This blog is great for sharing information, but many students also need a way to practice — this is why I am making courses for Udemy. The Udemy courses cover topics from this blog, but give much more information, with plenty of exercises for practice (and even handouts), and each course has a full hour of lessons on video!
NOTE: Udemy works only in CHROME (not InternetExplorer).
This course allows you to test yourself and discover which vowel sounds are most difficult for you. There are 8 vowel contrasts in the course, including the ones that already covered here: Boss or Bus?, This or These?, Sell or Sale?, and Long-O vs. Short-o. (Separate courses are planned for all of the vowel contrasts covered in the diagnostic.)
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 vowel “U” is a bit unique because it has two Long-vowel sounds. The two sounds are very similar, but they are used in different situations. So, how do you know which one to choose?
It all depends on which letter comes just before the Long-U.
Long-U-2 is used after sounds that are made with the front part of the tongue. This includes: T / D / L / N / S / R / TH / J. Here are some examples: tune / duty / elude / nuclear / suit / rule / enthused / June.
Long-U-1 is used after any sounds that are not made with the front part of the tongue. This includes: P / B / F / M / K / G / H / “none”. Some examples are: pupil / bugle / fuse / music / cube / argue / huge / use.
In English there are always exceptions, and in this case the exceptions happen with some Long-U-2 words.
Some words with a “T” or “N” can also be pronounced with Long-U-1. Some examples — pronounced both ways — are: tune / tube / avenue / news. Now, the second way (with Long-U-1) sounds more old-fashioned, like the way some elderly people speak. So, following the rule keeps it more simple for you. But be aware that you may hear some people say a few words the other way, so don’t let it confuse you.
There is a handful of words with “L” and “N” that always go against the rule, and use Long-U-1. You should memorize these ones: volume / value / evaluate / menu / January / monument.
Does it really matter which one you use?
It can. Especially when you accidentally use Long-U-2 in place of Long-U-1.
There are some words that can be confused. For example, if you want to say the word “use” but you pronounce it with Long-U-2 instead of Long-U-1, then you will end up saying the word “ooze”. Likewise, “hue” would sound like “who”.
Even if there is not a word that could be confused, using the wrong sound could make you unclear. For example, if you try to say a word such as “huge” or “pupil” with the wrong sound, others may not understand what you are talking about.
With bigger words, other people will probably still understand you. So if you try to say “regular”, “computer” or “document” with Long-U-2 (instead of Long-U-1), it will sound like a mistake, but most of the time others will know what word you are trying to say.
There is a group of words that have a sound change when a “T” or “D” comes before a Long-U-1. For example, in a word like “actual”, the “T” gets combined with the “Y” part of Long-U-1 (/yuw/) and turns into a “CH” sound. Likewise, in “graduate” the “D” combines with the “Y” and makes a “J” sound. There are quite a few words like this, such as: statue / costume / situation / punctuate / virtual / individual / schedule.
However, this is a phenomenon that does not only happen with Long-U. These words are part of a bigger pattern, and will be the topic of a different post.
The vowel system is the most complicated part of the pronunciation-spelling system of English, because each vowel letter represents three or four different vowel sounds. The letter “U” has three different sounds, but one thing that is unique about “U” is that it has two Long-vowel sounds.
The basic sounds of the English letter “U” are: Long-U-1, Long-U-2, and Short-u.
The sound of Long-U-1 is the same as the name of the letter “U”. However, this long-vowel sound is a little bit unusual because Long-vowels usually have two parts, but Long-U-1 has three parts (in IPA: /yuw/). Some common words with this sound are: use / music / huge / cute / unite / cure / menu / fuel / human / argue.
The second Long-U sound is almost the same as Long-U-1, except that it has only two parts (in IPA: /uw/). Some words with this sound are: true / flute / blue / June / spruce / tune / rule / tube / duty / include.
Short-u is pronounced in the center (not front, not back) middle (not high, not low) part of the mouth, and the tongue needs to be relaxed. Some common words with this sound are: up / just / but / much / under / us / run / study / number / because.
Any vowel letter can use the schwa sound in unstressed syllables. However, since the schwa sound and Short-u are both made in the same place in the mouth, they end up sounding the same. A linguist would make a distinction between Schwa and Short-u based on stress, so for example, the first letter of the word “under” would be considered a Short-u sound, but in the word “upset” the first letter would be called a Schwa. The good news for learners of English is, you can treat them as the same sound, and your English pronunciation will sound great.
So remember, it is very rare to find the letter “U” pronounced with something other than these three basic sounds. There is a handful of words with a “U” pronounced as Short-oo: sugar / put / push / puss / pull / full / bull / cushion. There are also two words with a very unusual pronunciation, “busy” and “business”. In these two words the “U” has a Short-i sound! Otherwise, when you see the letter “U” in a word, it will almost always have the sound of either Long-U-1, Long-U-2, or Short-u (Schwa).
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.)