We’re where we were.

That sentence uses the words “where”, “were”, and “we’re” which sometimes get confused by learners of English. Those words are all pronounced differently, and it is important to say them correctly because they are frequently used words. Some students are not sure how to pronounce them, and perhaps some of the confusion comes from the words “there”, “they’re”, and “their” which are homonyms and do sound the same.

The homonyms “there”, “they’re”, and “their” are often tricky for native speakers of English when they write – it’s easy to use the wrong spelling since they sound the same. But native speakers are not confused when they hear these words, because they expect these words to have the same sound.

However, “where”, “were”, and “we’re” do not sound the same. Native speakers’ ears expect them to sound different, so it can cause miscommunication if you don’t say them correctly.

How to pronounce them.

WHERE – In this word, the “E” sounds more like “A” because of the influence of the “R”. This word is one syllable and it is a homonym with the words “ware” and “wear”.

WERE – In this word, the “R” sound is acting as the vowel (the “E” is has no sound), and it is one syllable.

WE’RE – This is a combination of the words “we” + “are”. Even though native speakers sometimes pronounce this the same as “were”, this word will be most clear if you pronounce it as two syllables, and keep the Long-E sound of the “E”┬áin “we”.

So now you can say: We’re where we were.

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.