Here is a fun limerick. First, listen to how it sounds:
There once was a lady from Hyde
Who ate some green apples and died
The apples fermented
Inside the lamented
And made cider inside her insides
The fun part of this limerick is the last line, but it would not sound so interesting without sentence stress, reductions, and linking.
Listen again, while looking at the strong words:
There ONCE was a LAdy from HYDE
Who ATE some green APPLES and DIED
The APples ferMENted
InSIDE the laMENted
And made CIDer inSIDE her inSIDES
Here is why the last line sounds funny:
1. The three stressed syllables all have the same consonant and vowel sounds.
2. The word “her” is reduced — the “H” is missing, so it sounds like “-er”.
3. The word “inside” is linked to the word “her” (which is reduced) and sounds like “insider”, and this matches the sound of the word “cider”.
Now listen to how different it sounds if I say the last line with all of the words spoken carefully and clearly (without linking and reductions): And made cider inside her insides.
So, sentence stress can be fun! In fact, without it, many jokes and puns in English would not be funny at all.
A limerick is a special kind of rhyme that uses a specific rhythm pattern — and limericks usually tell a funny or silly story. Here is an example:
I knew a man whose name was Shaw.
He ate a rock and broke his jaw.
What do you think?
He said, with a wink.
Perhaps it’s bad to eat them raw.
The rhythm pattern of limericks makes special use of English sentence stress. Strong words fall on the beats — or places that you can clap — and weak words fall between them.
Now, I will repeat the limerick and clap the rhythm at the same time. The strong words are the ones with uppercase letters.
I KNEW a MAN whose NAME was SHAW.
He ATE a ROCK and BROKE his JAW.
WHAT do you THINK?
He SAID, with a WINK.
PerHAPS it’s BAD to EAT them RAW.
Can you hear how the strong words fall on the beats?
The weak words between the beats have to be spoken quickly to maintain the proper rhythm, so they often have reductions. The biggest reductions in this limerick happen with the words “do” and “you” in the third line. The vowels in those words are a very small quick schwa sound. (You may want to go back and listen to the limerick again, so that you can focus your ear on the reductions.)
Limericks are a great way to practice English sentence stress.
The rhythm of English sentences causes weak words to be reduced, but the amount of reduction varies according to formality. As a general rule, in more formal situations, there are less reductions, while in casual, or informal, conversations weak words tend to be more reduced.
As an example, I will say one sentence (I should have got a cup of tea.) three different times, with a different level of reduction each time.
Example 1:I should have got a cup of tea.
In this example, all of the words are spoken clearly, and it sounds more formal. The strong words are still more prominent, but this sentence does take a little bit more time to say because the weak words are fully pronounced.
Example 2:I should have got a cup of tea. (sounds like “I should’ve gotta cupuv tea.”)
This has a medium level of reductions — it is pronounced with a contraction, and the weak words are spoken more quickly, but are still fairly clear.
Example 3:I should have got a cup of tea. (“have”, “of” and “a” are all schwa)
This example has very strong reductions, and is very casual or informal. This is also quickest to say.
More formal types of speaking would include speeches, lectures, or news reports. The most informal conversations would include the way someone might talk with a best friend or a brother or sister.
Even among TV programs you can see a difference in the level of reductions, depending on the type of show. A documentary about science or history is spoken more formally, so there are fewer reductions. In contrast, a comedy show is more informal and would have a greater level of reductions.
Is it necessary to speak with reductions?
Not absolutely… If you pronounce every word carefully, articulating all of the sounds clearly, nobody will have trouble understanding the words that you say… BUT… your speaking may not sound smooth and natural. And remember, the level of reductions is related to the level of formality, so if you do not use any reductions, it could make you sound very formal and therefore less friendly, or perhaps even a little bit boring.
You do not need to become an expert at using extremely reduced words, but you should learn to speak with some basic reductions, so that your sentence stress can have a natural-sounding rhythm. You will sound more smooth, and be easier to listen to.
Of course, it is important to be aware of the more extreme reductions, so that you are able to understand native speakers who talk that way.
Two basic ways to make reductions.
1. Use schwa, or very small, quick vowel sounds in weak words.
2. Learn how to say and use common contractions. Some students have a habit of not saying contractions, even when they are reading aloud and see one that is written. It is normal to say a contraction that is written, so if you see “he’d” it is not necessary to say “he would”, and you don’t need to say “they have” when you see “they’ve”.
Remember, the main goal is to achieve a fairly natural rhythm to your English sentences, with strong words sounding more prominent, and weak words spoken quickly. And it is easier to say weak words quickly if you reduce the sounds a little bit.
The rhythm of English sentences, or sentence stress, causes weak words to be reduced. Reduced words have some of their sounds missing, so that they can be spoken more easily and quickly. However, this can make it really crazy for students of English –especially beginners– because sometimes some of the weak words end up sounding the same!!
The words “to”, “have”, “of” and “a” can all be pronounced as a schwa sound. Look at these examples:
“TO” — In the phrases “want to” and “going to”, the word “to” often ends up as just a schwa.
They want to take a break. (“want to” sounds like “wanna”) She’s going to call us later. (“going to” sounds like “gonna”)
“OF” — Sometimes the word “of” ends up as a schwa. This happens often in phrases such as “most of”, “lots of” and “out of”.
Most of the people are gone. (“most of” sounds like “mosta”) We have lots of food left. (“lots of” sounds like “lotsa”) I ran out of sugar. (“out of” sounds like “outta”)
“HAVE” — The word “have” can be a schwa, especially when it follows a modal verb.
You should have warned me. (“should have” sounds like “shoulda”) We could have taken the other road. (“could have” sounds like “coulda”) I would have given him a ride. (“would have” sounds like “woulda”) That must have been difficult. (“must have” sounds like “musta”) They might have been delayed. (“might have” sounds like “mighta”)
“A” — The word “a” is usually pronounced as a schwa.
Those cost 10 bucks a piece. I would like a small coffee.
Now here is a sentence, with 3 different words all pronounced as schwa!
I should have had a cup of tea.
The words “are”, “or” and “her” can all be reduced to just an “R” sound, plus they can end up sounding like a suffix such as “-er” or “-or”.
What are you doing? Do you prefer black or brown? (“black or” sounds like “blacker”) Don’t tell her yet! (“tell her” sounds like “teller”)
The words “and”, “an”, “in” and “on” can be reduced to schwa-plus-“N” or sometimes even just an “N”, plus they can end up sounding like the suffix “-en” or the prefix “un-“.
Let’s have ham and eggs. Take an umbrella just in case. (“take an” sounds like “taken”) It’s in real-time. (not: “It’s unreal time.”) Can it fit on less space? (not: “Can it fit unless space?”)
The words “is”, “as” and “his” can all be reduced to schwa-plus-“Z”.
That flower is real? It’s as good as gold. What’s his name?
The words “at” and “it” plus the suffix “-ed” often use a schwa and can end up sounding the same. Listen to how similar the following sentence pairs sound.
Look at the view! — Look it over. (“look at” sounds like “look it”) I want it to go. — I wanted to go. (“want it” sounds like “wanted”) They end at the lake. — They ended the round early. (“end at” sounds like “ended”)
Wow! Since there are words that can get confused with each other, you might wonder how anyone is able to communicate with English!
It can definitely be difficult for students of English, but the good news is that these strong reductions are not used all the time. The stronger reductions happen more often in informal conversations. In more formal speaking, such as, news reports, speeches, or even books for language learners, the weak words are usually less reduced, and easier to hear. In fact, this is true for the way I speak on this blog. Since I want it to be clear for students of any level, I speak a little more carefully than I would when I am having a casual conversation with a friend or family member. (Sentence Stress Part 6 — coming soon — discusses this more.)
Sentence stress is the combination of strong words and weak words in a sentence, which creates a sort of rhythm. Strong words, such as nouns and verbs, are spoken stronger and more clearly than weak words, such as articles, pronouns or prepositions. (See Sentence Stress Part 2)
Weak words are not usually pronounced very clearly because they are spoken quickly, and they get reduced. This means that part of their sound is missing. Reducing weak words makes it easier to say them quickly.
Here are some examples of weak words that are used every day, and are normally reduced.
Prepositions: to / for / at / then / from / on / with.
Pronouns: you / your / he / she / it / them / his / him / her.
Helping verbs and BE: can / do / have / am / are / is / been / will.
Others words: and / an / the / or / than.
Notice, however, that when I say these words as part of a list, I do not say them with reductions. The reductions happen when they are in a sentence.
The most common ways that weak words get reduced are the following.
The most basic kind of reduction is using a schwa sound instead of a clearly pronounced vowel. In these examples, the word in parentheses after the sentence is the word that has a schwa rather than a full vowel sound.
I love to read. (to) Look at this! (at) They took it already. (it) Do you like it? (do/you) What is that? (is) We need more than that. (than)
Sometimes a vowel is reduced so much, that it gets skipped completely. This is how some contractions are formed. In these sentences, the vowel of the weak word is missing.
He has to go. (to) Thanks for your help. (for/your) I’m almost finished. (am) It’s getting late. (is) We’re not ready yet. (are)
Another very common kind of reduction is skipping the “H” in these words: have / has / had / he / her / him / his. In these sentences, those words are weak and the “H” is missing.
They will call him later. We should have waited. Can her brother drive? I had hoped to finish sooner.
It is important to know that H-deletion is only for weak words. If one of these words is said with strong stress, the “H” does not get deleted. For example, if I say: “That’s his book not mine” the “H” in the word “his” is said clearly because the word is strong. Also, when the word “have” is a main verb, it does not get reduced, as in “We have two days left.”
Other skipped consonants
Besides “H”, there are a few other consonant sounds that regularly get skipped.
“F” in the word “of”: We have lots of time.
“V” in “have”: He should have told us.
“D” in “and”: Let’s stop and eat.
“W” in “will”: That’ll be fine.
Sentence Stress Part 5 shows how some frequently used weak words can be confused with each other, because they can sometimes sound the same!
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:
This means: some, but not too many; a small amount of something.
For example: I just need a few more minutes to finish.
This means: almost none; there are scarcely any to be found.
For example: Few people have ever seen the Amur leopard.
This means: some, but not too much; a small amount.
For example: Could I please have a little water?
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.
In English, some words are spoken more strongly and are easier to hear, and some words are spoken quickly, or weakly, and can be hard to hear clearly. This combination of weak words and strong words in a sentence, makes a kind of rhythm which is called sentence stress.
Here is a sentence to demonstrate: We have to put all the bags in the car now.
Now, I will say that same sentence without sentence stress (as best I can): We have to put all the bags in the car now. It doesn’t sound natural that way, even though I said all of the vowels and consonants correctly.
Normally, that sentence would have 3 strong words: “put”, “bags”, and “car”. Those words are clear and easy to hear. The other words are spoken quickly, and may be reduced, so that they can be said more easily. This is why “have to” sounds like “hafta”: We have to put all the bags in the car now.
This combination of weak and strong words, gives English a special kind of rhythm. Linguists call this “stress-timing.” Sometimes the strong words can form a series of beats that you can clap with: We have to put all the bags in the car now.
The basic rule of sentence stress, is that the strong words should be the ones that are the most important for the meaning of the conversation. Therefore, nouns and verbs are the primary strong words, and the foundation of sentence stress.