English Pronunciation Rules

(Adapted from http://www.zompist.com/spell.html, © 2000 by Mark Rosenfelder ) The goal of this page is to give spelling rules that will let you spell and pronounce 85% of English words "correctly". In order to do that, we have to first say what we means to pronounce English "correctly". That means we have to pick a dialect.

So, what dialect are we using to describe these "English Pronunciation Rules", and why did you pick that one?

This article will describe General American English, because that's the only set of rules that I could find. They were first described by Mark Rosenfelder in 2000, and give 56 rules to explain how to spell or pronounce any word in the General American dialect of English, with about 85% accuracy.

Unfortunately, many of the words that Mark uses in his article are technical words that only experts who study languages understand.

Many native English speakers don't know or understand the words he uses; I've been studying English my whole life, and I didn't know most of them until I started studying languages as a hobby, and looked them up for myself.

So, I decided to rewrite his rules in words that more people could understand, especially people who are learning English as a second language.

Below is a chart that shows a unique symbol for each sound in English, and some sample words that have that sound in them.

SymbolSample words
ārate, bait
ppaper
ărat, apple
bbook, bed
ëmeet, machine
ttake
êmet, dread
ddead
ïbite, cycle
gget
îbit, lick
kcape, talk, quite
önote, slow
mmoon
ônot, clock
nnew
ücute, you
ñsing, think
ûcut, come
ffour, physics
vvine
ucoot
+thin [1]
+this [1]
òcaught, dog
ùcook, put
sso, silly
@above, cynic, until
zzoo
$shack, ship [2]
$measure [2]
ôwcrowd, loud
öyboy, droid
çchew
jjudge
yyou, million
rran
wwait
llate
hhang
@rsearch, manor, bird
@nbutton, happen
@lbattle, final

[1] A note for Canadian readers (hi, Massoud! :-) ): Canadian English distinguishes between two different "th" sounds: compare "this" with "thistle" to see the difference. Mark's system doesn't include this difference: both sounds are probably pronounced the same way in his dialect of English.

[2] Again, in Canadian English, "sh" in "ship" sounds very different than the sound in "measure". (The sound in measure is more like a "zh" would sound, as if you replaced the "s" sound with a "z" sound before raising your tounge further back in your mouth in order to make the "sh" sound).

How to read the rules:

Spellings are underlined; pronunciations are bold. This convention avoids cluttering the text with brackets and quotation marks.

Examples:

g means the letter <g>

g means the sound /g/

laugh is pronounced lăf

# represents the beginning or end of a word.

For example, #rh represents rh at the start of a word, and g# refers to a g sound at the end of a word.

Highlighted capital letters represent variables; e.g. V represents any vowel.

The rules

The order of the rules is important. The rules can be thought of as a recipe: to pronounce a word, you go down the list of rules, seeing if each one in turn applies, and applying it if it does. The result is sometimes a little backwards in terms of explaining the system, because exceptions come first, before the general rules. Some of these rules may seem very obscure; but rare words are the hardest to pronounce.

There are exceptions to the rules. The point is the default rules work about 85% of the time.

Standard replacements

English has more sounds than the English alphabet has letters; the usual way the extra sounds are dealt with is to use a combination of two letters to refer to a single sound.

1. Always make the following replacements: ch ç sh $ ph f th + qu kw wr r wh w xh x rh r Before an o, replace wh with h

2. Replace x with ks; but after e and before another vowel, use gz instead. (ie. exV becomes e + gz + V)

3. Ignore apostrophes (can't, cop's, o'clock). Hyphens can however be treated as word separators (mother-in-law is pronounced like mother in law).

How to pronounce gh

4. Before a vowel, gh becomes g: ghost = göst.

5. gh turns a preceding single vowel long: right = rït.

6. aught and ought become òt: daughter = dòt@r, sought = sòt.

7. Any other ough becomes ö: dough = dö.

8. Elsewhere, gh is simply dropped: freight = frāt.

Silent starting letters

9. In words that start with gn, kn, mn, pt, ps, tm, pronounce the second letter only: gnostic = nôstîk, psycho = sïkö, knight = nït

Most of these rules come from Greek words that were added to English with spellings similar to Greek, but Old English had a kn sound at the beginning of words that modern English doesn't.

Replacing y

10. Replace y with ï if it ends a one-syllable word: ply = plï.

11. ey is pronounced ë; ay is ā; and oy is öy: say, monkey boy = sā mûnkë böy.

12. Replace y with i if it's not beside a vowel-- we'll worry later about how to pronounce the i. So, system = sîst@m but you, where the y is beside a vowel, is yu.

Simplification of stl

13. The t in stl is lost before a vowel at the end of the word: bustle = bûs@l", bristly = brîslë.

Sound Changes before i

14. ci or ti becomes $ before a vowel: gracious = grā$@s, nation = nā$@n.

15. tu becomes çu before a vowel, or before the letters r, or l followed by a vowel: mutual = müçu@l, mature = m@çur.

16. s becomes $ (or $ if it's preceded by a vowel):

S pronounced as Z

17. s becomes z between two vowels (amuse, design, prison), except after a (base, parasite).

It's easy to find exception to this rule: disagree, opposite, analysis. There are also words where the rule applies only when the word is used as a verb, but not as a noun, such as abuse or house. A better rule might take the language of origin into account: this change tends to occur in French and Latin words (resent, please, reason, miserable), but not if they're from Greek (analysis, isoceles) or other foreign languages (papoose, Osaka).

This rule is so common that there are other rules (borrowed from French) to indicate when we don't want the s to be pronounced z: double the s (compare Moses with mosses), or use c instead (compare race with rase). Annoyingly, there are a few cases where ss gets pronounced z(dessert, dissolve).

How to pronounce al

18. al is pronounced òl before r, s, m, t, d, or (ll at the end of a word).

The rule applies to all these example words: also, already, wall, bald, although, almost.

19. alk becomes òk, except at the start of a word: walk = wòk.

Pronunciation of c and g

20. c becomes s before i or e, k elsewhere: cell = sêl, acid = ăsîd but cow = kôw, backer = băk@r, clear = klër.

21. Similarly, g becomes j before a i or e, g elsewhere: gel = jêl, turgid = t@rjîd, but got = gôt, twig = twîg, gleam = glëm.

22. If the g doesn't begin the word, and the triggering e precedes o or a, the e is lost: changeable = cānj@b@l; dungeon = dûnj@n (but geology = jëôl@jë). 23. gu at the start of a word or gue at the end of a word is pronounced g: guest = gêst, plague = plāg. (In the middle of a word, gu tends to be pronounced gw instead: e.g. language, anguish.) The last two rules allow g to be used for two different sounds:

The inserted e or u are just a writing convention; they make sure rule 21 applies or doesn't apply, as desired. There's a similar rule for c that works in French, but no longer works in English.

Fix backward endings

24. le and re (after a consonant, and ending the word) should be rewritten @l, @r.

Short and long vowels

These are the two most important rules of English spelling.

25. Vowels are pronounced long before a consonant that's between two vowels (rate, mete, fine, rote, cute = rāt mët fïn röt küt).

26. They're short before two consonants (baffle, held, children, rotten, butler), or before a consonant at the end of the word(pat, pet, pit, pot, but = păt pêt pît pôt bût).

The above rules work in conjunction with rule 54, which means that doubling a consonant changes a vowel in the middle of a word from long to short: later/latter, Peter/petter, biter/bitter, hoping/hopping, cuter/cutter.

Exceptions, but general ones

27. Final ind is ïnd, final oss is òs; final og is òg: mind, boss, dog = mïnd bòs dòg.

28. o also becomes ò before f and another consonant (offer = òf@r, soften = sòf@n).

29. wa is pronounced before t, d, n, s, or +: want, wander, swan, Rwanda, swat, wad, wasp, and as between w and (t)$: wash, squash, watch = wò$ skwò$ wòç.

29a. u is pronounced u before l, or (after (p or b) and before (s ,$, or ç)): adult, push, butch. This rule doesn't apply if the u is long: mule. Rules such as 6, 18, 19, 27, 28, and 51 introduce ò, a vowel which (as signalled by the odd diacritic in my transcription) doesn't fit well into English phonology. For some speakers, rule 29a only applies after labials, so that pull and dull don't rhyme.

How to pronounce gn

30. Except before a vowel, the vowel in ign or igm lengthens, and the g is lost: alignment paradigm = @lïnm@nt, pār@dïm, but igneous = îgnë@s.

31. The g is simply lost in eign: feign = fān. Handling of -ous

32. Except before a vowel, ous becomes @s: jealous = jêl@s. Note the importance of order: this rule has to be before silent e deletion, or it will apply to words like arouse.

Removal of silent e

33. Remove e at the end of a word,(unless it's the only vowel in the word, such as he): rate mike cute = rāt mïk küt This and rules 25 and 26 (on long and short vowels) are the guts of the English spelling system. They allow the five vowel symbols to represent ten vowel sounds. In compound words like safety, lovely, changeable, careful, warehouse, jukebox, placement, placeholder the e from the first word should be deleted by this rule, but, unfortunately, you have to know what the original two words were in order to know how to do this.

Short vowel exceptions

34. Shorten a vowel that comes before a simple, consonant-vowel syllable at the end of the word that is not the first syllable in the word. This rule handles words like anomaly, cinema, sanity, biology, century; but it fails on many other words, like patina, tuxedo, agora.

Double vowels

Besides the long/short vowel method, English represents extra vowel sounds with two vowel combinations. Quite a few of these combinations can say the same thing in two or more different ways, and there are lots of exceptions; this is the main reason why English spelling is so hard to learn.

35. iV (that is, i plus another vowel) becomes ï@ in the initial syllable: bias, diagram = bï@s, dï@grăm.

36. Exceptions to the following rule:

37. Make the following substitutions: eau ö ai ā au, aw ò ee ë ea ë ei ā eo ë@ eu, ew ü ie ë iV ë@ oa ö oe ö oo u ou, ow ôw oi öy ua ü@ ue u ui u This rule doesn't work when the pair of vowels should be treated as two separate vowels, such as when the word consists of a base word plus an ending: "go"+er = goer = gö@r, co + "axial" = coaxial = köăksë@l. Also, some of these vowel pairs are pronounced in at least two different ways, depending upon the word. For example, compare the pronunciations of the words: wool, fool; mead, dread; fief, friend; reign, seize; ground, group. The values in the table are those that occur most often. For ease of explanation I've put the final ie rule here, but it really goes before rule 14 ; otherwise words like untie won't be pronounced correctly.

Rules for pronouncing vowels at the end of a word:

38. Any vowel changes to @ before and l at the end of the word: battle, final, hovel, evil, symbol.

39. Any short vowel changes to @ before an n at the end of the word: human, frighten, cabin, button. These rules don't apply to single syllables (pal, can), or to vowels that have already been assigned a particular value by an earlier rule (e.g. meal to mël by rule 37). These rules could probably be improved; they don't apply to emphasized vowel sounds at the end of a word, but the spelling of a word doesn't indicate the emphasis.

Suffix simplifications

40. The following suffixes are reduced as follows: -able, -ible @b@l -lion ly@n -nion ny@n

Unpronounceable Endings

41. A final b or n is not pronounced if preceded by an m: damn bomb = dăm bôm.

Vowels at the end of words

42. Pronounce any remaining vowel at the end of a word as follows: -a @ -i ë -o ö -u u

Vowels before r

The English r sound is tricky to deal with; it tends to change the vowel sound that comes before before it, and in some dialects, is not even always pronounced. In the General American dialect of English, there are 12 basic vowel sounds, but only 6 can appear before r-- ā ë ô ö ò u-- plus @r, which is really just a prolonged r sound.

43. An ôw, ô, or ò resulting from the previous rules changes to ö before an r: course = körs, for = för.

44. war is pronounced wör, except before a vowel: warlock, war, dwarf = wörlôk, wör, dwörf; and wor is pronounced w@r: word, worst, worry.

45. ê or ă before a double r (and ê before ri) become ā: terror, marry, merit = tār@r, mārë, mārît.

46. ă before any other r becomes ô: mark, star = môrk, stôr. 47. ê, î, û before r become @: perk, fir, fur = p@rk, f@r, f@r.

How to pronounce ng

The careful reader may wonder why ng was not handled earlier, with all the other consonant pairs. The reason is that it acts like double consonant, so this rule had to come after the rules for short and long vowels. e.g. singer has a short not a long i

48. ng becomes ñg before r, l, y, or w: angry, England, singular, anguish = āñgrë, îñglănd, sîñgül@r, āñgwî$.

49. ng becomes ñ at the end of a word, or before another consonant: hung = hûng, length = lāñ+.

50. n becomes ñ before a k or g: anger = āñg@r, think = +îñk.

51. ô becomes ò, and ă becomes ā before ñ: song = sòñ; hang = hāñ. Note that rule 50 doesn't apply to words like hung, because rule 49 already removed the g in those words.

Pronouncing S as Z (again)

52. s is pronounced z at the end of a word, after a p, b, t, d, or k: dogs = dògz.

53. It's also pronounced z before an m at the end of a word: prism = prîzm.

Double consonants

54. A double consonant is pronounced singly: dinner, buzzard, hassle = dîn@r, bûz@rd, hăs@l.

55. A t disappears before ç, and a d before j: batch = băç, judge = jûj.

56. An s disappears before $: pressure = prê$r. Rule 54 works hand in hand with rule 25: a consonant is doubled to show that the preceding vowel is short: redder = rêd@r (compare red, where the d doesn't need to be doubled because a vowel preceding a final consonant is already short). Rule 55 is fairly obvious once you realize that to 'double' ç, we write tch rather than chch; and to double a j, we write dg rather than jj or gg. Rule 56 goes with rule 16, which changed s to $ before some instances of u.



Almost but not quite regular

In the rule list there's almost a rule that changes o to û before certain sounds.

Here's a list of affected words, as well as counter-examples:

_v above, cover, dove, glove, govern, hovel, hover, love, oven, shovel, of clover, prove, drover, jovial, move, novel, over, poverty, proverb, province, sovereign, stove, bovine

_l color apology, polo _+ other, another, mother, brother, nothing both, bother, broth, brothel, cloth, clothes, moth

_n onion, none, money, monk, monkey, month, wonder, front, son, sponge, honey, Monday, one alone, bone, honest, honor, tonight, pond, beyond, conk

_m come, become, from, some, stomach bomb, comb, dome, home, gnome, Mom, whom, womb

Mark's rules don't cover every situation, but they're better than nothing, and I found them interesting to read.