When you look in an English dictionary, you probably only look at the word and its definition.
Next to a word in the dictionary are some strange-looking symbols. These letter-like symbols are actually a pronunciation guide!
For example, here is how to pronounce the word dictionary:
Wait, what? That doesn’t look like the word dictionary at all! How does this work?
Learning how to use the dictionary’s pronunciation guide is not as difficult as it looks. Once you understand the rules, you will be able to check the dictionary for the definition of a word, and you will know how to read it correctly.
But first you need to understand…
Why Dictionaries Use Symbols
Letters are symbols—they are small drawings that represent sounds. So what is the point of creating a whole different way of writing these same sounds?
Try reading these words out loud:
Both are three-letter words with the letter i as the second letter. The letter i is read very differently each time, though! In each word, the letter i makes a different sound. Now try these two words:
In these words, the second g in garage makes the same sound as the letter s in vision. We bet you never noticed that before!
As you can see, letters have different sounds, depending on where they are in the word or the sentence, or even which country the speaker is from. Some letters have many sounds. Some sounds don’t have their own letter.
The International Phonetic Association
People who study language, called linguists, have come up with a pronunciation guide called the International Phonetic Association, or the IPA for short. Most dictionaries use a version of the IPA for their pronunciation guide.
The IPA on its own is not very easy to understand—it is mostly for scholars and linguists, people whose job it is to figure out sounds and how to write them down.
Dictionary pronunciation guides are a little different though. They are meant for anyone to use, so you can learn to read them too! They use some simple symbols, and they are not as complicated as they seem. You just need to learn what sounds the symbols stand for.
Why Should I Learn to Use the Pronunciation Guide?
When you learn a new word, you learn what it means and how it is used in a sentence. You might even learn the different forms of the word. For you to actually use this word while speaking, though, you need to know how to pronounce it.
There are a few ways you can learn the correct pronunciation of a word.
You could ask someone to say it for you, or find an example of the spoken word in a video. You could use FluentU English videos to hear native English speakers talking in movies, documentaries, cartoons and more—and then you can click on any word in the subtitles to hear its pronunciation.
However, a dictionary will still be very helpful to you while you learn English.
First of all, a dictionary allows you to look up a huge diversity and quantity of English words. Even if you have the FluentU app on your iOS or Android device, there may be times when you need to use a dictionary. For example, you may be in a classroom or meeting where you cannot use your cell phone or maybe your phone’s battery just died.
Maybe you do not like using apps, and prefer to have a paper dictionary!
No matter the situation, reading the dictionary pronunciation guide can be an incredibly useful tool for English learners. You will know at a glance that the two g’s in garage make two different sounds, and that the o in boot is not the same as the o in boat.
Take a little time to figure out the pronunciation guide, and you will be saving yourself a lot of time (and effort) in the future!
British or American?
This guide will cover the American dictionary pronunciation guide. The American and British guides are slightly different—they use different symbols for the same sounds. The British guide uses more actual symbols (instead of letters) or old Greek letters, so it can be a little harder to learn.
If you are interested in British pronunciation, check out the Oxford English Dictionary’s guide to British vs. American symbols and sounds.
5 Things You Must Know About All English Pronunciation Guides
Before you start learning the pronunciation guide, here is a quick outline to help you understand how the IPA works:
- Consonants: Consonants are all of the letters that are not vowels. The English language might have 21 consonants, but there are less consonant sounds. Letters like c and k, and c and s can have the same sound depending on where they are in the word. Other sounds are a combination of consonants, like ch and sh. These make different sounds too. There are not that many consonant symbols to learn, and they are mostly easy to understand—so that is a relief!
- Vowels: The vowels in the English language are a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y. Vowels can be combined with other letters, and each other, to create new sounds. There are a few different ways of pronouncing each vowel, and a symbol for each of those pronunciations.
- Diphthongs: Even if you have heard of vowels and consonants, you probably have never heard this word! Diphthongs are the sounds made by two vowels put together. Sometimes this is just one sound, like the oo sound. Other times the sound starts in one vowel and moves into the next, like the oa in soak.
- Syllables: Along with pronunciation guides for the letters, dictionaries break up words into syllables. These make it easier to spell and speak the word, since they turn one word in a few easy to say parts.
- Stresses: Words in the English language uses stresses. Where you put the stress is important to pronouncing the word right, and can even change the meaning of the word. For example, “when you addRESS the Internet, do not give out your ADDress!”. These two differently stressed versions of address mean two different things, just because of the stress! Dictionary guides show you where the stress goes, and they let you know when a different stress will change the meaning of the word.
- Advanced Sounds: Linguists define vowels as sounds made without placing anything in the way (like your tongue or teeth). Syllables are also created around them—you can’t have too many voiced (non-silent) consonants without a vowel in between, or it is impossible to read. Consonants, on the other hand, are sounds made by partially blocking your breath when you speak. Some sounds, like p, b and g, are actually made by completely stopping your breath! (In case you are wondering, these are called plosives).
Now you are ready to start!
You will recognize many of the letters in the guide. Most of the consonants are read exactly the way you would read a letter, and there are not that many of them.
Here are the consonants found in the pronunciation guide, which sound exactly the way they look:
- b like in bed
- d like in done
- g like in grow
- h like in hat
- l like in lamp
- m like in mat
- n like in nice
- p like in pat
- r like in run
- v like in view
- w like in wet
- y like in yes
All consonant symbols stand for just one sound, but some sounds can be made in more than one way.
When you see these letters in the guide, just remember the sound they make—even if the word doesn’t have that letter at all! It might help to read these words out loud, so you can hear how similar the sound is:
- f like in fire, rough, or phone
- j like in jump or dodge
- k like in make, quit, pick, or cat
- s like in stop or cent
- t like in top or some -ed endings like mopped
- z like in zebra or xylophone
- zh like in vision or garage
There are some consonants that make a different sound when they are put together. These sounds are also mostly written the same way in the guide as they are in a word. They are:
- ch like in chat
- wh like in white
- ng like in thing (this sometimes looks like this: ŋ)
- sh like in ship
- th like in thin
- th like in this
Say the last two words out loud to hear the difference.
The first th (in thin) sounds “soft,” and is made by placing your tongue between your teeth. The second th sound (in this) is “hard,” and is made by putting your tongue between your teeth but then moving it away. It is a very slight difference—most native speakers don’t even realize there are two different sounds.
A quick note about the wh sound. If you are confused about the difference between w and wh, don’t worry, you are not alone. These days, many people pronounce wine and whine the same way. The wh sound is supposed to be more stretched out, as though you are saying the letter h very slightly before the letter w. According to this blog, if you put your hand in front of your mouth, you can feel a puff of air for the wh sound, but not the w.
That is all for consonants. You are about halfway to being a dictionary pro!
Vowels are a little tougher to read than consonants because they have so many different sounds. If you can learn all the different sounds, you will find it much easier to pronounce English words correctly. So it is worth the effort!
Some of the differences are very slight, and some are big. Also keep in mind that some dictionaries have different symbols for vowel sounds.
Below are the different pronunciations of English vowels. We have included one or two of the most common symbols for each sound. Which symbol you see will depend on the dictionary you use.
Here is a quick rule of thumb: A line above a letter means you say its name. A small v or nothing above a letter means it is a short sound. Two dots above a letter means it is a long sound.
The letter a
- ă or a like in cat or apple. This is a short ah sound.
- ā like in stray or vacation. This is pronounced like the letter’s name, ay.
- ä like in father or calm. This is a longer uhh sound, like the sound you would make when you show the doctor your throat.
The letter e
- ĕ or e like in pet or person. This is pronounced like a short eh.
The letter i
- ĭ or i like in pit or hitch. This sounds like a grunt, a short eeh sound made in the back of the throat.
- ī like in pie or bye. Say this the way you would say name of the letter i.
The letter o
- ŏ or ä like in mop or bother. This is a similar sound to the a in father, a long “uhh” sound. (Some dictionaries see it as the same sound).
- ō like in toe or go. Say this as you would say the name of the letter o.
- ô like in paw or caught. This is the kind of sound you would say if something is cute, “aww.”
The letter u
- ŭ like in cut or grunt. This is a short uh sound.
- yü like in youth or cute. Say this as you might say the letter u.
All the vowels
There is one sound all the vowels make. Here it is:
- ə like in about, item, edible, gallop, circus. This is a sound somewhere in between ŭ and ă. It is a short uh sound. It might be difficult to hear at first, so practice saying these words out loud and try to see the difference between these and other words using these letters.
Does this look like too much information to take in? Here is a quick cheat that usually works when you are not sure how to pronounce a letter:
- If the word has a vowel, consonant, vowel pattern (like cute—u is a vowel, t is a consonant, e is a vowel), say the first vowel’s name. In the example of cute, this means you pronounce u like the letter u.
- If the word has a vowel, consonant pattern (like cut—u is a vowel, t is a consonant) or a vowel, consonant, consonant (like cutting), use one of the other pronunciations.
Of course there are exceptions and other rules. If you look at the pronunciation guide for new words, you will start to see the different rules and patterns.
Don’t let the strange name scare you. Diphthongs are just sounds made by two vowels placed together.
Here is what they look like:
- a like in out or about. This sounds like you just got hurt, “ow.”
- ē like in bee or feet (or easy). This sounds like you are saying the name of the letter e.
- oi like in noise or boy. This sounds like the letter o’s name followed right away by ee, or like you are saying “Oy vey!”
- ū like in loot or boot. This is an oo sound made by making your lips into an o shape.
- ʊ like in foot or could. To make this oo sound, don’t move your lips!
You can hear and see the difference between the two oo sounds in this video.
Vowels have a slightly different pronunciation when they are followed by the letter r. They are called “r-controlled vowels” and they sound like the letter’s non-name sound getting cut off by the letter r.
It is easier to hear than explain: say the word abound out loud, then the word around. Do you hear the difference? It is a very small difference!
This is such a slight difference in most cases, that some dictionaries don’t have a special symbol for it. One symbol that does get used by many, though is this one:
- ər like in butter or further. This is an er sound made in the back of your mouth with your tongue right in the middle of your mouth, not touching any sides.
And that is all for pronunciations!
You now know how to read the pronunciation guide for vowels and consonants.
If this seems like a lot of information, we recommend that instead of memorizing this right away, you use it as a guide. Whenever you are not sure how to pronounce a new word you just learned, look at the dictionary’s pronunciation guide and keep this page open.
You will learn the guide quickly this way, without even realizing that you are learning it.
Bonus: Dashes and Lines
When you look at a pronunciation guide you will notice that the words are broken up into parts with dashes and lines in between them. What do all these mean?
- The pronunciation of a word is usually written between forward slashes: / Or backward slashes: \
- Words are usually split up into syllables with dashes: –
- The stressed syllable (the one that you say more strongly) is marked with an apostrophe: ‘
- The secondary stress (a slightly stronger syllable, only found in longer words) is marked with a comma: ,
Now you try!
Whew that was a lot! Let’s see how well you can use the information in this guide. Can you figure out what words these are?
Here are the words spelled in the guide above:
How did you do?
Practice reading the dictionary’s pronunciation guide with words you know, and then words you don’t know.
Before long, you will find it much easier to pronounce new words, even if you have never heard them before!
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