English Pronunciation Rules and How to Learn Them

A chalk board printed with different tenses for the verb "Play"

Any non-native English speaker can tell you that learning English is not easy. Between complex grammar structures, confusing idioms, and difficult English pronunciation rules, English can be a lot to handle. Thankfully, there is a method to the madness.

Like any language, English relies on a set of rules that dictate the order and sound of words. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to learning all of these rules. It takes years of study and practice; and the earlier you start, the better.

Most students agree that English pronunciation rules are some of the toughest rules to learn. So, to help you improve your English pronunciation, we have provided the following guide on English pronunciation rules and how to learn them. Let’s begin with some of the most basic English pronunciation rules:

Basic English Pronunciation Rules

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First, it is important to know the difference between pronouncing vowels and consonants. When you say the name of a consonant, the flow of air is temporarily stopped (which means that your tongue, lips, or vocal cords quickly block the sound). However, when you say the sound of a vowel, your mouth remains open, and the flow of air does not end until you stop speaking.

  • Vowels – a, e, i, o, u, *y, *w
  • Consonants – b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, *w, x, *y, z

*It is important to note that -w and -y can act as either vowels or consonants, depending on the combination of letters in each word. For example, the word “day” uses the vowel form of -y, while “yell” uses the consonant form. Similarly, “owe” uses the vowel form of -w, while “work” uses the consonant form.

Once you learn the name and basic sounds of each letter, you can start to put them together to form words. For example, the letters p, e, and t come together to form the word “pet.”

Vowel Combinations

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Usually, one vowel is surrounded by consonants in a word (example: pet). However, in many words, two vowels are put together, creating an entirely new sound. When this happens, the first letter of the combination is usually long, while the second letter is silent. Here are a few examples: ai (daily), ea (eat), ie (pie, outside), oa (boat), ay (say), oo (choose, book), and ee (feel).

 

Consonant Combinations

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Just like vowel combinations, consonant combinations can create entirely new sounds. Sometimes, these sounds are a combination of each individual letter (like -ct in the word “act”), but sometimes they are completely unrelated to the sounds the letters would make individually (like -gh in the word “laugh”). Here are a few more examples: ch (chess), sh (shirt), th (this, bath), gh (ghost, cough), wh (whale, whole), fr (fresh), ck (pick), bl (blue), and sp (spin).

 

Syllables

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A syllable is basically just one sound in a word. Some words only have one syllable, while others have many syllables. Knowing the number of syllables in a word helps you pronounce it correctly. To use our previous example, the word “day” has three letters, but when you say the word, it only has one unbroken sound.

 

Every syllable must have at least one vowel, and you can often figure out the number of syllables in a word by looking at the number of vowels. Here are a few examples:

 

  • Fast – 1 syllable, 1 vowel (Fast)
  • Order – 2 syllables, 2 vowels (Or-der)
  • Tomorrow – 3 syllables, 3 vowels (To-mor-row)
  • Alligator – 4 syllables, 4 vowels (All-i-ga-tor)

 

While the majority of English words have between 1-4 syllables, some words have as many as 19! This means that counting the number of syllables is not always easy. Additionally, the number of syllables is not necessarily equal to the number of vowels. Some vowel sounds are silent, while other sounds are made up of two different vowels. For example, the word “outside” has 4 vowels, but only two syllables, because -ou only counts as one vowel sound, while -i…e combine to form the long “i” sound (like in the word “pie”), even though they are separated by a consonant.

 

Syllable Stress

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When you say a word that only has one syllable, you only have one syllable to stress. “Syllable stress” refers to the syllable in a word that gets more emphasis than the others. This means that, in words with more than one syllable, one syllable will sound a little longer and louder than the others. Without the right stress on certain syllables, your speech might sound like a robot!

 

So, how do you determine which syllables to stress? While there are certain exceptions, you can generally use the following English pronunciation rules for shorter words:

 

  • One syllable – Stress the first (and only) syllable.
    • Examples: dog, cat, day, rain, etc.
  • Two syllables – Stress the first or second syllable. Generally, two-syllable nouns, adjectives, and adverbs stress the first syllable, while two-syllable verbs stress the second syllable.
    • First syllable examples: happy (HAP-py), little (LIT-tle), and running (RUN-ning).
    • Second syllable examples: record (re-CORD), combine (come-BINE), and insist (in-SIST).
  • Three syllables – Stress can be on the first, second, or third syllable, depending on how the word ends.
    • Stress the first syllable on words ending with -er (ballplayer), -or (narrator), -ly (frequently), or -y (library)
    • Stress the second syllable on words ending with -tion (reception) -sion (expansion) -ic (strategic), or -al (potential)
    • Stress the third syllable on words ending with -ee (referee) -eer (pioneer) -ese (legalese), -ette (vinaigrette)
  • Four syllables – Stress can be on the second or third syllable, depending on how the word ends.
    • Stress the second syllable on words ending with -cy (transparency), -ty (fraternity), -phy (philosophy), -gy (geology), -al (political)
    • Stress the third syllable on words ending with -tion (constitution), -sion (apprehension), -ic (supersonic)

 

Exceptions to English Pronunciation Rules

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As with most languages, English doesn’t always follow its own rules. For every English pronunciation rule listed above, there is at least one exception. For example, while many three-syllable words ending in -or stress the first syllable, there are exceptions like behavior (be-HAV-ior) and receptor (re-CEPT-or). Similarly, though most two-syllable nouns stress the first syllable, some don’t, like today (to-DAY) and request (re-QUEST). So, while learning English pronunciation rules is very important, you also need to memorize the exceptions.

 

How to Learn English Pronunciation Rules

As previously stated, there is no fast and easy way to learn English pronunciation rules. Ultimately, learning these rules requires a lot of memorization. However, this doesn’t mean that you simply need to study for hours on end. When you practice speaking English, you will slowly get used to different pronunciations, and begin using them in your everyday speech.

 

For additional practice, there are many free online resources at your disposal. DuoLingo and Hello English are two free services that help users learn new vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar structures. If you use these applications in addition to practicing and studying English at school or with a tutor, you will understand English pronunciation rules in no time!

 

Want to learn more about English pronunciation rules? Check out the Magoosh Speaking blog or ask about our Live Lessons today!