Is spoken English designed to trick you?
Possibly. Let’s look at some facts:
- You can't trust spelling to tell you how to pronounce a word
- Vowel sounds change depending on where they are in a word
- Some words have completely useless letters that aren't spoken at all (I'm looking at you, "Wednesday")
Now, I'm here to report that you can't trust an 's'.
Sure, the letter ‘s’ may look impossible to mess up, but trust me, English has found a way to make that tricky too.
You see, an ‘s’ can also be a ‘z’ and it’s not obvious when this happens. And it happens all the time. In fact, it’s more common for an ‘s’ to sound like a ‘z’ than for it to sound like an easy, straight-forward ‘s’.
Why does this matter, you ask?
Who cares if you say an ‘s’ sound when it should be a ‘z’? Aren’t the two sounds similar enough?
One reason it matters is because you may wind up saying a completely different word. Let’s look at a couple examples. The word "eyes" ends in a ‘z’ sound. Otherwise, it sounds like “ice”.
Listen to the difference between "eyes" and "ice":
Listen to the differences between "his" and "hiss":
Yes, people will know what you mean based on context but it’s like listening to a familiar song with wrong notes that keep popping up. It can be distracting when you want people to listen to your message.
Another reason it matters that you add the ‘z’ sound is because it affects the rhythm of your speech. Your words will sound shorter and ‘clipped’ when you don’t change the ‘s’ sound to a ‘z’. This is because an ‘s’ sound is spoken with your voice turned ‘off’. Your voice is turned ‘on’ for ‘z’.
TRY THIS: Put your hand on your throat when you say ‘s’ and then ‘z’. You will feel a vibration on your hand when the ‘z’ sound is made. Your voice is 'on' for the 'z' sound.
Unvoiced sounds are spoken quicker than voiced sounds (because it takes less energy). If you replace ‘z’ sounds with ‘s’ sounds, you words will sound shorter and clipped. This will affect the rhythm of your speech.
If your goal is to speak English more like a native speaker, work on your ‘z’ sounds.
How do you know when to say a word with an 's' or a 'z' sound? There are some guidelines to follow.
The guidelines below are not a complete list, but they cover the more common occurrences of 's' and 'z'. These guidelines are most predictable for plural words that end in 's'.
The rules for 's' and 'z'
**WARNING — Before you try to memorize these rules, remember that they are based on how a word sounds, not on how it is spelled. Many words are spelled with a silent ‘e’ on the end. You’re not allowed to count that final ‘e’ as a vowel sound. Don’t let that silent ‘e’ trick you!
When an ‘s’ occurs at the end of a word and it follows a vowel or a voiced consonant, it will sound like a "z".
For example: was, is, these, hers, rise, drives, meetings, calls
*There are more voiced consonants than unvoiced. It’s best to just try to remember the fewer, unvoiced ones (see rule for -s ending)
-z in the middle of a word.
If a single ‘s’ is placed between two vowels, it will sound like a 'z'.
"easy" → ee-zee, "reason" → ree-zen, "laser" → lay-zer
When an ‘s’ occurs after these unvoiced consonants [k, p, t, f, th], it will sound like an "s".
For example: graphics, tricks, stops, plants, laughs, births
If a word ends in the following sounds [s, z, sh, ch, dj], an additional syllable is added to the end that sounds like -ez
For example: offices, uses, brushes, matches, bridges
Would you like a free checklist to help you remember? Download yours here:
Download your FREE 2 Page
S vs Z Checklist
There are always exceptions
What would English be if it wasn’t riddled with exceptions? Use what you just learned above as mostly reliable guidelines. When in doubt about a word, follow the guidelines.
It's true, not every word with an ‘s’ will follow these guidelines (for example, words like "this", "bus", "gas" and "office" keep the ‘s’ sound at the end).
And no, I don’t have a good reason why, although I share your frustration. It would be a lot easier to teach English pronunciation if all the words just followed structured rules.
TIP: I recommend intentionally listening for the 'z' sound. Listen to shows using subtitles or read along with audio books to catch the exceptions. Build your awareness so you can create your own internal 'z' database.
So, is English trying to trick you? It wasn’t designed to be so quirky ["designed" has a ‘z’ sound, by the way]. English is a patchwork language with many old influences from different invaders and scholars over time.
Luckily, you now have learned a technique that will help your English sound more like a native speaker.