English pronunciation can be difficult, no… English pronunciation can be extremely difficult!
Words can sound nothing like how they are written and it can sometimes feel like you are playing a guessing game when you encounter a new word.
Despite being difficult, there are patterns we can learn.
Using these patterns you will feel confident when pronouncing most new words you come across.
English Pronunciation Essentials
Before looking at the rules we need to look at some basics that will get you out of trouble time and time again!
So you’ve encountered a new word and don’t know the spelling. You’ve also looked for the rules in this guide but maybe for this one word they don’t quite fit.
Well this is where reading phonetically comes to the rescue.
Using a tool such as the Cambridge Dictionary website you can see the IPA spelling of most words in the English language. This IPA spelling doesn’t have any weird quirks or rules. It simply spells the word exactly how it sounds.
Once you have learned to read the phonetic spellings of words it makes life so much easier.
Not only that, they also include the British and American audio for each word so you can double check to be absolutely sure.
I use this myself to confirm the pronunciation of any new word or word I’m unsure of.
Find a Teacher
Another thing you can do is find a teacher or somebody who’s level of English you trust.
Although you can check the pronunciation of any word by yourself using the first method it can be time consuming.
When you work with someone like a teacher you can simply read a page of text and your teacher will be able to confirm words you are unsure of or point out any mistakes you didn’t even realize you were making!
Even if you can’t commit to taking lessons over a long timeframe, checking in to an English lesson occasionally can do your pronunciation wonders!
Now that we have the basics covered we can move on to the rules.
Each section will be the study of a word that is a good example of a particular rule.
These will take time so don’t feel like you have to memorise all of them at once. Bookmark this page and come back to it or… better yet, use a flashcard system like ANKI to memorise them as efficiently as possible.
Be aware that English is a diverse language that has borrowed from a lot of places.
Because of this, these rules will work the majority of the time but… you may encounter exceptions occasionally so beware!
vowel + single consonant at the end = short vowel sound
Examples of words that follow this rule include:
- cut (/kʌt/)
- tap (/tæp/)
- big (/bɪɡ/)
vowel + consonant + e = long vowel sound
The e is silent at the end of these words. A lot of these are diphthong (gliding) sounds and include:
- care (/keə/)
- bike (/baɪk/)
- tape (/teɪp/)
vowel + double consonant after = short vowel sound
When a vowel is followed by two consonants that are the same, the vowel is usually a short sound. Examples of these kinds of words include:
- hitter (/ˈhɪt.ə/)
- muffin (/ˈmʌf.ɪn/)
- banner (/ˈbæn.ə/)
vowel + vowel = single long vowel
Quite often when we have two vowels next to each other we ignore the second vowel and draw the first vowel out longer. Examples include:
- rain (/reɪn/)
- treat (/triːt/)
- you (/juː/)
Diphthongs are the exception. In these cases we say both vowels but they blend together into a single syllable.
regular verb (-ed ending) = 3 different pronunciations
With regular simple past tense verbs, the pronunciation of -ed endings changes depending on the final sound of the verb (before the ed).
If it ends in d or t then the ed is pronounced /ɪd/
- hunted (/ˈhʌnt.ɪd/)
- winded (/ˈwɪnd.ɪd/)
- haunted (/ˈhɔːnt.ɪd/)
It it ends in a voiced sound then the ed is pronounced /d/
- hugged (/hʌgd/)
- fried (/fraɪd/)
- robbed (/rɒbd/)
If it ends in a voiceless sound then the ed is pronounced /t/
- talked (/tɔːkt/)
- tapped (/tæpt/)
- missed (/mɪst/)
Follow this chart to see an easy way of finding out how to pronounce an ed ending word:
g + e, i, y = soft g sound
If our g is followed by these sounds then we usually pronounce it as a soft g:
- gentleman (/ˈdʒen.təl.mən/)
- giant (/ˈdʒaɪ.ənt/)
- gym (/dʒɪm/)
g + a, o, u = hard g sound
If the g is followed by these sounds then we usually pronounce it as a hard g:
- game (/ɡeɪm/)
- gone (/ɡɒn/)
- gun (/ɡʌn/)
g + h = f sound
If we encounter gh and it isn’t at the beginning of a word then we usually pronounce it as a /f/ sound. This doesn’t apply when it’s at the start of the word (e.g. ghost) in this case it is usually treated as a hard g:
- laugh (/lɑːf)
- rough (/rʌf)
- cough (/kɒf/)
compound noun = stress on the first syllable
When we combine more than one word into a single noun (compound noun), we tend to put the stress on the first syllable of the first word.
- cowboy (/ˈkaʊ.bɔɪ/)
- newspaper (/ˈnjuːzˌpeɪ.pə)
- friendship (/ˈfrend.ʃɪp)
r + consonant after = silent r
In British english, if we have an r followed by a consonant then we usually silence the r and just lengthen the vowel before it.
Be aware that this rule can be different in other countries (e.g. American English):
- heard (/hɜːd/)
- pardon (/ˈpɑː.dən/)
- lord (/lɔːd/)
–s / –es ending = 3 different pronunciations
In a similar way to our –ed endings, there are 3 different ways to pronounce –s / –es endings, depending on the ending of the word (before the –s / –es).
If it ends in a /s/, /z/, /ʧ/, /ʤ/, /ʃ/ or /ʒ/ sound then the s / es is pronounced /ɪz/:
- churches (/ˈʧɜːʧ.ɪz/)
- misses (/ˈmɪs.ɪz/)
- causes (/ˈkɔːz.ɪz/)
It it ends in a voiced sound then the s / es is pronounced /z/
- bugs (/bʌgz/)
- says (/sɛz/)
- mends (/mɛndz/)
If it ends in a voiceless sound then the s / es is pronounced /s/
- hits (/hɪts/)
- taps (/tæps/)
- racks (/ræks/)
Use the chart below to find out how to pronounce an s ending at the end of a word.
oo + k = /ʊ/
For the majority of words with oo, we pronounce this as /uː/:
- mood (/muːd/)
- boom (/buːm)
- room (/ruːm/)
However, when oo is followed by a k, it takes a shortened /ʊ/ sound:
- look (/lʊk/)
- took (/tʊk/)
- book (/bʊk/)
There we have it, 10 rules that will give your English pronunciation a huge boost!
Make sure to listen to the audio files and practise along with them for the greatest success.
It’s also very important to try at least one English lesson to ensure your pronunciation is on track and you are practising the correct way (without any bad habits).