25 of the Most Important English Pronunciation Rules to Improve Your Speaking
What do the words “gnash”, “squirrel” and “thorough” have in common?
They are some of the hardest words to pronounce in English for both native speakers and learners alike.
English is infamous for its difficult pronunciation rules. Some rules are intuitive and are pronounced how you would expect them to be, but others need to be memorized and practiced.
Here are 25 English pronunciation rules to help you master tricky English words.
- Rule #1: Short words have short vowels
- Rule #2: Two vowels side-by-side make a long vowel
- Rule #3: Keep vowels short before double consonants
- Rule #4: Pronounce double consonants as a single letter
- Rule #5: Pronounce double consonant TT as D
- Rule #6: If E is at the end of a word, it’s silent
- Rule #7: Pronounce C like S when it’s followed by I, E, or Y
- Rule #8: Pronounce the word ending TION with a SH sound
- Rule #9: G and K are always silent before N at the beginning of a word
- Rule #10: Pronounce S like Z at the end of a word
- Rule #11: Pronounce S like Z between two vowels
- Rule #12: Pronounce X like GZ before a stressed syllable
- Rule #13: Pronounce X like Z at the beginning of a word
- Rule #14: Y is both a consonant and a vowel
- Rule #15: NG sometimes sounds like two letters stuck together
- Rule #16: Unstressed vowels make a “schwa” sound
- Rule #17: Past tense endings aren’t always pronounced as D
- Rule #18: Sometimes H is silent
- Rule #19: Pronounce OO as a short U when it’s followed by K
- Rule #20: Pronounce EI as a long E if it comes after C in a stressed syllable
- Rule #21: Pronounce S, Z and G like a French speaker in specific words
- Rule #22: OU has many pronunciations
- Rule #23: Stress on the first syllable makes the word a noun
- Rule #24: L becomes dark near the end of a syllable
- Rule #25: TH can be voiced or unvoiced
These rules focus on General American English pronunciation. They may be different for other English dialects such as British English, Australian English or South African English speakers.
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Rule #1: Short words have short vowels
Vowel sounds are commonly divided into short and long vowel sounds. While they may seem complicated, there are some rules for knowing when a vowel sound is short or long.
Short vowels always occur in short words. These are often one syllable and typically have three or four letters as in “cat”, “tin” and “bend”.
Rule #2: Two vowels side-by-side make a long vowel
Two vowels beside each other are not uncommon in English, but they can be easily mastered with this simple trick.
Namely, when there are two different vowels beside each other, they generally make the long sound of the first vowel. For example, the word “meat” has the long e sound, the word “plain” has the long a sound and the word “goat” has the long o sound.
Rule #3: Keep vowels short before double consonants
Double consonants don’t only have rules for how they are pronounced, but also play a role in how to pronounce the vowel that comes before them.
The rule is simple: the vowel that comes before double consonants is always in its short pronunciation. To see this, let’s look at the difference in pronunciation between the words “diner” and “dinner.”
The word “diner” has only one n, and the i is pronounced as a long vowel. Conversely, the word “dinner” has double n, so the i is pronounced as a short vowel.
Rule #4: Pronounce double consonants as a single letter
Unlike some languages, double letters in English are not pronounced any different than single letters.
This is true for words that have double ll, ss, ff, rr, pp, zz, dd and cc. They are all pronounced as if they are singular such as the words “fuzz,” “occur,” or “fluff.”
Rule #5: Pronounce double consonant TT as D
In General American English, there is one double consonant that is not pronounced like its singular counterpart. In fact, the double consonant tt gets reduced to what sounds like a d sound.
This can be seen in the pronunciation of the words “little” and “letter.”
Rule #6: If E is at the end of a word, it’s silent
Sometimes English words can be confusing if they end an e. Many learners will want to include the e in their pronunciation, but it is actually silent.
Rather, the e causes the vowel before it to become long such as “ate,” “bite,” or “rope.”
Rule #7: Pronounce C like S when it’s followed by I, E, or Y
C makes more of an S sound when it is followed by i, e, or y such as words like “cite,” “century” and “cycle.”
Rule #8: Pronounce the word ending TION with a SH sound
The word ending tion is tricky to pronounce for two reasons.
The first reason is that the t is not pronounced like a t at all. Instead, it is pronounced like a sh as in the word “shoe.” Next, the vowels in the ending are reduced to a schwa. As a whole, tion ends up being pronounced more like “shun.”
This gives us words like “tradition”, “situation” and “position” that include the sh sound followed by a reduced schwa vowel.
Rule #9: G and K are always silent before N at the beginning of a word
Many languages have rules that every consonant must be pronounced, but English has many rules that make consonants silent in certain cases.
One of these rules is that when a word begins with a k or a g and then is immediately followed by an n, the k or g is not pronounced. Instead, it’s almost as if the word started with a n. This can be seen in words such as “knee,” “knock” and “gnarl.”
Rule #10: Pronounce S like Z at the end of a word
There are many situations where the letter s is pronounced like a z sound.
This happens when a word that ends in a b, d, g, l, m, n, ng, r, th or v becomes plural or an s is added.
Examples of this include the plural words “moms” or “kings” and the s in words like “there’s” and “Michael’s.”
The es ending of plural words is also pronounced like a z as in the word “buses.”
Rule #11: Pronounce S like Z between two vowels
When s is between two vowel sounds, it is pronounced like a z. This gives us words like “phase,” “music” and “please.”
There are some exceptions to this rule, such as in the words “goose” and “chase.”
Rule #12: Pronounce X like GZ before a stressed syllable
By now, we know that x makes a ks sound as in “taxi” or “toxic.” But this sound is only in unstressed syllables.
When x comes before a stressed syllable, it can make a gz sound as in “examine” or “exist.”
Rule #13: Pronounce X like Z at the beginning of a word
There is yet another way that x can be pronounced.
Rarely, it can make a z sound as in the words “xylophone” or “xenophobia.” This pronunciation happens almost exclusively at the beginning of words (unless you’re saying the word “x-ray”).
Rule #14: Y is both a consonant and a vowel
Y is a unique letter in English: it acts like both a consonant and a vowel.
When y is at the beginning of a word or syllable, it is considered a consonant. In these cases it is pronounced with the long ee sound like in the words “young,” “you” or “beyond.”
When y is at the end of a word or syllable, it is a vowel and can be pronounced a few different ways.
Y sounds like a long e sound at the end of a word such as in adverbs like “quickly” or “slowly.” This pronunciation happens mostly in adverbs (words ending in ly that describe verbs) or words that end in ity like “community” or “ability”.
Y sounds like ai in one syllable words such as “fly” or “cry.”
It sounds like a short i sound in words where it is in the middle of a syllable like “gym” or “cyst.”
When combined with a, the ay combination is pronounced like a long a sound as in “play” and “day.”
Rule #15: NG sometimes sounds like two letters stuck together
When learning English, we learn that the ng combination makes a special sound as in the words “king” or “thing.”
There is, however, a second pronunciation of ng. In fact, there are certain words where the ng is not pronounced as a singular sound, but rather pronounced in such a way that you hear both letters: n and g. Some of these words are “anger,” “finger” and “hunger.”
Rule #16: Unstressed vowels make a “schwa” sound
While a “schwa” may seem like a fancy English sound, it’s actually not. In fact, it is the sound that is easiest for our mouths to create: holding the jaw slightly open, relaxing the tongue and making a short sound. It is very similar to the short u sound in English.
The cool thing about the “schwa” is that it can happen to virtually any vowel. When a vowel is unstressed in a word, it reduces to this sound. This can be seen in the words “panda,” “mitten,” “bikini,” “citrus” and “freedom.”
Rule #17: Past tense endings aren’t always pronounced as D
The regular past tense in English is formed by adding ed to the end of verbs. This ending, however, can be pronounced multiple ways.
The first way is as a general d sound. This happens for verbs that end in voiced consonants (consonants that use the vocal cords) like n, m, g, l, z, b, r and v, and this results in the words “rolled,” “rubbed” and “revved.”
The second pronunciation of the ed ending is as a t. This happens for verbs that end in voiceless consonants (consonants that don’t use the vocal cords) like k, f, s and p. This results in the words “kicked,” “flopped” and “huffed.”
The third pronunciation of this ending is pronounced like id with a short i sound. This pronunciation is for verbs that already end in a t or a d as in “fitted” or “skidded.”
Rule #18: Sometimes H is silent
Most of the time when an h is at the beginning of a word, we pronounce it by almost letting out a little sigh such as in “hot” or “humble.”
There are a few words in which you don’t let this little bit of air out and rather pronounce the word as if there is no h at all such as “honor” or “hour.”
Rule #19: Pronounce OO as a short U when it’s followed by K
Usually the oo combination is pronounced with a long u sound such as in “school” or “doom,” but sometimes it has a short u sound. This occurs when it is followed by a k such as in “look” or “book.”
Rule #20: Pronounce EI as a long E if it comes after C in a stressed syllable
Usually ei is pronounced as the long a sound such as in “neighbor” or “weight.” The exception to this is when ei follows a c in a stressed syllable such as words like “receive”or “fancies.”
Rule #21: Pronounce S, Z and G like a French speaker in specific words
Believe it or not, the French language had a big impact on the way English words are written and pronounced. One of the most evident French sounds in English is in some words with s, z, or g.
Z is pronounced this way in words such as “seizure.” G can also make a French j sound as in the word “regime” or as in the second g in the word “garage.”
S can have a French-like pronunciation in words like “vision” and “measure.” This sound is pronounced like the French j as in the French word je (I).
This sound is pretty rare and only occurs in specific words. I recommend memorizing these words as there is no rule for when the sound should be made.
Rule #22: OU has many pronunciations
You would expect ou to be pronounced almost like “ow” in most cases such as with words like “about,” or “shout.” There are also quite a few instances when this does not apply and the ou combination is pronounced differently.
If the combination is oup, a long o sound is formed, such as “soup” or “group.”
With ould, a schwa sound is created and it sounds more like ood with not much of an l sound like in “would” or “could.”
If the combination is ough, there is a variety of pronunciations, depending on the word. It can sound like there’s an f at the end such as in “cough” or “rough.” It could also just sound like a long o such as “through.” Lastly, if the combination is ought, it can sound like “ot” such as the world “thought.”
These ones can be a bit difficult and memorization is the best way to remember which words make which sounds with the ou combination.
Rule #23: Stress on the first syllable makes the word a noun
Word stress doesn’t only affect the pronunciation of some letters, but it also changes the meaning of some words. As a matter of fact, changing the stress on some words changes them from nouns to verbs.
When word stress is on the first syllable of some words, that word is in its noun form. When stress is on the last syllable, that word is in its verb form.
This can be seen in the words “produce” (noun form) and “produce” (verb form) as in “the farm produces a lot of produce” and the words “increase” (noun form) and “increase” (verb form) “we have to increase our sales to see an increase in profit.”
Rule #24: L becomes dark near the end of a syllable
The letter l has two pronunciations referred to as the “clear l” and the “dark l.”
“Clear l” is the common pronunciation of the letter that we are used to as in the words “leave,” “loose” and “pluck.” The “dark l” is pronounced by raising the back of the tongue during pronunciation.
This often occurs when l is at the end of a syllable as in the words “pull” and “milk.” This rule also applies to words that end in le as in “little” and “nibble.” In these words, it almost sounds like there is a “schwa” preceding the “dark l” sound.
Rule #25: TH can be voiced or unvoiced
Even though th is taught as a sound that is somewhat unique to English, its complication doesn’t stop there. In fact, the “th” in English is pronounced as two distinct sounds.
The first “th” sound is voiced (vocal cords vibrate) as in the words “though,” “then” and “they.”
The second “th” is voiceless (vocal cords do not vibrate) as in the words “thought,” “thick” or “cloth.”
Unfortunately, there is no rule for when to use which sound. That means that you will have to memorize which words have which sound.
Don’t fear weird English pronunciation! By learning these simple rules, you can master English speaking and communicate clearly to whoever you meet!