Ends of Words

Another common problem is saying the ends of words clearly. I have seen a lot of students who skip the last letters of words, and it seems that many of them are not aware that they are doing that.

In English, most words end with a consonant sound, AND the majority of words that do have a vowel sound last are frequently used words such as “to” “do” “the” “you” “he” or have an ending such as “-ly” or “-y”. (Remember: for most words that are spelled with an “e” at the end, the “e” is silent in pronunciation.)

This is different from many other languages. There are many languages that do not have consonants at the ends of words (or they only use a limited set of consonant sounds). If your mouth is not accustomed to making a clear or strong consonant sound at the ends of words, it can be difficult to learn to do this in English.

Why it is important to pronounce the last letters of words clearly:
1. Skipping sounds can make you very difficult to understand in general.
2. In some cases, it can give you a “baby talk” kind of sound.
3. In many short words, it can cause some funny or confusing mix-ups.

Here is an example of a mix-up:
If you say the word “flute” but you skip the “t” sound (or say it too weakly), then it can sound like the word “flu”. So instead of saying “He is taking flute lessons” it could sound like you said “He is taking flu lessons”!!

A few examples of possible mix-ups:
“wait” could sound like –> “way”
shoot –> shoe
house –> how
might –> my
make –> may
bike / bite –> buy (or by)
type / tight –> tie
plane / plate –> play
mean / meat –> me
hide –> high
life / like / light / line –> lie
lake –> lay
seek / seat –> see (or sea)

How to Practice
In general, the best is advice is to try to exaggerate the last consonant of words (say it a little bit too strong). I have often noticed that when students feel that they are saying a final consonant very strongly, it actually sounds just right (or is even still a little bit too weak)!

It might feel awkward for you, but that awkward feeling is often a sign that you are doing good. If your mouth always feels “normal” to you when you say something in English, then you are probably using the muscle patterns that are normal for your native language.


A tongue-twister: Fuzzy Wuzzy

Here is a good tongue-twister to try:

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear.
Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair.
Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?

There are 2 keys to pronoucing this well:
1. “Wuzzy” and “was he” should sound the same.
This happens often in spoken English: the “H” of the word “he” gets lost in conversational speech due to the rhythm (or stress-timing) of the sentence. (This is also known as sentence stress: some words are pronounced more strongly than other words.)
2. Use the Short U sound to say “fuzzy”, “wuzzy”, “was”, “a”, and “wasn’t”.

To pronounce Short U:
1. Lips are NOT rounded.
2. The tongue is in the middle (not high, not low, not in front or in back)
3. The tongue should be very relaxed.
(If you are familiar with the “schwa” vowel sound, it sounds the same.)

TH – Part 2. Some funny mix-ups.

So, when people do not pronounce TH correctly, what sound do they make instead?

When TH is voiceless (voice is off), common substitutions are T or S, and sometimes F.
When TH is voiced, the most common substitutions are D and Z (or occasionally V).

This can lead to some funny (or perhaps embarrassing) mix-ups.  For example, I sometimes hear students say “taught” when they are trying to say “thought” or they say “mouse” when they want to say “mouth”!

Some other possible mix-ups would be:
“thought” might sound like: “taught” “sought” or “fought”
“death” –> “debt” or “deaf”
“thank” –> “tank” or “sank”
“three” –> “tree” or “free”
“think” –> “sink”
“thing” –> “sing”
“fourth” –> “fort” or “force”
“math” –> “mat” or “mass”
“both” –> “boat”
“faith” –> “fate” or “face”
“truth” –> “truce”
“author” –> “otter” or “offer”
“thin” –> “tin” “sin” or “fin”
“those” –> “doze”
“worthy” –> “wordy”
“father” –> “fodder”
“mother” –> “mutter”
“they” –> “day”
“other” –> “udder” (or “utter”)
“either” –> “eater”

You could end up with a funny meaning if you switch some of those words around!

Since the TH sounds in English are used very frequently (and because it is not difficult for the tongue to produce) it would be worth the effort to train yourself to say them right. So, go ahead! Don’t be afraid of TH!

NOTE: there are a few words in which the TH does not make the usual sound.  For example, in the name “Thomas”, the TH is actually pronounced as a T sound. Another example is a word like “foothold” which has an accidental TH: the T of the word “foot” happens to be next to the H of the word “hold” but they keep their separate sounds.

TH – Part 1. Don’t Be Shy!

The “TH” sound is one that most ESL learners have problems with — I would guess it is probably 99%.

Do you absolutely need to fix it? No. That’s because so many people mispronounce it, that it is sort of a “normal” mistake, and native speakers are used to hearing it wrong.

So, why bother?

1. “TH” is fairly easy to fix – but you do need to get over being shy about it! Most of my students feel awkward or embarrassed when they say it the right way.

2. “TH” is a VERY frequent sound. You find words with “th” in almost every sentence of English – it is in many words that we use all the time: the / this / thing / think / they / them / that / those / there / then / with / both / other / earth / teeth / mother / father / south / north / month / truth / three / fifth / tenth / thousand / (This is just a few examples!)

3. Since “TH” is so frequently mispronounced, it is possible to go for quite a while without having any major communication problems, but you should be aware that an incorrect “TH” is a very common part of English “baby talk.” For example, when my son was small, if I asked him “How old are you?” he would answer by showing me 3 fingers and saying “free!”

4. You should also be aware that there are many words that can be confused if the “TH” is not pronounced well. (I hear them all the time.) Some examples: “mouth” can sound like “mouse” / “author” can sound like “otter” / “three” can sound like “tree” or “free”.
These kinds of mistakes can slow down a conversation or lead to funny misunderstandings. (I will give more examples in my next post.)

5. Remember, it is “real” English. Even if you think it feels or sounds “funny”, it actually sounds completely normal for English – and this is true for all types of English: American, British, or whatever.

1. “TH” is not tricky – you just need to be brave, and stick the tip of your tongue between the upper and lower teeth. Saying it correctly consistently is really just a matter of practice and self-discipline.

2. There are 2 kinds of “TH”.
a. Voiceless “TH” is said with the voice turned off. Some examples are: thing / think / with / both / earth / teeth / south / north / month / truth / three / fifth / tenth / thousand.

b. Voiced “TH” needs to be said with the voice on (vocal cords vibrating). Some examples are: the / this / they / them / that / those / there / then /other / mother / father.

My next post will give more examples and other tips.

Reconsidering 13 vs. 30

Did anyone ever tell you that the way to distinguish between the numbers “13” and “30” was with word stress? There are plenty of ESL books and teachers that will tell you that the difference between them is this:
— for 30, you should stress the first syllable [ THIR-ty ]
— for 13 you should stress the 2nd syllable [ thir-TEEN ]

That advice works great when you are comparing the two numbers, or emphasizing them to make them extra clear, but what about when you are just saying the number 13 in a normal conversation…?

Listen closely the next time you go shopping. If someone’s total comes to $13.95, you will not hear the cashier say “thir-TEEN ninety-five”. And if you listen to a native speaker count out loud, they don’t say “…ten, eleven, twelve, thir-TEEN, four-TEEN, fif-TEEN…” (It would sound strange if they did.)

Actually, putting strong stress on the 2nd syllable of 13 is usually for when you need to be careful to distinguish it from 30. Most of the time, 13 (or 14 or 15 or 16…) is pronounced with two equally strong syllables. However, the stress can vary depending on the context. For example, if you need to clarify between 14 and 15, then the stress will be stong on the first part, as in, “I said FOUR-teen, not FIF-teen!”

By the way “$13.95” actually has 4 equally strong beats: “THIR-TEEN-NINEty-FIVE”, which is similar to the stress pattern used for acronyms (abbreviations such as ASAP or VIP).

Now you know!

By the way, I am always noticing the pronunciation of people when I hear them speak… One person that I have noticed who really took the rule “thir-TEEN vs. THIR-ty” to heart is Benny Hinn. He follows the rule perfectly, which indicates that he was very conscientious about his pronunciation while he was learning English. He has only a small trace of foreign accent when he speaks English — hats off to him!

Pronunciation Coach Intro

This blog is for learners of American English who want to improve their pronunciation.

You can submit a question by using the “comments” link at the bottom of any post.

So, who I am? A language teacher with Master’s degrees in ESL (English as a Second Language) and Hispanic Linguistics from the University of Minnesota.  Over 25 years ago I started out tutoring international college students (studying in Minnesota), and since then I have gone on to teach English and Spanish from beginner to advanced levels.  My favorite area has always been pronunciation.