Understanding English Pronunciation Concepts

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In order to improve your English pronunciation, it is important to understand a number of terms and concepts. This article introduces the most important components from smallest—a unit of sound—to largest—sentence level stress and intonation. A short explanation is given for each concept with links to more resources to improve, as well as teach, English pronunciation skills.


A phoneme is a unit of sound. Phonemes are expressed as phonetic symbols in the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). Some letters have one phoneme, others have two, such as the diphthong long "a" (eh - ee). Sometimes a phoneme may be a combination of two letters such as "ch" in "church," or "dge" in "judge." 


There are twenty-six letters in the English alphabet. Some letters are pronounced differently depending on which letters they are with. For example, "c" can be pronounced like a hard /k/ or as an /s/ in the verb "cite." Letters are made up of consonants and vowels. Consonants can be voiced or voiceless depending on the sound (or phoneme). The difference between voiced and voiceless is explained below.


Consonants are the sounds that interrupt vowel sounds. Consonants are combined with vowels to form a syllable. They include:

b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, z

Consonants can be voiced or voiceless.


Vowels are open sounds caused with the vibration of vocal sounds but without obstruction. Consonants interrupt vowels to form syllables. They include:

a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y

NOTE: "y" is a vowel when it sounds as /i/ such as in the word "city." "Y" is a consonant when it sounds as /j/ such as in the word "year." 

All vowels are voiced as they are produced using the vocal chords.


A voiced consonant is a consonant that is produced with the help of the vocal chords. A good way to tell if a consonant is voiced is to touch your fingers to your throat. If the consonant is voiced, you will feel a vibration.

b, d, g, j, l, m, n, r, v, w


A voiceless consonant is a consonant that is produced without the help of the vocal chords. Place your fingers on your throat when speaking a voiceless consonant and you will only feel a rush of air through your throat.

c, f, h, k, q, s, t, x

Minimal Pairs

Minimal pairs are pairs of words that differ in only one sound. For example: "ship" and "sheep" differ in only in the vowel sound. Minimal pairs are used to practice slight differences in sound.


A syllable is formed by a consonant sound combining with a vowel sound. Words can have one or more syllables. To test how many syllables a word has, put your hand under your chin and speak the word. Each time your jaw moves indicates another syllable.

Syllable Stress

Syllable stress refers to the syllable that receives the main stress in each word. Some two-syllable words are stressed on the first syllable: table, answer — other two syllable words are stressed on the second syllable: begin, return. There are a number of different word syllable stress patterns in English.

Word Stress

Word stress refers to which words are stressed in a sentence. Generally speaking, stress content words and glide over function words (explained below).

Content Words

Content words are words that convey meaning and include nouns, main verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and negatives. Content words are the focus of a sentence. Glide over function words to stress these content words to provide the rhythm of English.

Function Words

Function words are required for the grammar, but they provide little or no content. They include helping verbs, pronouns, prepositions, articles, etc. 

Stress-Timed Language

When speaking about English we say that the language is stress-timed. In other words, the rhythm of English is created by word stress, rather than syllable stress as in syllabic languages.

Word Groups

Word groups are groups of words that are commonly grouped together and before or after which we pause. Word groups are often indicated by commas such as in complex or compound sentences.

Rising Intonation

Rising intonation occurs when the voice goes up in pitch. For example, we use rising intonation at the end of yes/no questions. We also use rising intonation with lists, separating each item with a short rise in the voice, before a final, falling intonation for the last item in a list. For example in the sentence:

I enjoy playing hockey, golf, tennis, and football. 

"Hockey," "golf," and "tennis" would rise in intonation, while "football" would fall. 

Falling Intonation

Falling intonation is used with information sentences and, in general, at the end of statements.


Reductions refers to the common practice of combing a number of words into a short unit. This generally occurs with function words. A few common reduction examples are: gonna -> going to and wanna -> want to


Contractions are used when shortening the helping verb. In this way, two words such as "is not" become one "isn't" with only one vowel. 

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Beare, Kenneth. "Understanding English Pronunciation Concepts." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/understanding-english-pronunciation-concepts-1211977. Beare, Kenneth. (2023, April 5). Understanding English Pronunciation Concepts. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/understanding-english-pronunciation-concepts-1211977 Beare, Kenneth. "Understanding English Pronunciation Concepts." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/understanding-english-pronunciation-concepts-1211977 (accessed May 29, 2023).