Few and little

This topic is a little bit more about grammar than pronunciation, but it is important because so many students are confused by it. There is one very small difference in grammar, which can make a big difference in meaning. It’s the word “a” when using the words “few” and “little”.

“Few” is not the same as “a few”, and “little” is not the same as “a little”. Here is what they do mean:

“a few”
This means: some, but not too many; a small amount of something.
For example: I just need a few more minutes to finish.

“few”
This means: almost none; there are scarcely any to be found.
For example: Few people have ever seen the Amur leopard.

“a little”
This means: some, but not too much; a small amount.
For example: Could I please have a little water?

“little”
This means: almost nothing, there is hardly any at all.
For example: They had little time to escape the burning house.

To help make the distinction even more clear, let’s compare two similar sentences. The following sentences are almost the same — the only difference is the word “a” — but the meanings are basically the opposite.

There are a few good reasons to visit that mountain.

This means that the mountain is a good place to visit. Perhaps there is unusually beautiful scenery, or some very interesting wildlife — so there are some good reasons to visit it.

There are few good reasons to visit that mountain.

This means that the mountain is not a place very many people would want to visit. Perhaps it is dangerous, or unusually difficult — so there are not many reasons to visit it.

Noticing the presence or absence of the word “a” can be difficult, because it is usually very small and hard to hear. Small words, such as “a” and “the” or prepositions, are normally weak in sentences because of sentence stress. Even though they can be hard to hear, they are still very important, and native speakers do notice when they are used or not used, so this is definitely something to watch out, or rather, listen for.

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Compound words

A compound word is a word that is made from two other words put together, for example, “lumber” plus “yard” = “lumberyard”. English has thousands of compound nouns, but there are also some compound adjectives, adverbs and verbs. Here are a few examples:

  • Adjective: childlike, postwar, secondhand, lifelike, monthlong, citywide, overanxious
  • Adverb: henceforth, anyway, overall, nonetheless (3 words!)
  • Verb: freelance, proofread, upgrade

Pronouncing compound words

The important thing to know about pronuncing compound words, is that you should follow the pronunciation and spelling patterns of the individual words. You should not try to apply spelling patterns to the whole compound word together. Here are some examples of errors that could happen if you try to say a compound as a single word rather than two words together:

Silent final -e
An [-e] at the ends of words is silent, but a silent [-e] can be found in the middle of a word, if it is part of a compound. For example “hedgehog” is the two words “hedge” plus “hog”. The [-e] at the end of “hedge” is still a silent final [-e]. So you should NOT say “hed-ge-hog”!

Y as a consonant
When the letter “Y” is in front of a vowel, it is a consonant. However, in a compound word such as “layout”, the “Y” is not a consonant, it is just part of the vowel of the first word “lay”. You should NOT say “la-yout”!

False digraphs
Normally, when the letters “T” and “H” are together, they work as a pair (diagraph) to represent the /th/ sound. However, in the middle of a compound such as “foothold”, it might look like there is a “TH”, but it is not. You should say “foot-hold” and NOT say “foo-thold”.

So, you need to keep your eye open for compound words, in order to pronounce them correctly. There are some compounds that are hyphenated (written with a dash mark), such as “mass-produced”, and those are easy to see, but a compound that is written as one word could trick your eyes.

There are only just a few compounds that have a pronunciation which is a little bit different from the original two words, such as “vineyard” and “breakfast”.

Don’t let your eyes be tricked — be on the lookout for compound words, and remember to use the spelling and pronunciation patterns of the individual words.

Sentence Stress Part 2

Sentence Stress is the combination of strong and weak words in a sentence which create a sort of rhythm. This rhythm is explained in Sentence Stress Part 1. But, which words are strong and which words are weak? Here are the categories with some examples.

Strong words

Nouns: book / capacity / Tom / melody / justice / group / chair / storm / potato
Main verbs: walk / think / sing / expect / prepare / wait / jump / remember / indicate
Adjectives: beautiful / green / small / angry / round / active / old / fresh / good / several
Some adverbs: quickly / never / always / often / usually / nervously / softly / carefully
Negatives: no / never / not / can’t / shouldn’t / doesn’t / won’t / isn’t / aren’t
Question words: who / what / when / where / why / how

Weak words

Auxiliary (helping) verbs: can / could / may / might / would / will / be / do / have
TO BE: am / is / are / was / were / be / been
Linking verbs: got / seem / feel / become / turn
Pronouns: I / me / my / you / he / him / his / she / it / they / them
Prepositions: in / on / under / over / by / for / with / from / at / through
Some adverbs (at ends of phrases): soon / now / yet / well / here / there / still
Conjunctions: and / but / if / either / because / nor / yet / for
Articles: the / a / an

These categories make the basic pattern and the foundation of sentence stress. However, sometimes a weak word gets used as a strong word, but a weak word should only be stressed when there is an appropriate reason to do so. Otherwise, it can cause some confusion in the conversation.

Examples of how weak words can become strong words are in Sentence Stress Part 3.

A final note: DO and HAVE

Are the verbs “do” and “have” main verbs, or helping verbs? The answer is: both.
Here are some examples to illustrate.

DO as a main verb: She will do it tomorrow.
DO as a helping verb: I do not like chocolate.
HAVE as a main verb: They have a new baby.
HAVE as a helping verb: We have finished early.

So, when “do” and “have” are main verbs, they are strongly stressed words, but when they are helping verbs, they should be weak words for normal sentence stress.