English Language Proficiency - Pronunciation

What is Pronunciation?

pronunciation (noun): the way in which we pronounce a word
pronounce (verb): to make the sound of a word

"Pronunciation" refers to the way in which we make the sound of words.
To pronounce words, we push air from our lungs up through our throat and vocal chords, through our mouth, past our tongue and out between our teeth and lips. (Sometimes air also travels through our nose.)

To change the sound that we are making, we mainly use the muscles of our mouth, tongue and lips to control the shape of our mouth and the flow of air. If we can control the shape of our mouth and the flow of air correctly, then our pronunciation is clearer and other people understand us more easily.

Speakers of different languages tend to develop different muscles of the mouth for pronunciation. When we speak a foreign language, our muscles may not be well developed for that language, and we will find pronunciation more difficult. By practising the foreign language pronunciation, our muscles develop and pronunciation improves.

As well as creating correct vowel and consonant sounds using the muscles of our mouth, tongue and lips, there are other important aspects of pronunciation, including:
  • word stress - emphasis on certain syllables in a word
  • sentence stress - emphasis on certain words in a sentence
  • linking - joining certain words together
  • intonation - the rise and fall of our voice as we speak

Word Stress
Word stress is your magic key to understanding spoken English. Native speakers of English use word stress naturally. Word stress is so natural for them that they don't even know they use it. Non-native speakers who speak English to native speakers without using word stress, encounter two problems:
  1. They find it difficult to understand native speakers, especially those speaking fast.
  2. The native speakers may find it difficult to understand them. 

Understanding Syllables

syllable (noun): a unit of pronunciation that has one vowel sound, and may or may not be surrounded by consonants. A syllable can form a whole word or part of a word. For example, there is one syllable in cat, two syllables in monkey and three syllables in elephant.

To understand word stress, it helps to understand syllables.
Every word is made from syllables.
Each word has one, two, three or more syllables.

number of syllables
Notice that (with a few rare exceptions) every syllable contains at least one vowel (a, e, i, o or u) or vowel sound.

What is Word Stress?

In English, we do not say each syllable with the same force or strength. In one word, we accentuate ONE syllable. We say one syllable very loudly (big, strong, important) and all the other syllables very quietly.
Let's take 3 words: photographphotographer and photographic. Do they sound the same when spoken? No. Because we accentuate (stress) ONE syllable in each word. And it is not always the same syllable. So the "shape" of each word is different.

Listen to these words. Do you hear the stressed syllable in each word?
This happens in ALL words with 2 or more syllables: TEACHer, JaPAN, CHINa, aBOVE, converSAtion, INteresting, imPORtant, deMAND, etCETera, etCETera, etCETera

The syllables that are not stressed are weak or small or quiet. Fluent speakers of English listen for the STRESSED syllables, not the weak syllables. If you use word stress in your speech, you will instantly and automatically improve your pronunciation and your comprehension.

Try to hear the stress in individual words each time you listen to English - on the radio, or in films for example. Your first step is to HEAR and recognise it. After that, you can USE it!

There are two very important rules about word stress:
  1. One word, one stress. (One word cannot have two stresses. So if you hear two stresses, you have heard two words, not one word.)
  2. The stress is always on a vowel.

Why is Word Stress Important?

Word stress is not used in all languages. Some languages, Japanese or French for example, pronounce each syllable with eq-ual em-pha-sis.
Other languages, English for example, use word stress and pro-NOUNCE DIF-fer-ent SYL-la-bles with more or less im-POR-tance.

Word stress is not an optional extra that you can add to the English language if you want. It is part of the language! Fluent English speakers use word stress to communicate rapidly and accurately, even in difficult conditions. If, for example, you do not hear a word clearly, you can still understand the word because of the position of the stress.

Think again about the two words photograph and photographer. Now imagine that you are speaking to somebody by telephone over a very bad line. You cannot hear clearly. In fact, you hear only the first two syllables of one of these words, photo... Which word is it, photograph or photographer?
Of course, with word stress you will know immediately which word it is because in reality you will hear either...


So without hearing the whole word, you probably know what the word is...


Where do I Put Word Stress?

There are some word stress rules about which syllable to stress. But...the rules are rather complicated! Probably the best way to learn is from experience. Listen carefully to spoken English and try to develop a feeling for the "music" of the language.
When you learn a new word, you should also learn its stress pattern. If you keep a vocabulary book, make a note to show which syllable is stressed. If you do not know, you can look in a dictionary. All dictionaries give the phonetic spelling of a word. This is where they show which syllable is stressed, usually with an apostrophe (') just before or just after the stressed syllable. (The notes in the dictionary will explain the system used.)
Look at (and listen to) this example for the word plastic. There are two syllables and the first syllable is stressed.


phonetic spelling for plastic
dictionary A
dictionary B
/plæs' tIk/
/'plæs tIk/

Notice that dictionary A uses a different system to dictionary B to show which syllable is stressed. Of course, it's the same word (plastic), and the stress is the same (the first syllable). But dictionary A puts an apostrophe after the stressed syllable, and dictionary B puts an apostrophe before the stressed syllable. You need to check your dictionary's notes to know which system it uses.

Word Stress Rules
There are two very simple rules about word stress:
  1. One word has only one stress. (One word cannot have two stresses. If you hear two stresses, you hear two words. Two stresses cannot be one word. It is true that there can be a "secondary" stress in some words. But a secondary stress is much smaller than the main [primary] stress, and is only used in long words.)
  2. We can only stress vowels, not consonants.
Here are some more, rather complicated, rules that can help you understand where to put the stress. But do not rely on them too much, because there are many exceptions. It is better to try to "feel" the music of the language and to add the stress naturally.
A. Stress on first syllable
Most 2-syllable nouns
PRESent, EXport, CHIna, TAble
Most 2-syllable adjectives
PRESent, SLENder, CLEVer, HAPpy
B. Stress on last syllable
Most 2-syllable verbs
preSENT, exPORT, deCIDE, beGIN
There are many two-syllable words in English whose meaning and class change with a change in stress. The word present, for example is a two-syllable word. If we stress the first syllable, it is a noun (gift) or an adjective (opposite of absent). But if we stress the second syllable, it becomes a verb (to offer). More examples: the words exportimportcontract and objectcan all be nouns or verbs depending on whether the stress is on the first or second syllable.
C. Stress on penultimate syllable (penultimate = second from end)
Words ending in -ic
GRAPHic, geoGRAPHic, geoLOGic
Words ending in -sion and -tion
teleVIsion, reveLAtion
For a few words, native English speakers don't always "agree" on where to put the stress. For example, some people say teleVIsion and others say TELevision. Another example is: CONtroversy and conTROversy.
D. Stress on ante-penultimate syllable (ante-penultimate = third from end)
Words ending in -cy-ty-phyand -gy
deMOcracy, dependaBIlity, phoTOgraphy, geOLogy
Words ending in -al
CRItical, geoLOGical
E. Compound words (words with two parts)
For compound nouns, the stress is on the firstpart
BLACKbird, GREENhouse
For compound adjectives, the stress is on the second part
bad-TEMpered, old-FASHioned
For compound verbs, the stress is on the second part
underSTAND, overFLOW

Sentence Stress
Sentence stress is the music of spoken English. Like word stress, sentence stress can help you to understand spoken English, even rapid spoken English.
Sentence stress is what gives English its rhythm or "beat". You remember that word stress is accent on one syllable within a word. Sentence stress is accent on certain words within a sentence.

Most sentences have two basic types of word:
  • content words
    Content words are the key words of a sentence. They are the important words that carry the meaning or sense—the real content.
  • structure words
    Structure words are not very important words. They are small, simple words that make the sentence correct grammatically. They give the sentence its correct form—its structure.
If you remove the structure words from a sentence, you will probably still understand the sentence.
If you remove the content words from a sentence, you will not understand the sentence. The sentence has no sense or meaning.

Imagine that you receive this telegram message:
This sentence is not complete. It is not a "grammatically correct" sentence. But you probably understand it. These 4 words communicate very well. Somebody wants you to sell their car for them because they have gone to France. We can add a few words:
The new words do not really add any more information. But they make the message more correct grammatically. We can add even more words to make one complete, grammatically correct sentence. But the information is basically the same:
In our sentence, the 4 key words (sell, car, gone, France) are accentuated or stressed.
Why is this important for pronunciation? It is important because it adds "music" to the language. It is the rhythm of the English language. It changes the speed at which we speak (and listen to) the language. The time between each stressed word is the same.
In our sentence, there is 1 syllable between SELL and CAR and 3 syllablesbetween CAR and GONE. But the time (t) between SELL and CAR and between CAR and GONE is the same. We maintain a constant beat on the stressed words. To do this, we say "my" more slowly, and "because I've" more quickly. We change the speed of the small structure words so that the rhythm of the key content words stays the same.
I am a proFESsional phoTOgrapher whose MAIN INterest is to TAKE SPEcial, BLACK and WHITE PHOtographs that exHIBit ABstract MEANings in their photoGRAPHic STRUCture.

Sentence Stress Rules

The basic rules of sentence stress are:
  1. content words are stressed
  2. structure words are unstressed
  3. the time between stressed words is always the same
The following tables can help you decide which words are content words and which words are structure words:

Content words - stressed

words carrying the meaning
main verbs
negative auxiliaries

Structure words - unstressed

words for correct grammar
he, we, they
on, at, into
a, an, the
and, but, because
auxiliary verbs
do, be, have, can, must


The rules above are for for what is called "neutral" or normal stress. But sometimes we can stress a word that would normally be only a structure word, for example to correct information. Look at the following dialogue:
"They've been to Mongolia, haven't they?"
"No, THEY haven't, but WE have."
Note also that when "be" is used as a main verb, it is usually unstressed—even though as a main verb it is also a content word.
When we say a sentence in English, we join or "link" words to each other. Because of this linking, the words in a sentence do not always sound the same as when we say them individually. Linking is very important in English. If you recognize and use linking, two things will happen:
  1. you will understand other people more easily
  2. other people will understand you more easily
There are basically two main types of linking:
  • consonant vowel
    We link words ending with a consonant sound to words beginning with a vowel sound
  • vowel vowel
    We link words ending with a vowel sound to words beginning with a vowel sound

Vowels and Consonants for Linking

To understand linking, it is important to know the difference between vowel sounds and consonant sounds. Here is a table of English vowels and consonants:
The table shows the letters that are vowels and consonants. But the important thing in linking is the sound, not the letter. Often the letter and the sound are the same, but not always.
For example, the word pay ends with:
  • the consonant letter y
  • the vowel sound a
Here are some more examples:

ends with the letter
ends with the sound

begins with the letter
begins with the sound
Linking Consonant to Vowel
When a word ends in a consonant sound, we often move the consonant sound to the beginning of the next word if it starts with a vowel sound.
For example, in the phrase turn off...
we write it like this:
turn off
we say it like this:
Remember that it's the sound that matters.
In the next example sentence, have ends with...
  • the letter e (which is a vowel)
  • but the sound v (which is a consonant)
So we link the ending consonant sound of have to the beginning vowel sound of the next word a.
And in fact we have four consonant to vowel links in this sentence:
We write it like this:
Can I have a bit of egg?
We say it like this:

Linking Vowel to Vowel

When one word ends with a vowel sound and the next word begins with a vowel sound, we link the words with a sort of Y or W sound. It depends on the shape of our mouth at the end of the first word.

Lips wide

o o
When the first word ends in an a, e, i vowel sound [ eɪ / i: / aɪ ], our lips are wide. Then we insert a Y sound at the beginning of the next word:
we write
we say
pay all
the end
lie on

They all buy at the arcade.
theyyall buyyat theyarcade
Here are some more examples of word pairs that are linked with Y.
  • lay out, may I, say it
  • he ate, she is, we are
  • high up, my arm, why ever

Lips round

o o
When the first word ends in an o, u vowel sound [ əʊ / u: ], our lips are round. Then we insert a W sound at the beginning of the next word:
we write
we say
go out
too often

You all go out too often.
youwall gowout toowoften
Here are some more examples of word pairs that are linked with W.
  • no other, show off, grow up
  • you are, too often, throw it


In your own language you know many words that sound the same but do not mean the same. They are homophones (= "same sound"). In English, too, there are many homophones, and it's important to try to learn and understand them. We use homophones all the time, even in everyday speech. They are also a common source of humour in jokes, and frequently occur in riddles.

What are Homophones?

homophone (noun): one of two or more words with the same pronunciation but different spellings and/or meanings (for example weakand week)
Homophones are words that have exactly the same sound (pronunciation) but different meanings and (usually) spelling.
For example, the following two words have the same sound, but different meanings and spelling:
hour (noun: 60 minutes)
our (possessive adjective: belonging to us)

In the next example, the two words have the same sound and spelling, but different meanings:
bear (noun: large, heavy animal with thick fur)
bear (verb: tolerate, endure)

Usually homophones are in groups of two (our, hour), but occasionally they can be in groups of three (to, too, two) or even more. If we take our bear example, we can add another word to the group:
bear (noun: large, heavy animal with thick fur)
bear (verb: tolerate, endure)
bare (adjective: naked, without clothes)

Now let's hear a sentence where we have all five words with their different meanings:
Our bear cannot bear to be bare at any hour.
The word homophone is made from two combining forms:

  • homo- (from the Greek word homos, meaning "same")
  • -phone (from the Greek word phone, meaning "sound" or "voice")