Vowel Pairs

A vowel pair is two vowel letters together, that make just one sound. For example, in the words “each” and “fear” the [ea] makes just one vowel sound, so this is a vowel pair. However, in “idea” and “create” the [ea] is not a vowel pair – there are two vowel sounds, and those two sounds are in different syllables.

Pronouncing vowel pairs

When you see a new word with a vowel pair, how can you know how to pronounce it?

Usually, the first vowel of the pair is the one that is pronounced, and it is usually with the long vowel sound for that letter. The second vowel is silent. For example: wait (Long-A), team (Long-E), people (Long-E), boat (Long-O), fruit (Long-U).

Sometimes, but less often, the first vowel in the pair uses its short vowel sound. For example: cause (Short-a-2), laugh (Short-a-1), ready (Short-e), sieve (Short-i).

There are some words in which the second vowel is the one that is pronounced. In these cases, it is most often with the long vowel sound. For example: aisle (Long-I), break (Long-A), piece (Long-E), neutral (Long-U), geyser (Long-I/Y), few (Long-U/W).

The least common pattern is when the second vowel is pronounced with its short vowel sound. For example: friend (Short-e), forfeit (Short-i), build (Short-i), because (Short-u).

So remember, in a vowel pair, just one of the vowels is pronounced, and the other is silent. And if you see a new word with a vowel pair, but you are not sure how to say it, the best thing to try first is the long sound of the first vowel.

There is only just a handful of words with a vowel pair that has a sound that is completely different from one of the letters in the pair. Some of them are: aura (Long-O); vein, eight, weigh, their, they (Long-A); said, says, again (Short-e); been (Short-i); sew (Long-O).

Also, there is one combination, [oi] or [oy], in which the sound of both vowels is heard and they stay together in the same syllable. Some examples are: boy, choice, coin, enjoy, point, voice.

Finally, there is one combination which has several pronunciations, and it is not easy to predict: [ou]. When you see a word with [ou], the best advice is to check a dictionary or ask a native speaker how to say it.


Sentence Stress Part 1

What is sentence stress?

In English, some words are spoken more strongly and are easier to hear, and some words are spoken quickly, or weakly, and can be hard to hear clearly. This combination of weak words and strong words in a sentence, makes a kind of rhythm which is called sentence stress.

Here is a sentence to demonstrate: We have to put all the bags in the car now.

Now, I will say that same sentence without sentence stress (as best I can): We have to put all the bags in the car now. It doesn’t sound natural that way, even though I said all of the vowels and consonants correctly.

Normally, that sentence would have 3 strong words: “put”, “bags”, and “car”. Those words are clear and easy to hear. The other words are spoken quickly, and may be reduced, so that they can be said more easily. This is why “have to” sounds like “hafta”: We have to put all the bags in the car now.

This combination of weak and strong words, gives English a special kind of rhythm. Linguists call this “stress-timing.” Sometimes the strong words can form a series of beats that you can clap with: We have to put all the bags in the car now.

The basic rule of sentence stress, is that the strong words should be the ones that are the most important for the meaning of the conversation. Therefore, nouns and verbs are the primary strong words, and the foundation of sentence stress.

Tongue tension – a secret key

Tongue tension is important for pronouncing English short vowels well. All of the short vowels in American English need a relaxed tongue. In fact, some books and dictionaries call these vowels “lax vowels”.

THE SECRET KEY for lax vowels

Most students of English do not seem to know about tongue tension. Many of my students have said that they were never told about relaxing the tongue. That’s why I call it the secret key.


For two vowels, Short-e and Short-i, tongue tension is critical. Failing to relax your tongue for these two vowels can make them sound more like a different vowel, which can cause misunderstandings.
Short-e can get confused with Long-A (see Sell or Sale?)
Short-i can get confused with Long-E (see This or These?)

Pronouncing the other Short vowels

Short-a-1 “man” “hat”
For this vowel, the tongue is low in the front of the mouth. The mouth needs to be open enough so that the tongue can go low enough, and with a relaxed tongue.

Short-a-2 “car” “ball”
Short-o-1 “hot” “stop”
These two vowels share the same sound. For this sound, the tongue is in the center, neither front nor back, and the tongue is low, so the mouth needs to be open. Think of saying “ah” for the doctor. The tongue is relaxed and the lips are not rounded. (this is compared to Short-u in Boss or bus?)

Short-o-2 “month” “son”
Short-u “fun” “duck”
These two vowels also share the same sound. For this sound, the tongue is completely relaxed in the middle of the mouth: neither front nor back, not high, not low, and the lips are not rounded. (this is the same as Schwa)

Short-oo “book” “good”
This vowel is pronounced in the same place in the mouth as the Long-U, as in “nuke”, but with a relaxed tongue, as in “nook”. This is the only Short vowel with rounded lips.  (see Short-oo?)

If you begin to relax your tongue for these vowels, you can improve the clarity of your pronunciation. Note: If relaxing your tongue seems difficult, think about relaxing it all the way back to the throat — the tongue muscle extends into the throat.

Short-oo? What’s that?

Short-oo is a vowel that is a little bit unusual. Now, you may be thinking, “But that’s not a letter in the English alphabet!”, and of course, you’re right. But Long-OO and Short-oo is a pair of vowel sounds that follow some of the spelling and pronunciation patterns of the other Long and Short vowels of English.

How to pronounce Short-oo

Just like all of the Short vowels of English, a key factor to pronounce it well is to relax your tongue. Start by saying the Long-OO (Long-U-2) sound: “OO”. Then, hold your tongue up in the same place, but relax it completely: “OO” > “oo”.

Also, your lips should stay rounded — Short-oo is the only Short vowel with rounded lips.

Be sure to relax your whole tongue, all the way to the back, because there are some words with Short-oo that could be confused if you don’t relax your tongue. Here are a few examples:

Short-oo — Long-OO
could — cooed
hood — who’d
look — Luke
pull — pool
stood — stewed
would — wooed

Common Words with Short-oo

This vowel sound is a little bit unusual in some ways, but it is used almost as much as any other English vowel sound, because there are several frequently used words that have it. Here are some of them: could, should, would, put, push, sugar, book, look, cookie, hook, took, good, wood, stood, foot.

One fun way to practice the Short-oo sound is with the tongue twister “How Much Wood“.