Voiced and Voiceless Consonants

Pronunciation
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Sounds can be voiced or voiceless. To be more precise, a phoneme (one individual sound) can be voiced or voiceless. Voiced phonemes engage the vocal chords. Voiceless phonemes don't engage the vocal chords. 

Imagine your larynx. You'll find two vocal chords that vibrate to produce sounds (voiced) that are then manipulated by the mouth, tongue, hard palate, etc. Vocal chords can also open to allow air through to make sounds with the mouth alone (voiceless).

This guide should help you understand the differences and give you some simple rules. To help you I've recorded this voiced and voiceless consonant page so you can listen to the examples. 

What is a Voiced Consonant?

A simple explanation of voiced consonants is that they use the voice. This is easy to test by putting your finger on your throat. If you feel a vibration the consonant is voiced. Here is a list of some voiced consonants. Pronounce each consonant sound (not the letter) and feel the vibration of your vocal chords.

b
d
th (as in then)
v
l
r
z
j (as in Jane)

What is Voiceless Consonant?

Voiceless consonants do not use the voice. They are percussive and use hard sounds. Once again, you can test if a consonant is voiceless by putting your finger on your throat. You will feel no vibration in your throat, just a short explosion of air as you pronounce. Pronounce each of these consonant sounds and feel NO vibration in your throat.

p
t
k
s
sh
ch
th (as in thing)

Are Vowels Voiced or Voiceless?

Vowel sounds and diphthongs (combination of two vowel sounds) are ALL voiced these include:

a
e
i
o
u
y (when sounding like 'e' as in 'city')
 

Voiced Consonants that Become Voiceless Consonants

When consonants are put in groups they can change the voiced or voiceless quality of the consonant that follows.

A great example of this is the past simple form of regular verbs. As you know, regular verbs add -ed to the end of the verb in the past simple.

play - played
wash - washed
live - lived etc.

These past simple verbs all end in '-ed'. However, some of the verbs are pronounced with a voiceless 't' sound and some are pronounced with the voiced 'd' sound. Why? Here are the rules:

  • If -ed is preceded by a voiceless consonant sound (p, k, sh, etc.) -ed sounds as a voiceless 't'. Remember that the 'e' is silent.
  • If -ed is preceded by a voiced consonant sound (d, b, v, etc.) -ed sounds as a voiced 'd'. Remember that the 'e' is silent.
  • If -ed is preceded by a vowel sound (often 'ay') -ed sounds as a voiced 'd' because vowels are always voiced. Remember that the 'e' is silent.
  • Exception: If -ed is preceded by 't' pronounce a voiced -id. In this case, the 'e' is pronounced.

This pattern can also be found with plural forms. If the consonant preceding the 's' is voiced, 's' will sound as voiced 'z':

chairs
machines
bags

If the consonant preceding the 's' is voiceless, 's' will sound as voiceless 's':

bats
parks
pipes

Connected Speech

Finally, when speaking in sentences the ending consonant sounds can change based on the following words.

This is often referred to as 'connected speech'. Here is an example of a change from a voiced 'b' in the word 'club' to a voiceless 'p' because of the voiced 't' of 'to' of the following word:

We went to the club to meet some friends.

Here is an example of a change from a voiced 'd' past simple verb changed to voiceless 't':

We played tennis yesterday afternoon.

Voiced Or Voiceless Final Consonants Exercise

Take this list of words and decide if the final consonants are voiced or voiceless. Once you have made your decision, click on the link to check the answers (or, if you are listening, I will provide the answers in the audio):

  1. washed
  2. traveled
  3. coats
  4. gloves
  5. shells
  6. watched
  7. started
  8. changed
  9. books
  10. wheels
  11. lived
  12. dreams
  13. seats
  14. dropped
  15. exchanged
  16. globes
  17. phones
  18. carts
  19. listened
  20. organized

Exercise Answers

  1. washed - voiceless
  2. traveled - voiced
  1. coats - voiceless
  2. gloves - voiced
  3. shells - voiced
  4. watched - voiceless
  5. started - voiced
  6. changed - voiced
  7. books - voiceless
  8. wheels - voiced
  9. lived - voiced
  10. dreams - voiced
  11. seats - voiceless
  12. dropped - voiceless
  13. exchanged - voiced
  14. globes - voiced
  15. phones - voiced
  16. carts - voiceless
  17. listened - voiced
  18. organized - voiced