Long-O vs. Short-o

One very common pronunciation mistake is using the Long-O sound in every word that has the letter “O”. However, the “O” regularly uses three different sounds, so if you always use Long-O, it can definitely cause confusion or just make it harder for people to understand you.

Here are a few examples of words that could be confused:
“on” — this word has Short-o, but if you say it with Long-O, then you end up saying “own”
“long” — this has Short-o, but if you use Long-O, it will be unclear whether you are trying to say “long” or “lone”
“come” — this word has Alternate-Short-o, but if you say it with Long-O, then you will say “comb”

TRY IT!

Here are some good words to practice with. In each of these pairs, the first word has Long-O and the second word has Short-o, so they can definitely be confused if you use the wrong vowel sound. Remember, for Short-o, the lips should not be rounded.

clothe – cloth
cloak – clock
coast – cost
coat – cot
coma – comma
goat – got
hope – hop
Joan – John
note – not
owed/ode – odd
soak – sock

The Sounds of O

I have found that 80% to 90% of students do not know that the English letter “O” has more than one sound! The letter “O” regularly uses three different sounds, but a lot of students pronounce many words wrong because they use just one “O” sound all the time.

The basic sounds are: Long-O, Short-o, and Short-o-2.

Long-O

This is the “universal” or “normal” sound for “O” – the sound with rounded lips (most languages use this sound). Some common words with this sound are: go / home / show / short / know / open / low / over / no / most / for / only.

Short-o

This is the normal Short-o sound, and it is actually the same sound as Short-a-2 (as in “mama”). Some common words that have Short-o are: not / gone / coffee / copy / hot / wrong / lot / long / off / on / stop / song.

To pronounce Short-o clearly, the lips should NOT be rounded and the mouth should be open with the tongue low and relaxed.

Short-o-2 (Alternate-Short-o)

Short-o-2 can be thought of as the Alternate-Short-o, and it borrows the sound of Short-u. There are quite a few words with this sound. A few examples are: son / won / from / done / come / some / love / above / nothing / tongue / of / oven / brother / money / month.

To pronounce this sound clearly, the lips should NOT be rounded, the tongue should be very relaxed in the middle of the mouth, and the mouth is less open than for regular Short-o. (See Boss or bus?)

Schwa

Besides the basic sounds, any vowel letter can use the schwa sound in unstressed syllables. However, Short-o-2 and the schwa sound are actually the same (schwa and Short-u are made in the same place in the mouth). So even though we could say the the letter “O” has four sounds, in reality there are only three distinct sounds that you need to make.

Some examples of words with an “O” in an unstressed syllable are: second / complete / contain / observe / produce / melody.

Some tricky cases

  • There is a handful of frequently used words that do not have one of the three basic “O” sounds: do / to / two / shoe / who / whom / whose / lose / move / prove. These all use a Long-U sound.
  • The words “one” and “once” are unusual. The “O” in these words uses Short-o-2, but there is also a “W” sound at the beginning, so “one” is actually a homonym with the word “won”.
  • There are three other words that are very unusual. The “O” in “woman” and “wolf” uses the Short-oo sound, and the “O” in “women” is pronounced with a Short-i sound! The good news is that spellings that are this crazy are rare.
  • Also, remember to watch out for “OU” (see OU – Oh no!) – words with this vowel pair are not very predictable.
  • Finally, there is one word that can cause confusion because it is a homograph. D-O-V-E: this could be a verb or a noun. As a verb, it is the past tense of “dive” and is pronounced with a Long-O: “dove”. As a noun, it is pronounced with Short-o-2: “dove”.

You should memorize the correct pronunciation of these unusual words, so that you can say them with confidence.

So remember, the letter “O” has more than one sound, and it is usually pronounced with one of the three basic sounds: Long-O, Short-o, and Short-o-2 (or schwa).

The Sounds of I

Each vowel letter of English uses three or four different vowel sounds, but there is something unique about the letter “I” — it shares its sounds with the letter “Y”. They are sort of like “twins”. Whenever the letter “Y” is acting as a vowel, it uses the same sounds as “I”.

There are three basic sounds for the English letter “I”: Long-I, Long-I-2 (old-style), and Short-i.

Long-I

Long-I is the normal Long-vowel sound for “I”, because it is the same as the name of the letter “I”. Some common words with this sound are: like / write / time / line / right / kind / while / life / side / five / ice / sign / child / tie / item / my / why / type / style / rhyme / cycle / deny / apply / rely.

Long-I-2

The second Long sound that the letter “I” (or “Y”) uses is the “old style” Long-I — it is the sound that the letter “I” used hundreds of years ago, before the English vowels made a shift. A few words with the letter “I” retained the old sound, which is the same as the Long-E sound today. Here are some examples: ski / chic / police / machine / tangerine / mobile / souvenir / antique / magazine / unique / many / only / funny / baby / lady / very.

Short-i

Short-i is pronounced in the front upper part of the mouth, and it is very important to relax the tongue to avoid confusion with the Long-E sound (see This or These). There are quite a few frequently used words with the Short-i sound, so it is important to learn to relax the tongue well. Some words are: with / six / which / if / give / thing / think / big / list / inch / spring / quick / sing / myth / gyp / gym / cyst / lynx / system / rhythm / symbol.

(Words covered in Short-i in Frequent words:  is / it / its / his / him / will / did / still.)
(Words covered in This or These: this / bit / chip / itch / fill / hit / lip / living / sit / sick.)

Schwa

In addition to the basic Long and Short-vowel sounds, any vowel letter can also use the schwa sound. This happens in weak (unstressed) syllables, especially in a syllable that is adjacent to the strongest syllable of a word. In the following words, the letter “I” (or “Y”) is in an unstressed syllable: pencil / decimal / practice / office / chemical / flexible / dactyl.

Some tricky cases

The following words can be confusing because they are homographs

L-I-V-E: this word could be a verb or an adjective, and they are pronounced differently. When it is a verb, it has a Short-i: “live”. When it is an adjective, it is pronounced with a Long-I: “live”.

W-I-N-D: this word could be a noun or a verb. As a noun, it has a Short-i: “wind”. As a verb, it has a Long-I: “wind”. 

So remember, when you see the letter “I”, it will be pronounced with one of the four choices: Long-I, Long-I-2, Short-i, or Schwa. It is very unusual for an “I” to use some other sound.

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”.

The Sounds of E

The vowel system of English can be confusing because there are only five vowel letters (A-E-I-O-U), but there are 15 different vowel sounds. The key is that each vowel letter has three or four sounds, and it is important to learn the basic sounds of each one.

The letter “E” is a little bit more straightforward that the other vowels, because there is only one Long and one Short sound. So, the basic sounds for the English letter “E” are Long-E and Short-e.

Long-E

The sound of Long-E is the same as the name of the letter “E” when you say the alphabet. Some common words with this sound are: he / we / be / maybe / she / see / three / seem / feet / seen / feel / street / green / week / deep / free.

Short-e

Short-e is pronounced in the front middle (not low, not high) part of the mouth — the mouth needs to be open, but not quite as much as for Short-a-1. And of course, it is very important to relax the tongue, if not, the sound of Short-e can be easily confused with Long-A (see Sell or Sale). Here are some frequently used words with Short-e: get / help / tell / end / men / left / next / egg / red / best / ten / less / yet / yes / kept / seven.

Schwa

Besides the basic sounds, any vowel letter can use the schwa sound. This happens in weak (unstressed) syllables. Here are some words in which the “E” is in the unstressed syllable and has the schwa sound: item / college / faces / escape / define. Also, very frequently used words, which are usually unstressed in sentences, often use the schwa sound; some with [e] are: the / them / then.

Silent -e

The letter “E” is usually silent when it is at the end of a word, as in “safe”. Silent -e can also be found in the middle of a word, when it is in a compound, such as “safeguard” (safe + guard), or when suffixes are added, as in “safely”. (see more about Silent -e).

So, when you see the letter “E” in a word, it will almost always be one of the sounds above. It is very rare to find some other vowel sound used. There are few words with an “E” that do not use one of those sounds, such as: been / new / eye / few / English / they / eight / sew.

Vowels – Long and Short

Each of the vowel letters (A-E-I-O-U) has a Long-vowel sound, plus one or two Short-vowel sounds, and those are the normal sounds for each vowel. But what does Long-vowel or Short-vowel mean?

Long-vowel

  • The Long sound for any vowel, is the same as the name of the vowel letter (like when you say the alphabet). So for example, the sound of Long-A is “A”.
  • The label “long” does not mean that it takes a longer amount of time — it means that the vowel sound has two parts. If you look at the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols for these sounds, you can see the two parts. For example, the IPA symbol for Long-A is /ey/.
  • To pronounce a Long-vowel correctly, the tongue needs to move, or slide, in order to say both parts.
  • When making Long-vowel sounds, the tongue will be tense, not relaxed, because the tongue muscle needs to move.

Short-vowel

  • Short-vowel sounds have just one part.
  • The tongue is still — it does not move.
  • The tongue is relaxed.

Using the Long and Short-vowel system

Learning to think in terms of the Long and Short-vowel sounds can be very useful. Here are a few examples of ways the system works.

  • Long and Short-vowels often alternate when word forms change. For example: “nature” uses the Long-A sound but “natural” is pronounced with Short-a; “meet” has Long-E but “met” has Short-e; “five” has Long-I and “fifth” has Short-i.
  • Different English accents sometimes vary between Long or Short-vowel sounds. For example, the word “tomato” is usually pronounced with Long-A in American English, but in British English it is usually said with Short-a-2, “tomato”.
  • Native speakers of English use the Long and Short-vowel system (often subconsciously), when they want to figure out how to pronounce a new word that they have never heard or seen before.

    To demonstrate this, I looked for a list of words that are rarely used in English, to find one I had never seen — I found the word “b-r-o-n-t-i-d-e”. My first guess for how to say it was “brontide” with a Short-o, but I also thought it might be said with Long-O, “brontide”. Then I checked to see which was right — my first guess was correct: “brontide”.

    This is the process native speakers often use when they need to figure out how to say a new word.

  • Some spelling patterns correspond to Long and Short-vowels. The most basic one is [-e] at the ends of words which indicate a Long-vowel pronunciation. For example, “fat” is pronounced with Short-a-1, but when an [-e] is added, the word becomes “fate” with Long-A, and the word “pin” has a Short-i, but “pine” has a Long-I.

Learning to think of the English vowels according to the Long and Short-vowel system, is a good first step toward learning to use English more like a native speaker does.

The Sounds of A

The spelling system of English is complicated, and when it comes to the vowel system, it can even sometimes seem like there are no patterns. Even though it is complex, there are some basic patterns that you can learn, to help you figure out how to pronounce new words when you see them.

The most basic key to the vowel system, is to know that each vowel letter uses three or four sounds. So the first step to understanding the vowels, is to learn the basic sounds of each.

The basic sounds for the English letter “A” are Long-A, Short-a-1, and Short-a-2.

Long-A

The sound of Long-A is the same as the name of the letter “A” when you say the alphabet. Some common words with this sound are: make / name / say / came / place / change / state / day / later / able / became / face / paper / waves / space.

Short-a-1

The sound of Short-a-1 is tricky for some students. Short-a-1 is pronounced in the front lower part of the mouth, so the mouth needs to be open enough, and it is very important to relax the tongue.  Here are some frequently used words with Short-a-1: answer / add / began / plant / last / back / after / man / ask / land / family / class / stand / happen / map.

Short-a-2

The second Short-a sound is a sound that is also used for Short-o. This sound is what many students think of as a normal “A” sound, and is used for the word “mama”. This vowel is in the center of the mouth (not front, not back) and it is low down, so the mouth needs to be open enough, and the tongue is relaxed. Words with this sound are: almost / talk / also / start / want / car / fall / small / watch / far / father / hard / water / part / saw / dark.

Schwa

Besides the basic sounds, any vowel letter can use the schwa sound. This happens in weak (unstressed) syllables. Here are some words in which the “A” is in the unstressed syllable: about / around / along / among / across / ago / another / surface / finally / machine / America. There are also some very frequently used words, which are usually unstressed in sentences, and also use the schwa sound: was / a / what.

So, when you see the letter “A” in a word, it will almost always be one of the four sounds above. It is very rare to find some other vowel sound used. There are few words with an “A” that do not use one of those sounds, such as: said / says / any / many. (Words such as “warm” and “quart” are explained in The Power of R.)