English Pronunciation Rules

by Linda Basilicato

English pronunciation rules seem arbitrary when you consider, for example, that cough does not rhyme with tough or bough, and rose rhymes with neither dose nor lose. You may also wonder why the word heard rhymes with bird but not with beard. This apparent inconsistency, however, does not mean that there are no rules for English pronunciation.

Basics

A "C" is normally pronounced with the hard sound of the "K." Examples include coy, car and candy. A "C" is usually pronounced with the soft sound of the "S" only when followed by "E," "I" or "Y," as in "cedar," "publicist" and "cycle." A "G" usually has a hard sound. This changes to the soft "J" sound if it is followed by an "E," "I" or "Y." Examples: generous, gym and magic. Exceptions to this rule are common. Consider tiger, gynecology and gift. The letter "E" at the end of a word gives a long sound to the preceding vowel. Examples: sham versus shame, hat versus hate, dot versus dote, ton versus tone, kit versus kite. The letter "W" makes a short "A" sound like a short "O." Thus, watch does not rhyme with catch, nor swap with cap or wand with band. The letter "W" makes a short "O" sound like a short "U" as in word and worry. The word "sword" is not exactly an exception to the rule because the "W" is silent. Silent letters also make English pronunciation difficult. Some silent combinations are easy to spot because the words would be difficult to pronounce if you tried to sound out the letters, such as the "GH" in light, fight and daughter. Likewise for the combination "mn," found in autumn and hymn and for the "gn" used in sign and gnaw. More difficult to learn is the silent "E" in the middle of words. This pronunciation pattern can vary widely from region to region, but you will not likely hear the second "e" in "every," "evening" or "temperature." Other silent letters include "B" (climb, thumb), "L" (talk, half, salmon), "H" (honest, hour) and "KN" (knight, knife, knock). Silent letters usually represent a change in pronunciation patterns without a change in spelling.

Tips

Reading teachers and ESL teachers do not often teach pronunciation rules directly. They build pronunciation skills through repeated exposure to words through listening, reading, spelling and speaking lessons. If you are looking to improve your own (or your students') pronunciation and reading skills, try reading rhyming poetry out loud. Dr. Seuss' children's books are a fun place to start. Reading poetry out loud helps you fall into the rhythm of the language in a way that makes it difficult to mispronounce words. Practicing often will help you add properly-pronounced words to your vocabulary. This knowledge will carry over to non-rhyming reading and also to conversation. Reading along with books on CD can also help you (or your students) improve pronunciation skills. This activity boosts learning because it engages students' listening (auditory), reading (visual) and speaking faculties all at once. This means you should not neglect reading and writing practice even when the primary goal is listening and speaking skills.

About the Author

Linda Basilicato has been writing food and lifestyle articles since 2005 for newspapers and online publications such as eHow.com. She graduated magna cum laude from Stony Brook University in New York and also holds a Master of Arts in philosophy from the University of Montana.

Photo Credits

  • Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images