Your Ultimate Guide to Pronunciation Rules in English
If you want to get more comfortable speaking English, it helps to know the rules of English pronunciation.
“But wait!” you’re probably yelling at me right now, “English pronunciation rules are impossible to memorize! What about all the different words that have the same spelling but are pronounced differently?”
It’s true that English pronunciation can be tricky because we do have a lot of difficult vowel sounds and words that we don’t pronounce the way you think we should pronounce them.
But it’s also true that we have a lot of general patterns and tendencies in English that you can learn and memorize to help you when you encounter a word that you’re not sure about.
So, what are these rules and patterns of English pronunciation? That’s what we’re going to talk about today!
We’re going to take a look at some confusing sounds in English and discuss how you can memorize common patterns that will help you pronounce words without having to guess. We’ll talk about:
How we ended up with these English pronunciation rules: A little bit of history.
Vowels: How to know when they should be long or short.
Diphthongs: What they are, and how to use them.
Consonants: How to know when to pronounce them differently.
So, if you’re ready to take notes and practice with different words and sounds out loud, let’s do this!
English Pronunciation Rules
How we ended up with these English pronunciation rules: A little bit of history
It’s so easy to feel frustrated when learning the pronunciation rules of English. For example, why does though rhyme with throw, but cough, which has the same ending, rhymes with off?
Well, it’s because there are so many other languages that have influenced the English language. In fact, they have not only influenced it, but different languages and their rules and patterns have been absorbed by English.
It started when the Germanic tribes, the Jukes, Saxons, and Angles, went across the sea to conquer the British Isles, where they only spoke different dialects Celtic.
This is when we get Old English and Early Middle English, which looks very different from the English we speak today.
After that, we start to move into Late Middle English, and the language begins to shift and change to look a little more like the English we speak today, which is probably thanks to the Latin and French that was mostly spoken and used by royalty, the wealthy class, and the church.
This means that we have words in English which have a Latin or Romance origin, and these words often follow different pronunciation rules than words that have an Old English or Germanic origin.
It wasn’t until we had Early Modern English, William Caxton’s printing press, the English Bible, and William Shakespeare that English started to become a more important national language of England.
Then, of course, the time of Late Modern English saw the Industrial Revolution, the influence of science, and the colonialism of the British empire, in which English starts to be influenced even more by other languages.
And now English is a modern, global language that’s spoken by millions of people around the world! So, the next time you feel frustrated with English pronunciation, you can remember all the many influences and changes it has gone through over the centuries.
Vowels: How to know when they should be long or short
In English, we generally have two types of vowel sounds which we call long vowels and short vowels. And usually we can look at the spelling of the word to help us figure out if a vowel should be long or short.
Long vowel or short vowel?
So, here’s the general rule about long or short vowels:
If you have one vowel next to a consonant, it’s usually a short vowel.
If you have one consonant between two vowels, you usually pronounce the first vowel as a long vowel.
If you put a vowel before a double consonant, two hard consonant sounds, or a consonant that sounds like two consonants (such as x), you’ll pronounce it as a short vowel.
Let’s take a as an example:
You can hear the short a sound in a word like cap or apple, and you can hear the long a sound in a word like grape or cape.
So, if you compare these words, you might notice a pattern. When we add an e to a word like cap, it becomes cape, and the sound of the a changes.
Here are some other words with a long a sound:
Now, sometimes an English learner will look at a word like able or cable and make the mistake of pronouncing it with a short a sound, as in apple.
Remember that when you see a double consonant, as in the two p’s of apple, you usually pronounce that a sound as a short a. If the word has a single consonant, as in cable, you pronounce it with a long a.
This is also true of words with two hard consonants together, as in tackle. Or a consonant like x.
Look at these words and try pronouncing them. Which of them have a long a and a short a?
But what about the “a” sound in a longer word like “relatable” or “relaxation”?
When we separate two vowels with only one consonant, as in relatable, we use a long a. But what about relaxation?
Here, we have an x between two vowel sounds. But the thing is that x sounds like two hard consonant sounds together, k and s. Because of this, we pronounce the a in relax like the a in cap.
And when it comes to the ending -ation, we always pronounce the a as a long a, as in nation or vacation.
Once you’re comfortable with the this basic pattern of how to pronounce vowels, you’ll understand the way other vowels work, too.
You’ll hear the short e sound in a word like egg or bed, but you’ll here the long e sound in a word like concrete. You’ll hear the short o in a word like stop and the long o in a word like tote.
Look at these other words to see what I mean. Try pronouncing them on your own:
NOTE: Most of the time you will hear the long e sound in diphthongs, which is when we put two vowels together. But don’t worry, we’re going to talk about that in a bit!
What about “i” as in “kind”?
Most of the time i follows the basic patterns that the other vowels do. But there’s one exception: “i” in kind, blind, or find.
English learners make mistakes with these words all the time and try to pronounce the i as a short i. And that makes sense!
After all, when we put other vowels before -nd, we pronounce them in their short form, as in:
And there is one case when i follows this rule, too, as in the word wind.
But most of the time i breaks that rule, as in:
Wind up (the phrasal verb)
What is the schwa sound?
If you know how to pronounce the u in but or up, you know how to make the schwa sound, which is also just the short u sound. The schwa sound can be hard for learners to pronounce, which is why, when you first start, it might be easier to pronounce it like a long o, as in dog.
The word the or the article a can also have a schwa sound sometimes if you put it before a word beginning with a consonant, such as in:
The other thing about the schwa sound is that, if a word has multiple syllables, the unstressed vowels can have the schwa sound, too. Can you hear the schwa sounds in these words?
In North American pronunciation, we use the rhotic r, which means we pronounce the r after vowels and at the end of words. This is different from the English that is spoken in the UK or in Australia, for example.
So, in North American English, the r sound can have an affect on the vowels next to it.
An r-controlled vowel is a vowel that comes before the letter r, and the r sound changes the way the vowel sounds. In some cases, you can almost hear more than one vowel sound. Try pronouncing these words (Do you here the long o and the short u before the r?):
When we add an e after the r, watch the way it changes the vowel sound:
In a word with more than one syllable, the r-controlled vowels in the unstressed syllable can often sound similar to a schwa. Try pronouncing the r-controlled vowels in these words:
Diphthongs: What they are, and how to use them
I mentioned it briefly before, but diphthongs are the sounds that you get when you put two vowels together. And, actually, you’ve already heard similar sounds when you pronounce words with long vowels, like the a in grape, the o in phone, the i in time.
Of course, there are diphthongs in English that are easy to remember, such as:
Ee, which almost always sounds like a long e,
Oi, which almost always sounds like the oi in noise
But some of them are not so easy, and this is one of the most confusing areas for learners, which is why we’re going to look at some of the common patterns you’ll find with diphthongs.
Words with ei: neighbor vs. receive
Most of the time, when you see ei in a word, it will have a long a sound, as in cape:
But, when an ei comes after a c in a stressed syllable, it will have a long e sound, as in:
Words with ou: about, soup, and through
Usually, when you see the ou vowel combination, it will follow this pattern (au):
However, words with an oup combination have a long u sound, as in:
Words with a ould combination, which come from Old English and Germanic languages, have more of a schwa sound, as in put (remember the “l” here is silent”:
How about words like cough or tough? These words also come from old Germanic languages, and we pronounce them with an f sound at the end:
And then, there are words with an ough or an ought combination. With these combinations, you pronounce the ending as a long o:
And if there is a t, it sounds like the ot in hot:
Words with oo: Pool vs. cook
Words with oo also present a challenge to English learners, because the oo sound can either sound like the u in put or the u in flute. Here are some general patterns that might help you.
When we combine oo with an l, we usually get a long u sound as in flute:
Words with an oon follow the same pattern:
When we combine an oo with a k, we usually get a short u sound as in put:
But, as always, we have those words in English that you just need to memorize, as in these ood and oot words. Do you know the differences in these words?
Consonants: How to know when to pronounce them differently
In the same way that vowels might be giving you trouble, consonant sounds can be confusing, too. So, let’s take a look at some common pronunciation tendencies with consonant sounds in English:
Words with c: Cat vs. city
It’s sometimes hard to know when to use a soft c, which sounds like an s, or a hard c, which sounds like a k.
Usually, when c comes before the vowels a, o, or u, we pronounce it as a hard c:
However, when a c comes before an i, e, or a y, it sounds like an s:
Words with a g: Bag vs. magic
When we put g before an i, e, or y, we usually pronounce it as a soft g, like the j in jam.
When we put g at the end of the word, we usually pronounce it as a hard g. But when we add an e to the ending, as in words that end in -ge, we also have the same soft g sound.
And, usually, when you put g before a, o, or u, we pronounce it like a hard g, which sounds like a voiced k sound.
When we put other consonants after g, like l or r, we also use a hard g:
Of course, there are a few exceptions in which a word with a gi or ge combination has a hard g sound:
Words with a th: Other vs. thick
We actually have two kinds of th sounds in English: one unvoiced and one voiced.
To make a voiced th sound, put your tongue between your teeth and let your vocal chords vibrate.
To make an unvoiced th sound, put your tongue between your teeth, and blow out. You should feel air moving from your mouth if you put your hand in front of your face.
You can hear the voiced th sound in words like:
Sometimes, we put a voiced th at the beginning of words that we use all the time, like:
We put a voiced th sound at the ends of words with a -the
You hear the unvoiced th sound at the beginning and ends of words like:
Words with an h: honest vs. hug
Most of the time we pronounce the h at the beginning of words, which means we should feel air moving out of our lungs:
However, when it comes to certain English words that have a Latin or Romance origin, we don’t pronounce the h:
Words with an sh and zh sound: Mission and efficient
You might have noticed words in English have an sh sound even though they don’t have a sh. They might also have heard a voiced sh sound as well.
We create an unvoiced sh sound by putting our teeth together gently and pushing air through our mouth. We create a voiced zh sound by putting our teeth together, vibrating our vocal chords, and allowing a gentle push of air through our teeth.
I’m talking about words like:
These words typically have Romance or Latin roots, so keep you eyes out for letter combinations like:
- iti -
- ici -
And sometimes we use a zh sound, which you can also think of as a voiced sh sound. This is the sound you hear in words like:
These also have their origin in Latin and Romance languages, so you can look for words with letter combinations:
Different pronunciations of -ed after different consonants
Another really difficult aspect of English pronunciation is the different ways in which we pronounce the ending sound -ed.
Thankfully, there are some general rules you can follow here!
If the -ed comes after a t or d, it sounds like an id or ed as in:
If the -ed comes after p, k, f, gh, sh, ch, ss, c, and x sounds, the -ed sounds more like a t:
With words that end in l, n, r, g, v, s, z, b, and m sounds, the -ed ending sounds more like a d sound:
I know that seems like a lot to remember, but it just takes a bit of practice with words that have -ed endings.
How can I remember all these different pronunciation rules?
Well, now that we’ve talked about history and taken you on a journey through the many rules and patterns of English pronunciation, how are you supposed to practice and memorize all these rules?
Practice with minimal pairs
Minimal pairs are pairs of words that differ in one sound in English, which may be a vowel, diphthong, or consonant sound. For example
Pen and pin
Seat and sheet
Udder and other
Steer and stare
Practicing with minimal pairs can help you isolate and focus on those sounds that might be most difficult for you.
Figure out what sounds are most difficult for you to pronounce. It might be the u in put or the th sound, for example. Make a list of minimal pairs, print it out and put it somewhere you’ll see it all the time. Commit to practicing with minimal pairs at least a few minutes every day.
Practice with songs and poetry
Singing songs and reciting poetry in English will do wonders for your pronunciation! Why? Because music is fun and can make you feel emotions which help create direct connections to your learning, which makes memorization easier and more natural.
If you need song ideas, we’ve got you covered! If you download our song worksheets you’ll find the lyrics and links to the songs as well as the opportunity to boost your vocabulary before you listen to the lyrics.
And if you need ideas for poetry, here are my suggestions:
Practice with the ELSA app
I highly recommend downloading and practicing with the ELSA app on your phone or device. We’ve used it ourselves, and we can personally attest that it’s fun and easy to use.
The ELSA app works like a virtual pronunciation coach, which means that you read short dialogues out loud and speak it into the app, and the artificial intelligence, which can actually hear differences in accent and pronunciation, gives you feedback based on standard North American English pronunciation.
It’s amazing! I tried it using different pronunciations to see if the AI could tell the difference, and it can!
And we’ve been lucky enough to team up with ELSA so that, right now, our readers can get access to 80% off a lifetime membership to ELSA Pro. Yep, that’s right! You can sign up once and have it for a lifetime! How cool is that?
About the Writer
Marta is an online ESL teacher who works with students from around the world. As a writer, language nerd, and content contributor for In English With Love, her mission is to empower English learners with knowledge and positivity.