You are on page 1of 7

English Pronunciation Rules

English Pronunciation Rules


adapted from Arnold & Hansen: Englische Phonetik § 6.3,
(translated, corrected and expanded by J. Fanning; version 2006-05-04)
(N.b.: Many of the rules are stated in a telegram-like note style, not in grammatically complete utterances.)
SPELLING rules are impracticable & fairly chaotic, but PRONUNCIATION rules are reasonable.
N.b.: for many or most of these rules exceptions can be found (10% irregular: commonest words!), but
that is no reason not to learn them together with the most important exceptions.

6.3.1. PHONEME LEVEL


6.3.1.1. vowel graphemes
6.3.1.1.1. simple vowel graphemes
UNSTRESSED SYLLABLES USUALLY REDUCED

A1: ‹a, o, u› : .?.; ‹e, i, y› : .H. (sometimes interchangeable)


less often .T.
final ‹-y›: .h.
‹-ite› usually .`Hs., but graphite .Hs.
‹-ate›: verbs usually .dHs.; adjectives & nouns: .?s.+.Hs.
A2: .m. & .k. often syllabic (but not between nasals or ‹nasal + stop› and ‹nasal›)
final ‹e› (if not the only vowel grapheme of a word: be, he, we, she): silent
except Greek: acme, catastrophe, facsimile, Hermione, Hebe, Phoebe
 .!zjlh+ j?!szrsq?eh+ e?j!rHl?kh+ g29!l`H?mh+ !gh9ah+ !eh9ah.

PRONUNCIATION OF STRESSED SIMPLE VOWEL GRAPHEMES DEPENDS ON 3 FACTORS:


a) number of following unstressed syllables
b) closed/open syllable
c) whether before ‹r› or other grapheme

A3: simple vowel grapheme in tonic syll.: USUALLY short if followed by ≥2 unstressed
camera, delicate, elegant, cinema, liberty, opera
nation - national, legal - legacy, mile - military, nylon - cylinder, colon - colony
(except ‹u›, or others before ‹r› in closed syll.: cf. A5; humorou,s article, vertical,
circumstance,)
also in most derivatives (except ‹-al› adjectives?) long vowels incl. diphthongs remain:
nationhood, legally, silently, fatefully, livelihood
problem: sapient: .!rdHoi?ms. (2 syll.?) or .!rzoH?ms. (3 syll.)

For all other cases: distinction closed/open relevant


N.b.: What applies here is not the strict synchronic phonological concept of open or closed syllables, but
basically whether syllables were phonologically open or closed in an earlier stage of language history,
with words that entered the language later being assimilated to the rule according to SPELLING.

closed: ends in consonant grapheme


• if only consonant graphemes follow (not, fish, adopt, win)
• if before next vowel there follow at least 2 simple consonant graphemes (doctor, wonder,
uncle, starve, party) or double consonant (letter, hopping, hammer, starring) or compound
consonant grapheme (badge, hatchet)
n.b. ‹th› often counts as simple, ‹x› (.jr.+ .fy.) as compound! (i.e. the phoneme/grapheme
distinction is important here, but not pedantically observed)
open: vowel grapheme ends word (no), is followed by another vowel (poet) or by only single consonant
before next vowel grapheme (whether pronounced or not: here graphemes are meant, and not
phonemes!) (note, hoping, parents, stare)

Open or closed, following ‹r› is a special case (fat - far, fate - fare)
n.b ‹rr› acts like ‹r› if it is doubled (star - starred - starring, prefer - preferring, abhor - abhorred) or
final (err, whirr, burr) cf. A5
otherwise like double consonant (carry, berry, mirror, lorry, hurry)

A4-7: basic rules for simple tonic vowel graphemes


A4: closed, except before simple or doubled ‹r›: short monophthongs
fat, ban, add, actor, latter, hammer; Albert, Alfred: .z.
(but: Alton, Aldeburgh, Aldred, Aldine etc.: .N9.)
after .v. except before .j+ f+ M., ‹a› = .P.: what, want, quarrel
pet, ten, fetch, rest, else, letter, edge
bit, gym, fish, hymn, winter, bitter
pot, odd, adopt, doctor, bottle, hop(ping), sorry, lorry
esp. next to ‹m,n,v,w›, ‹o› = .U.: among, Monday, month, son, ton, won
cut, luck, much, summer, uncle (historical ‘minim problem’)
esp. between labials .a+ o+ e. & .k.+ .R., ‹u› = .T.: bull, bullet, pull, pulpit, full, bush, push, butcher,
pudding, put
but: bulb, puddle, put (= golf term): .U.

but: ‹a› = .@9. before ‹ff, ss, th›, often before ‹f, s, n›+‹cons.› (esp. ‹ft, sk, sp,st›)
(except after .v.): staff, class, pass, bath, after, ask, grasp, past, dance, branch, command, grant
and before ‹lf, lv, lm› with silent ‹l›: calf - calves, half - halves, calm, palm
‹a› before other ‹l+cons.› with silent ‹l›, esp. ‹lk› and ‹ll›, ‹a› often = .N9.: fall, tall, talk, walk,
false, salt

cf. also A6, a-d!

A5: closed before simple or doubled ‹r›: long monophthongs


‹ar› = .@9.: far, start, farm, starve, star(ring)
after .v. ‹a› = .N9.: war, wart, warm, ward, wharf, quarter
‹er, ir, yr, ur› = .29.: her, term, verse, prefer(ring), fir, fur, bird, circus, stir(ring), cur, hurt, burn,
occur(ring)
but: .@9.: clerk (analog. to bark, dark), Derby, Cherwell, sergeant
(but American: clerk .jk29qj., Derby .c29qah.
‹or› = .N9.: nor, short, horse, corner, abhor(ring)
after .v. ‹or› = .29.: word, work, worm, worth, world
but: .N9.: worn (from wore - open syll.)
(n.b.: GA is rhotic, i.e. the ‹r› is pronounced where it is not in British RP, also in rule A7 and
elsewhere)

A6: open except before ‹r›: pronounced like alphabet names


.dH+h9+`H(also ‹y›)+?T+it9.9
chaos .!jdHPr., fate, name, late(r), nation, ache, be, neon .!mh9Pm.. scene, Pete(r), eve, cry, giant,
bite, write(r), pilot, no, poet, note, moment, hope - hoping, duel, cute, consume, humour, student
(after .q+ R+ cY+ cons.+k.+ ‹u› = .t9.: rule, chute, June, flu)
(also sometimes after .r.: super)
also:
a) before ‹cons.›+(‹-le› as syllabic Z4ÿ\ or ‹r+vowel›) (esp. 2-syll. words):
table, title, cycle, noble, able; acre, April, hatred, metre, negro, secret, cypress, cobra
cf. idle .`H. - fiddle .H.
b) ‹a› before ‹-nge› & ‹-ste›: arrange, change, strange; haste, taste, waste
c) ‹i› before ‹-ld, -nd, gh (silent), -gn = .m.›: child, mild, wild; bind, find, grind, wind (vb.= turn
etc.) .v`Hmc.; high, bright, light, night; sign
but also: wind (n.= air blowing & vb.= take s.o.'s breath away by hitting): .vHmc.
d) ‹o› before ‹-l(l), ld, lt, lk = .j.›: control, roll, toll; cold, bolt, folk, yolk
but: ‹ o› before ‹-ll-‹ = .P.: hollow, follow, folly, holly, Molly

e) esp. next to ‹m,n,v,›, ‹o› = .t9.: lose, move, prove; but: wove .v?Tu.

A7: open before ‹r›: centring diphthong or triphthong, except ‹or› = .N9q.
(GA tends to monophthong or diphthong, respectively; RP also if the ‹r› is pronounced)
‹ar› = .d?q.: fare, compare, Mary, parents, various, stare - staring
‹er› = .H?q.: here, severe, zero, serious
but: .d?q.: ere, there, where; .29.: were
‹ir, yr› = .`H?q.: wire, tyre, tired, tyrant, fire - firing, sire
‹ur› = .iT?q.: pure, secure, fury, during, cure - curing
.T?q. (after .q+ R+ cY+ cons.+k.): rural, sure, jury, plural; but Jewry .t9.
‹or› = .N9q.: core, lore, o

A8: the most important exception to rules A4-7 for simple tonic vowel graphemes:
even in open syll., simple tonic vowel grapheme is short if the following vowel grapheme
stands for .H. (GA: .?.) and the word is not derived from another with a long or diphthongal
stem vowel:
epic, lyric, topic; malice, crevice; arid, rapid, vivid, solid; promise, perish, finish, polish; limit,
spirit, profit, granite, palace, preface, garage .!fzqHcY. (older pronunciations: .f?!q@9Y+
!fzq@9cY., damage, senate, planet, minute
but long: whitish < white; Polish < Pole; grimy < grime;
(minute (adj.=very small) .l`H!mit9s. – here the ‹i› is not tonic!)
and not before ‹-y›: baby (< babe), Mary
(but: evil)
also ‹i› = .H. before ‹cons.+e/i+vowel›: hideous, pigeon, trivial, civilian, familiar, sufficient,
position, religious, (delirious?), Sirius (as opposed to serious!)

type HAVE: give, live (vb. .kHu.; but also live adj. .k`Hu.), gone, shone;
esp. next to ‹m,n,v,w›, ‹o› = .U.: done, none, some, glove, love, shove
type LEMON: manor, metal, seven, pivot, model, novel, proper, sugar
(regular: even .!h9u?m., demon .!ch9l?m., modal .!l?Tc?k. !)

6.3.1.1.2.: double vowel graphemes: usually long monophthongs (centring diphthongs before ‹r›)

‹ee› = .h9.: tree, see, agree, referee, deep, meet


‹eer› = .H?q.: beer, career, peeress
‹oo› = .t9.: too, zoo, food, pool, room, root, spoon, balloon
 .T.: good, hood, stood, wood, foot, soot, wool; esp. in ‹ook›: book, cook, hook , look, shook,
took
but: .U.: blood, flood
‹oor› = .T?q.: boor, moor, poor

but: .N9.: door, floor


6.3.1.1.3.: compound vowel graphemes (tonic): long vowels, closing diphthongs
(centring diphthongs or triphthongs before ‹r›)
n.b.: open/closed not relevant here
n.b.: contingent .q.
Do not confuse compound vowel graphemes with combinations of simple ones: create
.jqh!-dHs., quiet .!jv`H-?s., poet .!o?T-Hs., fluid .!ekt9-Hc.

‹ae›: .h9.: aether, Caesar, encyclopaedia


‹aer›: .d?.: aerial, aerodrome, aeronaut, aeroplane
‹ai, ay›: .dH.: aim, rain, afraid; day, may, play; but: again(st) .d.
‹air›: .d?q.: air, hair, pair, dairy, fairy
‹au, aw›: .N9.: autumn, cause, sauce, saw, straw, dawn, lawn
but .@9.: aunt, draught, laugh
‹ea›: .h9.: sea, tea, beast, beat, meal, repeat, lead (vb,)
but .d. esp in ‹ead›: bread, dead, dread, lead* (n. = metal), spread;
also: breast, breath, death, deaf, feather, health, heaven, heavy,
jealous, leather, measure, weapon, weather (all common)
except: .h9.: bead, lead* (vb.), read* (inf.)
‹ear›: .H?q.: clear, fear, tear* (from the eye), appear, weary, Peter Pears*
but .d?q.: bear, pear*, swear, tear* (in cloth, or vb.)
but: .29q. before ‹cons.›: early, earnest, earth, learn, pearl, search
except: beard .H?q., heart .@9q.
‹ei, ey›: .dH. esp. in ‹-ey, eigh(t), eign, ein›: grey, they, convey, obey,; eight
freight, neighbour, weigh, weight, feign, reign; rein, skein, , vein
.h9. esp. after ‹c›: ceiling, conceit, deceive, receive;
also: seize, Sheila
q
‹eir›: .d? .heir, their, Eire
but: .H?q.: weir, weird
‹eu, ew›: .it9.: feudal, neutral; few, new
.t9. after .q+ sR+ cY+ i+ cons.+k.: rheumatism, drew, chew, jewel, yew, blew
‹eur, ewr›: .iT?q.: Europe, liqueur; .T?q. after .cY+ cons.+k.: Jewry, pleurisy
‹ie›: .h9. inside word: brief, chief, field, niece, piece, priest, thief
but: friend .d.; sieve .rHu. (!)
.`H. at end: die, pie, tie (also pl. & part.: ties, tied)
‹ier›: .H?q.: cashier, cavalier, fierce, pierce
‹oa›: .?T.: boat, coal, coat, load; but: broad; boa; cocoa
‹oar›: .N9q.: boar, board, hoarse, roar
‹oe›: .h9.:Croesus, Oedipus, phoenix, subpoena, oesophagus
(many just ‹e› in AmE)
at end .?T.: doe, foe, hoe, Joe, roe, toe, woe
but .t9.: canoe, shoe
‹oi, oy›: .NH.: oil, avoid, voice, boy, toy, employer, royal
‹ou(gh), ow›: LEARN!!
.@T.: house, loud, noun, sound, cow, how, brown, crown, south, wound
(participle of wind), slough (but other meaning .rkUe.)
.?T.: esp. in ‹oul›: mould, poultry, soul; also: bowl, flow,
grow(th/n), know, owe; but: knowledge; foul, fowl; though
.N9.: ought, bought, fought, sought, thought etc.
but .@T.: doughty, drought
.U. (not ‹ow›): country, couple, double, southern(!), touch, tough,
trouble, young
.t9.: (‹ou› esp. in words from Fr.): douche, group, rouge, route,
soup; also wound (inf. & n.), you, youth, through
‹our›: .N9q.: pour, four, your, course, court, mourn, source
.29q. only before ‹cons.›: adjourn, courteous, journal, journey,
scourge
‹ui›: .it9.9 nuisance, (suit)
.t9. after .q+ cY+ cons.+k.: fruit, recruit, juice, sluice

In unstressed pos., they are often .?+ H+ h.: labour, nervous, foreign; mountain, guinea, money
but: autumnal .N9., feudality .it9., narrow .?T.

6.3.1.2.: consonants (incl. sonorants) and semivowels:


mainly unproblematic

‹c›, ‹g›: always hard .j.+.f. except before ‹e, i, y›


call, cat, cool, copper, cut, class, cry, fact, music; success, accessory, occasion, occupy
gas, gate, good, gum, glad, great, elegant, big; dagger, foggy, egg
but: exaggerate, suggest .cY.
exceptions ‹c› hard before ‹e› = soccer, celt(ic)
(but Celtic .!rdksHj. football club!)
‹g› hard before ‹e, i, y›: (mainly Germanic words, some Greek before ‹y›) forget, together, finger
(!), , hunger, begin, giddy, gift, girl, give, gynaecology; eager, target, tiger, gill (other meaning:
.cY.!; n.b. gyroscope, gymnasium .cY.)
(otherwise .f. before ‹e, i, y› written ‹gu› as in Fr.: guess, guest, plague vogue, disguise, guide,
guilty, guy

soft before ‹e, i, y› also before ‹ae, oe› = .h9.: cellar, place, since, cipher, circus, city, ceiling,
cease, Caesar, cycle, cynic, mercy; success, accessory,
general, George, change, giant, gin, ginger, gym, gypsum, misogynist
‹sc› = .r. before ‹e, i, y,›, except sceptic (Amer. skeptic), otherwise .rj.

‹ci› = .RH. esp before tonic: speci'ality; also: appreciate, social, associate
.rH. esp. in ‹-ciation›: association, pronunciation
otherwise .R.9 ancient, physician, special, suspicious; also: ocean

‹s›, ‹th›
initial ‹s›always fortis, initial ‹th› usually fortis;
medial ‹s› & ‹th› (esp. between vowels) usually lenis;
final ‹s› & ‹th› usually fortis:

.r. sail, set, sing, summer, skill, sleep, smile, swim; .S. thank, thing, third, three
but "functionals" ‹th-› = .C.: the, this, those, they, them, their, than, that, there, though, thus;
.r. bus, gas, yes, etc., etc.; .S. path, bath, earth, mouth(n.), north, worth, health, fifth, month &
derivatives: earthen, Elizabethan, filthy, healthy;
but: northern, southern, worthy all .C. !
but: Lat./Gk. ‹-es› .h9y.: series, species, Socrates, Gyges, bases (pl. of basis), crises;
also "functionals" .y.: as, has, his, is, was; (but: this, us .r.!!)
booth, smooth, bequeath, betroth, mouth (vb.) (most verbs ‹-the›: cf. below)
n.b. some nouns ‹-th› change from fortis to lenis in the plural (compare German
archiphonemes, also ‹-f›): path(s), mouth(s), oath(s), youth(s)
only 1 ‹-se› changes like this: house(s)
but not after silent ‹r›, short vowels or consonants (or in rare plurals!): births, fourths,
girths, moths, deaths, smiths, fifths, lengths, months; (faiths, growths)

.y.: busy, cousin, easy, music, present, season;


esp. after prefixes ending in vowels before tonic: de'sire, de'sign, pre'serve, re'semble, re'sign
(but fortis in ‹dis-› & ‹mis-›: dismiss, disappoint; also after prefixes ending with consonant:
consider, insist, subside)
.C.: brother, either, father, mother, other, together, weather

fortis .r., .S. inside some not completely anglicized loan words, esp. ‹-sis, -sity, -sive,-sy›:
analysis, basis, crisis, curiosity, university, decisive, exclusive, hypocrisy, fantasy (?), episode,
isolate, philosophy, author, method, pathos, sympathy

‹th› = .s. in some words to be learned, particularly names: Anthony (RP; but GA = .S.!), Mathilda,
Thames, Theresa, Thomas, Thom(p)son, thyme

‹-se›,
verb ending on lenis: house, use, close, mouse; not paired: choose, lose, rise
noun/adj. on fortis: house, use, close, mouse; not paired: case, concise,
goose, loose
but vb./sb. both .,r.: purpose, crease; vb. only .,r.: cease

‹-the› always lenis


verb ending on lenis: bathe, breathe, clothe; loathe, seethe
(cf. also bequeath, betroth, mouth*)
noun/adj. on fortis: bath, breath, cloth; mouth

6.3.1.2.3. ‹x›: .jr.9 box, six, ox(en), exercise, exhibition, explanation, expect, explain
except immediately before vowel with main or secondary stress, then /gz/: exact, examine,
example, executive, exist, examination; also before silent ‹h›: exhaust, exhibit
but ‹-xc-›: except, excite .jr.
n.b. xylophone, xenon .y.

6.3.1.2.4. ‹ng›:
a) ‹-ng› = .M., also in derivatives except comparative/superlative of adj.:
hang, king, ring, young, sing(ing/er), long(ish), slang(y), strong(ly)
longer (person who longs!)
b) ‹ng› = .Mf. in comp./superl. of adj.: longer, -est etc.; but cunning(er): .M. !
also before ‹a, o, u, l, r› (sometimes before ‹e›) in words not derived from stems in
‹-ng›: bungalow, Hungary, Congo, language, finger, angle, single, England, singular, angry,
congress, linger, (war-, iron-, fish-)monger
c) ‹ng› = .mcY. in words in ‹-nge› & derivatives, also often in other words before ‹e, i, y›:
change(s/d/ing), orange, revenge, singe, strange(r); angel, danger, ginger, passenger, engine;
also: stingy
n.b., be prepared for rare surprises, e.g.:
OED: singer2 (!rHmcY?'q(). [f.  v. + -1.] One who or that which singes: 1875 K
Dict. Mech. 2187/1 Singer, an apparatus through which cotton or woolen goods are passed to relieve
them of their fluff, preparing them for the dyer.

6.3.1.2.5. silent consonants and semivowels

‹kn-› .m.: knee, knife, knock, knot, know


‹gn-› .m.: gnat, gnaw, gnome, gnu, gnostic (but agnostic .zf!mPrsHj.)
‹wr-› .q.: wrong, wrap, wreck, wretched, write, wrought, Wriothesley
‹wh-› .g. in who, whole, whore & compounds & derivatives;
otherwise .v. why, when, where, whop(per), whoopie, whiz
‹-gm, -gn› .l.+ .m. qdrodbshudkx: paradigm (but paradigmatic .,,cHf!lz,.), phlegm, feign, foreign,
sign (and derivatives)
‹-alf,- alv, alm, alk, olk›: ‹l› silent (‹a› mostly = .@9.) calf, half, calves, halves, calve, halve, salve*
(but salve .rzku., salvation .rzk!udH,.)
Lincoln, calm, napalm, palm, Holmes, Malcolm, salmon .!rzl?m., chalk, talk, walk, folk, yolk
‹-gh(-)› before ‹t› & final, usually silent: bought, caught, daughter, delight, eight, fight etc. etc.; bough,
dough, high, plough, sigh, through, weigh
but: .e.: cough, enough, laugh, rough, tough
‹-mb, -mn› and derivatives: ‹b› & ‹n› silent: bomb(er/ing), climb(er/ing), comb, dumb, lamb, numb(er)
(but number, timber, tumble: ‹b› not silent!); autumn (but autumnal), column, condemn(s/ed/ing),
damn, hymn, solemn
‹h-› silent in a few words esp. derived from French: heir, honest, honour also often in unstressed syll.:
prohi'bition (but pro'hibit!), exhibit, vehicle, Birmingham
‹r› in BE only pronounced before a pronounced vowel!

3-consonant rule: middle one in cluster of 3 consonants is usually elided, i.e. silent
Christmas, postman, bustle, castle, thistle, postpone, handsome, Windsor, sandwich; also .s. in
often .!Pemÿ., soften, fasten, hasten, listen
(n.b. more precise rule in Davis Ch 5)
6.3.2. MORPHEME LEVEL
6.3.2.1. ‹-ed›
.,c. after vowel, sonorant or lenis: loved, pleased, rubbed, called (but learned/learnt)
.,s. after fortis: fetched, hoped, passed
.Hc. after .c+ s.: decided, ended, hinted, wanted
also certain participial adjectives: aged, learned, naked, ragged, rugged, wicked, wretched
also in posttonic ‹-edly, -edness›: fixedly, markedness ; but: astonishedly, determinedly (post-
posttonic here!)

6.3.2.2. ‹-(e)s›
.,y. after vowel, sonorant or lenis: dogs, girls, boys, loves, rubs, calls, Tom's
.,r. after fortis: cats, rocks, Jack's
.Hy. after .r+ y+ R+ Y+ cY+ sR.: buses, houses, bushes, matches, bridges, Rose's, chooses, fetches
but not after .S+ C.: months, moths, clothes, paths