English is a stress-time language which means that some words are stressed and others are not when speaking. Generally, content words such as nouns and principal verbs are stressed, while structure words such as articles, helping verbs, etc. are not.
The Structure of Words
A number of structure words have both weak and strong pronunciation. As a rule, the structure will take the weak pronunciation which means that the vowel becomes muted. For example, take a look at these sentences:
- I can play piano.
- Tom is from New England.
Here are these two sentences with accented words in italics.
- Mary can play piano.
- Tom is from Chicago.
'Can', and 'from' and 'is' are unaccented and the vowel is very weak. This weak vowel sound is often referred to as a schwa. In the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) the schwa is represented as an upside-down 'e'. It is, however, also possible to use these words with a strong form. Take a look at the same structure words, but used with strong pronunciation:
- You CAN'T play tennis. - Yes, I CAN.
- Where is Tom FROM?
In these two sentences, the placement at the end of the sentence calls for the strong pronunciation of the word. In other cases, the usually unaccented word becomes accented as a means of stressing that something is contrary to what is understood by others. Look at these two sentences in a dialogue.
- You aren't interested in coming next week, are you?
- Yes, I AM interested in coming!
Try the following exercise to practice both the weak and strong form. Write two sentences: One sentence using the weak form, and one using the strong form. Try practicing these sentences taking care to quickly glide over the vowel in the weak form, or pronouncing the vowel or diphthong sound firmly in the strong form. Here are a few examples:
- I've heard you have a company in the city. No, I work FOR a company in the city.
- What are you looking for?
- She is our sister.
- OUR sister is so talented!
Decide how the word indicated would change the meaning in the following sentences when using the strong form. Practice saying each sentence aloud alternating between weak and strong forms. Do you notice how the meaning changes through stress?
- I am an English teacher in Portland, Oregon. - strong 'am'
- I am an English teacher from Portland, Oregon. - strong 'from'
- He said that she should see a doctor. - strong 'should'
- They were able to find a job despite the difficult market. - strong 'were'
- Do you know where he comes from? - strong 'do'
- I'll give the assignment to them. - strong 'them'
- She's one of our most valued students. - strong 'our'
- I'd like Tom and Andy to come to the party. - strong 'and'
- I AM an English teacher… = It's true even though you don't believe it.
- … teacher FROM Portland, Oregon. = That's my home city, but not necessarily where I live and teach now.
- … that she SHOULD see a doctor. = It's my advice, not an obligation.
- They WERE able to find a job… = It was possible for them though you think not.
- DO you know where… = Do you know the answer to this question or not?
- … the assignment to THEM. = Not you, the others.
- She's one of OUR most valued students. = She is one of us, not of you or them.
- … Tom AND Andy… = Not only Tom, don't forget Andy.
Here are some of the most common words that have weak/strong pronunciations. Generally speaking, use the week form (schwa) pronunciation of these words unless they are stressed by coming at the end of a sentence or due to unnatural stress made to facilitate understanding.
Common Weak and Strong Words
- a / am / an / and / are / as / at
- be / been / but
- can / could
- do / does
- for / from
- had / has / have / he / her / him / his
- of / our
- shall / she / should / some
- than / that / the / them / there / to
- was / we / were / who / would / will
- you / your