There are a lot of ways to combine English vowel letters in writing. Learn how to tell if you’re saying them right.
Have you ever had a conversation in English with a colleague, or a friend, and halfway through you learn that you’ve been mispronouncing the same word over and over again?
Instantly your concentration is gone and the conversation fizzles out. One minute you’re confident and focused and the next you’re questioning how you pronounce everything?
This problem isn’t your English skills. The real problem is English spelling. It’s not phonetic. It can be very difficult to predict how to pronounce an English word based on how it’s spelled.
To make it more challenging, English has over 20 vowel sounds and several different ways to spell them.
Take for instance the long /i/ ‘ee’. This can be written with two e’s as in “teeth”, with an -ea as in “tea” or with an -ey as in “key.”
How are you supposed to remember how all these spelling variations are pronounced?
Luckily, there are some rules that govern how we say words with different vowel combinations. Granted, this is English we’re talking about so there are plenty of exceptions. So let’s think of them more as guidelines -- but these guidelines will steer you in the right direction more than half of the time. Practice these tips below to help you feel more informed when speaking English.
Alphabet vowel sounds versus Relative vowel sounds
In order to get the most from these tips it’s important to understand some terminology first. English vowel letters can be pronounced in different ways.
When a vowel letter is pronounced the way its name is said in the alphabet it’s considered an alphabet vowel sound. This is also referred to as a long vowel sound.
/aʲ/ a= “ate” /iʲ/ e = be /ai/ i = bite /oʷ/ o = no /uʷ/ u = cute
A relative vowel sound is a short vowel sound, it’s all the other clear vowel sounds in English. A few examples of this are:
/æ/ a = cat /ɛ/ e = “bet” /ɪ/ i = “tip” /a/ o = “hot” /ʌ/ u = up
Now that we’ve established alphabet versus relative vowel sounds, let’s learn how to make educated guesses on how to pronounce a word you’re not sure how to say.
Guidelines for pronouncing vowel sounds as relative vowels
Tip #1 If there is only one vowel in a single syllable word it’s pronounced with its relative (short vowel sound).
Here's examples of one syllable words with relative vowel sounds:
Bag, beg, big, bog, bug
Tip #2 If there is only one vowel in the stressed syllable of a word of a multi-syllable word its pronounced with its relative vowel sound.
Planner, better, Dinner, posture, number
Guidelines for pronouncing vowel sounds as alphabet vowels
Tip #3 If there are two vowels in a single syllable word, the first vowel is pronounced with its alphabet sound and second vowel is silent.
There was a song on a children’s literacy show that explains this concept very well. One of the lyrics goes, “When two vowels go walking, the first vowel does the talking... when two vowels walk, the first vowel says its name.”
cheat, toast, fried, stain, fuse
Tip #4 If there are two vowels in the stressed syllable of a multi-syllable word the first vowel is pronounced with its alphabet sound and second vowel is silent.
alTHOUGH aPPEAling, reFUSE, comPLAIN, deCIDE
At this point I can hear you asking, “So what happens to the vowels in the unstressed syllables?”
This leads us to our final tip on this subject...
Tip #5 Vowels in unstressed syllables of a word are changed to a schwas /ə/ ("uh") or a short /ɪ/ "ih" sound.
If we listen again to the words from tip #4, you’ll notice these additional vowel changes in the unstressed syllable (watch the video to hear the words in this post):
appealing ə-PEE-ling , refuse rə-FJUZ , complain kəm-PLAYN, decide dɪ-SIDE
Are you ready for more practice on your English vowels?
Don't stop now! Sign up below to get access to mp3 recordings of 60 words and phrases using relative and alphabet vowel sounds. Download the Practice Tips worksheet that goes along with it.