by Liz Walter
There’s no getting away from the fact that pronunciation in English is difficult. Unlike many other languages, the relationship between the letters in a word and its sound is often weak, to say the least.
For this reason, there are pronunciation problems with extremely common words which I notice over and over again in my classes, so this blog post will explain how to avoid some of them.
I want to start with one really general issue: the –ed ending on past tenses. This causes a lot of problems for learners but there is in fact a simple rule: it is only pronounced as ‘id’ when the verb ends with a ‘d’ or ‘t’ sound, e.g. folded, painted.
For all other verbs, -ed is pronounced as ‘d’. After some consonants, it will come out sounding more like ‘t’, but you don’t need to worry about that because it will happen naturally.
So in the following sentences, all the verbs have one syllable only:
She cleaned the window.
We walked to the station.
It rained yesterday.
Some of my students tell me that they have trouble believing this rule, especially for words like crossed and asked, where there seem to be too many consonants together. However, it really is true, and following it will help your pronunciation a lot!
In fact, my opinion is that a lot of common pronunciation errors occur because students can’t really believe what they are hearing. How can women (the plural of ‘woman’) be pronounced as ‘wim-in’ for example? No matter how often the teacher says the word, students find it difficult to accept that ‘o’ can be pronounced as ‘i’.
Another word that causes problems is vegetable. In a standard British or American accent, this word has only three syllables, not four. In phonetic symbols, the pronunciation is /ˈvedʒ.tə.bl̩/ and in letters it is veg-tu-bl. The main stress is on the first syllable and the second syllable has a very quick vowel sound, not the long ‘a’ from the word ‘table’. Although you may hear it pronounced with four syllables in some regional accents, it is safer to stick to the three-syllable version, especially in a speaking exam.
Then we have biscuit. This is a two-syllable word, and the vowel sound – strange as it seems – is the same in both syllables: /ˈbɪs.kɪt/ (bis-kit).
However, I should finish by saying that if you are unsure of a pronunciation, there is an easy way to find out: the English dictionary on this website has sound recordings – just click on the loudspeaker icon to hear any words. You can even choose a British or an American accent – and learn that although both Brits and Americans eat what they call biscuits, they aren’t at all the same food!