S vs. Z

When you see the letter “S” how do you know if you should pronounce it with an S-sound or a Z-sound? Knowing how to pronounce “S” can be tricky. The bad news is that there are no clear-cut rules, so you really need to learn to use your ear.

Pronouncing the sounds of S and Z

Some students have trouble hearing the difference and pronouncing the two sounds correctly. Both “S” and “Z” are made in the same place in the mouth, but the factor that distinguishes them is: voicing. For “S” the voice is off, so there is only the sound of air coming from the mouth: /s/. For “Z” there is also the sound of air, but the voice is on, so the vocal cords need to be making sound: /z/.

Pronouncing words spelled with S

Now, even if you have no trouble hearing and saying these two sounds, the spelling can leave you totally confused. English spelling does not always indicate which sound you should use.

Frequent Words

The first step is to make sure that you are pronouncing the everyday words correctly. Here are the words from the 1,000 most frequently used words of English in which the [s] is pronounced as /z/. You should definitely make sure that you are saying these words right:

is, was, as, his, these, has, isn’t, does, doesn’t, because, those, wasn’t, easy, whose, thousand, lose, cause, reason, present, raise, phrase, surprise, design, rise, choose, visit, observe, nose, rose, confuse.

However, not every word with an “S” has a Z-sound. In these words the sound is /s/:

this, its, also, us, answer, listen, pass, person, course, less, base, yes, beside, case, let’s, possible, else, itself, thus, sense, necessary, various.

What can make it seem even more confusing, is that there are sometimes differences in American and British English spellings, such as: realize/realise. These small variations in spelling do not confuse native speakers of English because they already know how the words should sound. You just need to be aware that even though the spelling looks different, the pronunciation is the same, so don’t let it confuse you.

Pronouncing Words with [-s] endings

The S and Z-sounds are also important in words that end with [-s]. The good news is, there is a clear pattern for this. The sound of an “S” at the end of a word needs to match the voicing of the sound just before it. Here are some examples to illustrate:

take — the last sound in this word /k/ is voiceless. So when an “S” is added, it matches the voicing of the “K” and is pronounced as /s/: takes

live — the last sound in this word /v/ is voiced. So when an “S” is added, it follows the voicing of the “V” and is pronounced as /z/: lives

pass — the last sound in this word is already /s/, so when “S” is added, a small vowel sound is used to separate them. And since all vowel sounds are voiced, the [-s] ending is pronounced as /z/: passes. 

So remember, keep your ears open and listen carefully so that you are not confused about pronouncing “S” and “Z”.



Voicing is an important factor for pronouncing consonants correctly. There are some consonants that are spoken with the voice off (voiceless) and others that need to have the voice on (voiced).

Let’s compare T and D. These two sounds are almost the same, because they are both made in the same place in the mouth, and with the same part of the tongue. The only factor that makes them different is the voicing.

T is voiceless — that means it is pronounced with the voice turned off; the vocal cords do not vibrate or make any sound: “t”, “bat”, “time”.

D is voiced — that means is it pronounced with the voice turned on; the vocal cords vibrate and the sound of the voice is heard: “d”, “bad”, “dime”.

The voiced and voiceless consonants of English
In this list, the consonants in each pair are pronounced in the same place in the mouth, and differ only in the voicing. For each of these pairs the first is voiceless and the second is voiced.

T: t, fat, tore
D: d, fad, door

P: p, lap, pat
B: b, lab, bat

C & K: k, pick, come
G: g, pig, gum

F: f, safe, feel
V: v, save, veal

S & C: s, price, sip
Z: z, prize, zip

CH: ch, rich, choke
J & G: j, ridge, joke

TH voiceless: th, bath, thigh
TH voiced: th, bathe, thy

SH: sh, sure
SH voiced: zh, azure

Besides being able to pronounce these consonant sounds correctly, another reason why it is important to know about voicing, is to be able to pronounce the word endings [-s] and [-ed] correctly.
So pay attention to your voice!

Homographs Part 1

Homographs are words with two different pronunciations, and different meanings. This particular list of homographs has some words that could cause some confusion if you aren’t aware of them.
Listen carefully to how these words are pronounced.

bass – a kind of fish
bass – the low notes in music (a homonym of “base”)

bow – to bend over
bow – loops made with ribbon or the stick part of a violin

buffet – to hit or strike
buffet – a meal with many dishes self-served

does – 3rd person singular of “to do”
does – female deer (plural) (a homonym of “doze”)

dove – a kind of bird
dove – past tense of the verb “to dive”

desert – to abandon (a homonym of “dessert”)
desert – a dry area of land

invalid – not valid
invalid – a person who is disabled

live – the verb meaning to be alive
live – the adjective meaning not dead

lead – to show the way
lead – a kind of metal (Pb) (a homonym of “led”)

minute – 60 seconds
minute – very small

mow – to cut grass
mow – a stack of hay

polish – to make clean and shiny
Polish – from Poland

resume – to start again
resume – a summary of experience

read – to understand written words
read – the past tense of “to read” (a homonym of “red”)

sewer – drain pipes for waste water
sewer – a person who sews

slough – to shed old tissue
slough – a swampy area of land

sow – to plant seeds
sow – a female pig

tear – to rip
tear – water produced by the eyes

wind – air movement
wind – to turn or twist something

wound – past tense of wind
wound – an injury

Pay attention to the vowel sounds in these words so that you can say the right pronunciation for the right meaning!

Sell or Sale?

Does the difference between the words “sell” and “sale” seem confusing? I have known quite a few students who have trouble pronouncing those two words clearly, and some are not even sure which word is which! These two words use Short-e and Long-A. Distinguishing between those two vowel sounds is tricky for many students.

Long-A and Short-e can be easily confused because they are pronounced in basically the same place in the mouth, but there is one key difference. The key is tongue tension. For Long-A the tongue is tense, but for Short-e the tongue needs to be relaxed.

Try it!
First, start by saying “A”. Then, keep your tongue in the same place, but relax it: “A” > “e”. If this seems hard to do, focus on relaxing your whole tongue, all the way back, even making sure that your neck is relaxed.

The difference between these two sounds may seem small, but the difference in the meaning is not small.
Here are some examples:

Long-A — Short-e
based/baste — best
fail — fell
gate — get
jail — gel
late — let
lace — less
main/mane — men
pain — pen
raced — rest
rake — wreck
raid/rayed — red
taste — test
wait — wet
wane — when
waste/waist — west
whale/wail — well

Some of these words could cause some funny mix-ups…

  • Do you use hair gel? — don’t say “hair jail”!
  • If you want to borrow somebody’s “pen”, don’t ask to use their “pain”!
  • On several occasions I have heard students say something like “I have to study for my taste” or “I’m nervous about the big taste tomorrow.” — they were actually talking about a test at school.

Even if a word with Short-e does not have a similar word with Long-A, it can make it hard for others to understand you if your tongue is not relaxed for Short-e.

So, which is which — sell and sale?

SALE -is a noun (and a homonym of “sail”). For example:
“The bookstore is having a big sale this weekend.”
“I’m waiting to see if that computer goes on sale before I buy it.”
“His house is for sale.”

SELL -is a verb. For example:
“I want to sell my old books.”
“They won’t sell it at a lower price.”
“He hopes that his house will sell quickly.”
(The word “sell” does also exist as a noun, but it has a different meaning and is used less frequently.)


1. Test yourself! — See if you can hear the difference between Long-A and Short-e. You can test yourself on the “Vowel Test” page of the PronunciationCoach site.

Chicken or Egg? Phrasal Verbs & Compound Nouns

Many phrasal verbs have a similar looking compound noun. For example, the phrasal verb “take off”, which means “to depart”, corresponds to the noun “takeoff”, which means “departure”.

Here they are in sentences:
The plane could not take off until the snow was cleared.
Why was the takeoff delayed so long?

Phrasal verbs are distinguished from compound nouns by the stress. The stress of phrasal verbs is on the 2nd part, but compound nouns are stressed on the 1st part. Listen to the stress in the these examples:

turn out
This new cake recipe did not turn out very well.
Voter turnout is expected to be high for the next election.

work out
They went to the gym to work out.
The fitness instructor started them on a new workout.

drive through
Let’s drive through so we don’t have to get out of the car.
The drive-through is open even if the dining room is closed.
(Note: this noun is often spelled “drive thru” –it’s easier to put on a sign that way)

break down
The car broke down again? We really need to get a new one.
There was a breakdown in communications after they discovered the new evidence.

break through
I hope the sun breaks through the clouds soon – it’s been raining all week.
There have been many medical breakthroughs in the last 50 years.

knock out
The storm knocked out the electricity in the whole town.
The boxer won by a knockout in the first round.

carry on
We will have to carry on the best we can even without his help.
How many carry-ons does this airline allow?

call back
Will you please ask John to call me back when he arrives?
They promised a callback to let us know when it’s ready.

turn over
Let’s turn this project over to someone with more experience.
That job has a lot of turnover – most workers don’t stay more than a year.

give away
They are going to give prizes away at the grand opening.
Then they will have a giveaway of gift cards next month.

You may have noticed that in some of these examples the phrasal verb and the compound noun have similar meanings, while others do not. In reality, each of these nouns and verbs have several meanings. One other thing to know is that not every phrasal verb has a corresponding compound noun.

So, that leads us to the chicken-or-the-egg question: which came first, the phrasal verbs or the compound nouns? I’m not exactly sure, but I would guess it’s the phrasal verbs. Either way, new phrasal verbs and new compound nouns are being invented in English all the time. So keep your eyes open for them, and remember to be careful with the stress.

(There are many websites for learning English that have lists of phrasal verbs, but the best resource that I have found is The Macmillan Dictionary. The definitions and examples seem to be very thorough.)

Short-i in Frequent Words

Distinguishing between Short-i and Long-E is difficult for many students (the difference is explained in “This or These?”), but it’s a good idea to be extra careful with this vowel distinction — there are several frequently used words of English with the Short-i sound that could be confused with similar sounding words with Long-E. The words below are from the list of The 150 Most Frequently Used Words of English.

Now remember, the key to pronouncing Short-i correctly is to relax your tongue.
So, if you don’t relax your tongue then…

is — sounds like “ease”
it — sounds like “eat”
its — sounds like “eats”
his — sounds like “he’s”
him — sounds like “heme” (this is a scientific word that most people don’t know)
will — sounds like “wheel”
did — sounds like “deed”
still — sounds like “steal”/”steel”

Also, the word “six” is used often, and can be confused with the word “seeks”.

So, here’s a sentence that uses some of these words together:

“Will it still work?”

But, without saying Short-i correctly, this sentence could sound like:

“Wheel eat steal work?”


“Is it at 6:00?”

could sound like:

“Ease eat at seeks?”

(That sounds kind of crazy!)

There are some frequent words with the Short-i sound that do not have a corresponding word with Long-E: in / with / if / think / which. Even though these words would not be confused with a similar-sounding word, it still makes it harder for people to understand you if accidentally say them with a Long-E sound.

So it is worth it to be careful with Short-i
(not: eat ease worth eat to be careful weeth Short-i)!