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English Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Putting Words Together

When we speak, we do not speak just in single words but in groups of words. These groups are continuous, and they may or may not have pauses between them. Because we speak quickly, this can cause changes to the shapes of the words.

  • Some sounds might drop off.
  • Some sounds might be added.
  • Some sounds might change.

These devices help our speech to sound fluent. Because of the way we have been conditioned by spelling, it is usually a surprise to people when these features of spoken English are first drawn to their attention. Many respond with disbelief or consternation. It needs to be stressed that they occur in fast fluent speech. If you speak slowly, your speech will show fewer of these features. It is a good idea to try to forget the written form and concentrate on listening carefully to the way other people speak.

Strong and Weak Words

It was the best car for us to buy.

In this sentence, some words carry a stress: we can say those words are strong. These are the lexical words.

It was the best car for us to buy.

The remaining words are the grammatical words, and they are unstressed or weak. (See page 46-7 for the distinction between lexical and grammatical words.) However, if each grammatical word is said in isolation, it has a different sound.

Word in isolation Word in company

(strong/stressed) (weak/unstressed)

  • was: wz (as in dog) wz
  • for: f (as in door) f
  • us: s (as in bus) s
  • to: tu (as in shoe) t
  • the: i (as in tree)

In all the weak or unstressed forms, the vowel // is used. The technical name for this vowel is the Hebrew word schwa. This sound is often difficult to hear exactly, and it is always unstressed. If you think there is a vowel in a word but you cannot hear exactly what it is, it is probably schwa.

Some people believe that this is a careless way of speaking and that we should pronounce all our syllables equally clearly, as if they were all strong forms. However, English spoken with only strong forms sounds most unnatural and does not help the listener to distinguish emphasis or meaning.

ESOL students need to understand about weak and strong syllables if they want their English to sound like English.

Words that are usually stressed (strong) are the lexical words: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

Words that are usually unstressed (weak) are the grammatical words, such as determiners, conjunctions, pronouns, prepositions, and auxiliary verbs.

However, if the meaning demands it, any word can be stressed (strong).

She was married. i wz mærid

She was married. (But she isn't now.) i wz mærid

Because our spelling does not show whether a word is weak or strong, we are often unaware of the changes we make every time we speak. In spelling, some weak forms are shown as contracted forms.

  • can't, won't, didn't, I'll, he'd, they've, and so on.

Both have and of become /v/ in the weak form.

  • I must have lost it. i mst v lst t
  • One of them is missing. wn v m z ms

This is why the weak form of have /v/ is sometimes mistaken for of /v/ when this word is made emphatic.

  • I should have done it.
  • I should of done it.
  • I would have if you would have.
  • I would of if you would of.

This is now commonly heard in the spoken language, but it is not acceptable in written English.

Note that the "of" form of "have" occurs only after modal auxiliaries.

Losing Sounds: Elision

In rapid speech, some sounds can be left out, or elided, without damaging the shape of the words. The technical term for this is elision. It often occurs with clusters of consonants.

Elided form

  • postman pos(t)man posmn
  • mashed potatoes mash(ed) potatoes mæ pteitoz
  • next week nex(t) week neks wik

Some English words are quite hard to pronounce without any elision, such as asthma, facts, twelfths.

In some words, the weak vowels can also be elided.

Elided form:

  • library lib(ra)ry laibri
  • history hist(o)ry hstri
  • policeman p(o)liceman plismn
  • government gov(ern)ment gvmnt

English spelling provides evidence of historical elision - sounds that were once pronounced but are no longer.

  • listen, answer, thistle, walk, climb.

With these examples there is no longer a choice. With examples like next week or library, it is possible to use the elided or the unelided form.

Elision in speech provides a challenge for children learning to spell. Their attempts at approximations include only the sounds they hear. In words where elisions occur, learners will need help to make the transition to a greater reliance on the visual representation of the words.

Adding Sounds: Liaison

Sounds can also be inserted between words to make speech more fluent.

When the following words are said in isolation, the final /r/ is not pronounced.

  • far fa
  • four f
  • corner kn

When they are followed by a word beginning with a vowel, the /r/ is pronounced.

  • far away farwei
  • four o'clock frklk
  • corner of the street knrv strit

This is known as a linking r. When a linking r is added when one is not represented in the spelling, some people describe it as careless.

  • Star of Persia star v p
  • Shah of Persia ar v p
  • law and order lr n d

Because of the spelling, people are happy at the pronunciation of the /r/ in the star of Persia, but unhappy when it appears in the Shah of Persia, where it is sometimes called the intrusive r. They are often really dismayed by an /r/ in law and order. Such responses are based on the spelling. When we listen to the sounds and ignore the spelling, the /r/ in all of these examples can be heard as a linking device between vowels. It is a common way of making our speech more fluent.

Changing Sounds: Assimilation

When sounds are in the company of other sounds in the stream of speech, certain adjacent sounds can change to become more alike. This process is called assimilation.

Assimilation occurs in rapid casual speech, not when we speak slowly. Because assimilation is not represented in the spelling, many people react to it at first with disbelief and sometimes with dismay, interpreting it as carelessness. As with other features of spoken English, it is useful to listen to the way people actually speak and try to forget about spelling.

When these words are said in isolation, they are pronounced like this:

  • ten ten
  • good gd

When they are followed by some other words, the pronunciation can change:

  • ten boys n > m tem bz
  • ten cups n > te kps
  • good bye d > b gb bai
  • good girl d > g gg gl

Sometimes more than one sound might change:

  • Mount Pleasant nt > mp mam pleznt
  • front paws nt > mp frm pz

There are examples of historical assimilation that can be seen in our spelling.

  • in > im impossible
  • imbibe
  • immemorial

Unpleasant can be pronounced with un or um.

An ancient curiosity that illustrates this assimilation is:

  • a non peer > an oumpeer > an umpire.

All these features of rapid spoken English - strong and weak forms, elision, liaison, and assimilation - help to make English sound fluent and smooth. They are all characteristic of normal spoken English, but because they are not represented in spelling, they usually pass unnoticed. If they are noticed, they are sometimes described as lazy or slovenly. Yet it does not lead to any confusion if you say histry or govment, and these are the most common everyday pronunciations of these words.

When the first attempts were made to design machines that could produce speech, each word was taken from a vocabulary of prerecorded words. The results were so peculiar and unnatural that the speech could hardly be understood. This was because each word had been recorded in isolation, and consequently the speech had none of the features of connected speech described here - weak and strong syllables, elisions, liaisons, assimilations.

To summarise, features of connected speech are:

  • lexical words, which always have stressed forms, also called strong forms;

grammatical words, which usually have unstressed forms, also called weak forms - these usually have the vowel sound schwa //;

  • elisions, where sounds drop off
  • liaisons, where sounds are added
  • assimilations, where sounds are changed.

Controversy or Controversy? More about Word Stress

We have examined a difference between lexical words, which are stressed (strong), and grammatical words, which are unstressed (weak).

When an English word has more than one syllable, one of the syllables must be stressed.

In English the position of the stress is almost invariably fixed for each word. Foreign students must learn the position of the stress when they learn English words.

The stressed syllable is marked by placing the symbol ` in front of it:

  • `father, be`fore, ho`tel, `chapter.

If the stress is placed on the wrong syllable, the word will be very hard to understand.

Try saying these words with the stress as it is marked:

  • e`conomics, photo`grapher, `democracy.

There are a very few words in English where there is a choice of stressed syllable. Commonly used examples are

  • controversy
  • harass
  • kilometre.

These few examples cause considerable concern to some people, who seek to establish the one single "correct" position for the stress in every case.

In some languages, the stress is always in the same place in each word.

In Czech, it is always on the first syllable.

In French, it is always on the last syllable.

In Polish, it is always on the second to last syllable.

In English, the main stress is not fixed to a single position:

  • `photograph, pho`tographer, photo`graphic.

It is usually on the first syllable:

  • `any, `reasonable, `steadily, `uncle, `carpet, `definite, `dinner.

It is sometimes on the second syllable:

  • un`til, be`hind, re`sult, de`ny, for`get, to`gether, a`gree.

It is occasionally on the third syllable:

  • under`standing, edu`cation, demo`cratic, curi`osity.

And very rarely it can even be on the fourth syllable or later: articul`ation, interde`pendence, interconti`nental.

There are some two-syllable words where the stress is on the first syllable for the noun and the second syllable for the verb.

Noun Verb

  • `import im`port
  • `record re`cord
  • `convict con`vict
  • `progress pro`gress
  • `pervert per`vert
  • `rebel re`bel

Originally, both the noun and the verb in the lists above were the same: both were stressed on the second syllable. During the past three centuries, there has been a gradual change throughout the vocabulary, whereby stress has been moving to the first syllable for the nouns. In the noun address, the Americans have made the change, but British and New Zealand speakers still use the original form.

There is considerable variation of stress patterns on these words, which reflects the fact that changes are taking place. Some of these changes are quite rapid. Examples where changes have recently occurred are the words research and protest.

When New Zealanders are asked to read out the sentence: "I noticed a recess in the wall", almost all of them pronounce the noun `recess with the stress on the first syllable. This is a fairly recent change. The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1996) gives the pronunciation of recess as re`cess.


English is a very rhythmical language. Rhythm is not only found in poetry.

The rhythm can be heard when we count aloud:

  •  five / ten / fifteen / twenty.

The stressed syllables are lengthened in five and ten, and shortened in fifteen and twenty, so that the words with two syllables are about the same length as those with only one.

The rhythm of English speech is produced through the combination of the stressed and unstressed syllables. This is like a beat and is especially easy to distinguish in rap.

Nursery rhymes sound especially rhythmical.

  • This is the / house that / Jack / built.
  • Humpty / Dumpty / sat on a / wall.

The rhythm produced by this combination of stressed and unstressed syllables is very characteristic of spoken English. It makes English a stress-timed language. Examples of other stress-timed languages are Russian and Portuguese.

In some languages, by contrast, the syllables are produced in a steady flow, which is unaffected by the stress differences. These are known as syllable-timed languages.

French, Mâori, and Samoan are some examples of syllable-timed languages.

Mâori-accented English, which is frequently heard in parts of New Zealand, has a distinctive rhythm which is syllable timed rather than stress timed. The grammatical words are heard more distinctly than in Pâkehâ New Zealand English, where they are very weak and indistinct.

Syllable timing is a feature of other varieties of ethnically marked English, such as West Indian English, and Aboriginal English in Australia.

Rhythm and Poetry

Students of English literature traditionally studied the rhythm of poetry, analysing the poetic lines according to their combinations of stressed (/ ) and unstressed () syllables, which were called feet. These sound patterns are known as metre (from Latin metrum, meaning a measure), and the study of them, along with the study of rhyme and stanza forms, is called prosody.

The best known patterns of rhythm in English poetry are as follows:

  • Iamb ( / )

Example: Beyond the utmost bound of human thought. (Tennyson)

This is the most common metre and is often heard in natural speech.

  • Trochee ( / )

Example: Ye whose hearts are fresh and simple. (Longfellow)

  • Anapaest ( / )

Example: Not a word to each other; we kept the great pace. (Browning)

  • Dactyl ( / )

Example: Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me. (Hardy)

This kind of analysis works quite well with traditional verse in regular rhythm, but where the rhythm is irregular, these patterns are hard to apply. They are of little use in describing a lot of modern poetry, especially free verse. We have included this information here both because it is useful when studying poetry written in traditional styles and because it demonstrates one of the few ways in which spoken language was explored in school in the past.

Exploring language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009