The S and Z Sounds

The s and z sounds are very similar sounds. No wonder they are commonly mixed up by English learners!  The difference between these two sounds is that the z sound, /z/, is made by using the vocal cords while the s sound, /s/, is made without using the vocal cords. One way of knowing whether or not you are using your vocal cords is by placing your hand on your throat. If you feel a buzzing or vibrating feeling, your vocal cords are active. 

Your tongue is not visible while making either an /s/ or /z/ sound, your jaw is nearly closed while you make these sounds. In other words, your upper and lower molars are nearly touching each other.


How to create the S sound: /s/

To make the /s/ sound, place the tip of your tongue lightly against the top of your mouth, right behind your upper teeth (but do not touch the teeth). As you push air out of your mouth, squeeze the air between the tip of your tongue and the top of your mouth. You should feel a little resistance. This is a voiceless sound, so your vocal cords should not vibrate. 


How to create the Z sound: /z/

Place the blade of your tongue (the part just behind the tip) very close to the roof of your mouth, behind your teeth. There should be a little space between your tongue and the roof (top) of your mouth. Now, vibrate your vocal cords and push the air between your tongue and the roof of your mouth. This is a voiced sound, you should feel a vibration in your throat.


How do I know when to pronounce the S and Z sounds?

There are five common spellings of the S sound: s/ss, ce, ci, sc, and x. 

There are three common spellings of the Z sound: z/zz, s, x.

Next to this, there are three rules that can be helpful to determine whether or not a sound is an /s/ as opposed to /z/.

  1. the s is pronounced as an /s/ sound when it follows an unvoiced sound. (like in cats)
  2. the s is pronounced as a /z/ sound when it follows a voiced sound. (like in dogs)
  3. when we add a syllable to the word for the addition of “s”, the final “s” is always pronounced as a /z/ sound. (like in buses)


For European Spanish speakers or people who have a lisp: 

Remember that the /s/ sound in English does not show the tongue. If it is difficult to keep your tongue inside your mouth, try to use the “butterfly technique”: place the sides of your tongue on top of your molars (so make your tongue wide) and try to make the s sound while keeping those sides in place. It will be much easier to keep the tip of your tongue inside your mouth like this. 

Looking in the mirror while you make this sound can also be helpful.

Minimal pairs (video

/s/                   /z/

Abuse(n)        abuse (v)

Advice            advise 

Force              fours  

Fussy              fuzzy 

Bus                  buzz

Hence             hens 

Race                raise 

Rice                 rise 

Sauce              saws 

Ass                  as 

Ice                   eyes 

Gross              grows  

Need help?

To learn more about commonly confused consonant sounds, check out the following articles: 

To learn more about English pronunciation and practice it in conversation, join SpeakUp, a dynamic program that engages you in authentic conversations on relevant topics and provides you with feedback from a professional and experienced English teacher.  The first week is free for you to try it out!  


Sabine Hobbel

Sabine Hobbel

Sabine Hobbel has been helping people improve their English since 2004; the knowledge she gained from completing her Master's degrees in Psychology and in English helps her every day. She has lived in 4 different English-speaking countries and she currently lives in the Italian Alps.
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