How to pronounce “can” vs “can’t” may not be as obvious as you think.
The two words are spelled almost exactly alike, but they sound very different from each other in conversation. Particularly, if you’re speaking with someone from the United States or Canada.
The video below explains a simple way to remember how to pronounce “can” versus “can’t” in conversation. It will also help you to better understand native speakers when they say these words.
The one tip you need to remember when pronouncing “can”
The word “can” has a minor change when spoken in a sentence. The only difference you need to remember when pronouncing this word is to change the vowel sound word from “aa” to “ih.”
This makes “can” sound like “kin” in a sentence. When a phrase starts with “can” you may hear the vowel pronounced more like “aa.”
Practice listening to “can” sound like “kin” in the following sentences. Repeat aloud so you can feel the difference as you say it:
Pretty easy, right? Changing the vowel sound to “ih” is common in English when a word or syllable is not stressed. “Can” is often spoken quickly in a sentence so that other more important focus words stand out.
Say goodbye to the “t”
Now let’s take a look at the word, “can’t.” The vowel sound does not change in this word. It stays as “aa.” However, North American English speakers will cut off the ‘t’ sound at the end.
In addition, the end of the word is spoken almost as if the last two letters of the word are cut short, like a glottal stop. The reason for this is that the /n/ sound and the /t/ sound are produced in the same place in the mouth. The tongue tip touches the bumpy ridge behind the top teeth (known as the alveolar ridge) for both sounds. In connected speech, the North American English speaker will bring the tongue tip up to make the /n/ sound and not release it down to complete the /t/ sound. The tongue will save time and move into position for the starting sound of the next word.
This is why the /t/ sound is not heard and why the end of the word “can’t” sounds almost like it’s being cut off.
Practice listening to this and saying it aloud as you hear it in the following sentences:
Exceptions and clarifications for pronouncing “can’t”
First, let’s start with exceptions. If the word “can’t” is followed by a word that begins with a vowel than the /t/ sound will be heard. The /t/ sound will be linked to the following word and heard more clearly.
Listen to the following examples and repeat aloud:
Finally, “can” and “can’t” causes confusion even for native speakers. It’s not unusual for us to say to each other, “Did you say you can go or you can’t go?”
When we are asking for clarification, we will clearly pronounce the ‘aa’ vowel sound in the word “can” and the ‘t’ sound in the word “can’t.” We will also stretch out the vowel sound a little bit longer in the word “can’t” just to make it extra clear.
One thing to remember is that native English speakers from different parts of the world will say “can” and “can’t” slightly differently from each other. In Great Britain, for example, it’s typical that the vowel sound changes from ‘aa’ to ‘ah’ on the word “can’t” and the /t/ is pronounced clearly (can’t =”kahnt“).
Understanding how native English speakers pronounce these two words, and how they seek clarification, can help you understand them better and help you speak English in a way that sounds more like a native speaker.