu lessons”!!

A few examples of possible mix-ups:
“wait” could sound like –> “way”
shoot –> shoe
house –> how
might –> my
make –> may
bike / bite –> buy (or by)
type / tight –> tie
plane / plate –> play
mean / meat –> me
hide –> high
life / like / light / line –> lie
lake –> lay
seek / seat –> see (or sea)

How to Practice
In general, the best is advice is to try to exaggerate the last consonant of words (say it a little bit too strong). I have often noticed that when students feel that they are saying a final consonant very strongly, it actually sounds just right (or is even still a little bit too weak)!

It might feel awkward for you, but that awkward feeling is often a sign that you are doing good. If your mouth always feels “normal” to you when you say something in English, then you are probably using the muscle patterns that are normal for your native language.