Long-O vs. Short-o

One very common pronunciation mistake is using the Long-O sound in every word that has the letter “O”. However, the “O” regularly uses three different sounds, so if you always use Long-O, it can definitely cause confusion or just make it harder for people to understand you.

Here are a few examples of words that could be confused:
“on” — this word has Short-o, but if you say it with Long-O, then you end up saying “own”
“long” — this has Short-o, but if you use Long-O, it will be unclear whether you are trying to say “long” or “lone”
“come” — this word has Alternate-Short-o, but if you say it with Long-O, then you will say “comb”


Here are some good words to practice with. In each of these pairs, the first word has Long-O and the second word has Short-o, so they can definitely be confused if you use the wrong vowel sound. Remember, for Short-o, the lips should not be rounded.

clothe – cloth
cloak – clock
coast – cost
coat – cot
coma – comma
goat – got
hope – hop
Joan – John
note – not
owed/ode – odd
soak – sock


The Sounds of O

I have found that 80% to 90% of students do not know that the English letter “O” has more than one sound! The letter “O” regularly uses three different sounds, but a lot of students pronounce many words wrong because they use just one “O” sound all the time.

The basic sounds are: Long-O, Short-o, and Short-o-2.


This is the “universal” or “normal” sound for “O” – the sound with rounded lips (most languages use this sound). Some common words with this sound are: go / home / show / short / know / open / low / over / no / most / for / only.


This is the normal Short-o sound, and it is actually the same sound as Short-a-2 (as in “mama”). Some common words that have Short-o are: not / gone / coffee / copy / hot / wrong / lot / long / off / on / stop / song.

To pronounce Short-o clearly, the lips should NOT be rounded and the mouth should be open with the tongue low and relaxed.

Short-o-2 (Alternate-Short-o)

Short-o-2 can be thought of as the Alternate-Short-o, and it borrows the sound of Short-u. There are quite a few words with this sound. A few examples are: son / won / from / done / come / some / love / above / nothing / tongue / of / oven / brother / money / month.

To pronounce this sound clearly, the lips should NOT be rounded, the tongue should be very relaxed in the middle of the mouth, and the mouth is less open than for regular Short-o. (See Boss or bus?)


Besides the basic sounds, any vowel letter can use the schwa sound in unstressed syllables. However, Short-o-2 and the schwa sound are actually the same (schwa and Short-u are made in the same place in the mouth). So even though we could say the the letter “O” has four sounds, in reality there are only three distinct sounds that you need to make.

Some examples of words with an “O” in an unstressed syllable are: second / complete / contain / observe / produce / melody.

Some tricky cases

  • There is a handful of frequently used words that do not have one of the three basic “O” sounds: do / to / two / shoe / who / whom / whose / lose / move / prove. These all use a Long-U sound.
  • The words “one” and “once” are unusual. The “O” in these words uses Short-o-2, but there is also a “W” sound at the beginning, so “one” is actually a homonym with the word “won”.
  • There are three other words that are very unusual. The “O” in “woman” and “wolf” uses the Short-oo sound, and the “O” in “women” is pronounced with a Short-i sound! The good news is that spellings that are this crazy are rare.
  • Also, remember to watch out for “OU” (see OU – Oh no!) – words with this vowel pair are not very predictable.
  • Finally, there is one word that can cause confusion because it is a homograph. D-O-V-E: this could be a verb or a noun. As a verb, it is the past tense of “dive” and is pronounced with a Long-O: “dove”. As a noun, it is pronounced with Short-o-2: “dove”.

You should memorize the correct pronunciation of these unusual words, so that you can say them with confidence.

So remember, the letter “O” has more than one sound, and it is usually pronounced with one of the three basic sounds: Long-O, Short-o, and Short-o-2 (or schwa).


1. Vowel pair “OU” — Several different vowel sounds are used for the vowel pair “OU”, and it is not easy to predict. See: OU – Oh no!

2. Test yourself! — Many students have difficulty distinguishing between Short-o and Short-u. You can test yourself on the “Vowel Test” page of the PronunciationCoach site.

Sentence Stress Part 3

Sentence stress is the combination of weak and strong words in a sentence, which creates a sort of rhythm. The first step in learning how sentence stress works, is to know which words are weak and which ones are strong. After that, you need to know how the stress patterns are used to make a conversation be clear and go smoothly.

One way to help a conversation be more clear, is to put strong stress on a weak word when necessary. This could happen if a weak word becomes especially important to the topic of the conversation, or if it is needed to help clarify what you are talking about. Here are some examples to illustrate.

Example 1:
He wants to leave now.
This is a basic sentence with the basic stress pattern. There are only two strong words in this sentence — the two verbs: “wants” and “leave”.

He wants to leave now.
This time, the word “he” is also stressed, but this is not the basic pattern. Therefore, this sentence implies that something was not clearly understood, and so you are indicating specifically which person wants to leave — perhaps someone thought that you wanted to leave, or perhaps someone was unsure about exactly who wanted to leave.

Example 2:
She put the box on the desk.
This is a basic sentence with the basic stress pattern. There are three strong words — the verb and the nouns: “put”, “box”, and “desk”.

She put the box on the desk.
Now the sentence has four stressed words. The word “on” is not normally strong, but here it is stressed to clarify the exact location of the box — perhaps someone else tried to find the box by the desk, or under the desk.

The overall rule is that the most important words in the sentence need to sound the strongest. A weak word should always stay weak unless you have a reason to make it strong. If you put stress on a weak word incorrectly, it can cause some confusion, or slow down the conversation. The person you are speaking to may wonder if you are both understanding each other ok, or may become a bit hesitant and stop to double check what you really mean to say.

Few and little

This topic is a little bit more about grammar than pronunciation, but it is important because so many students are confused by it. There is one very small difference in grammar, which can make a big difference in meaning. It’s the word “a” when using the words “few” and “little”.

“Few” is not the same as “a few”, and “little” is not the same as “a little”. Here is what they do mean:

“a few”
This means: some, but not too many; a small amount of something.
For example: I just need a few more minutes to finish.

This means: almost none; there are scarcely any to be found.
For example: Few people have ever seen the Amur leopard.

“a little”
This means: some, but not too much; a small amount.
For example: Could I please have a little water?

This means: almost nothing, there is hardly any at all.
For example: They had little time to escape the burning house.

To help make the distinction even more clear, let’s compare two similar sentences. The following sentences are almost the same — the only difference is the word “a” — but the meanings are basically the opposite.

There are a few good reasons to visit that mountain.

This means that the mountain is a good place to visit. Perhaps there is unusually beautiful scenery, or some very interesting wildlife — so there are some good reasons to visit it.

There are few good reasons to visit that mountain.

This means that the mountain is not a place very many people would want to visit. Perhaps it is dangerous, or unusually difficult — so there are not many reasons to visit it.

Noticing the presence or absence of the word “a” can be difficult, because it is usually very small and hard to hear. Small words, such as “a” and “the” or prepositions, are normally weak in sentences because of sentence stress. Even though they can be hard to hear, they are still very important, and native speakers do notice when they are used or not used, so this is definitely something to watch out, or rather, listen for.

The Sounds of I

Each vowel letter of English uses three or four different vowel sounds, but there is something unique about the letter “I” — it shares its sounds with the letter “Y”. They are sort of like “twins”. Whenever the letter “Y” is acting as a vowel, it uses the same sounds as “I”.

There are three basic sounds for the English letter “I”: Long-I, Long-I-2 (old-style), and Short-i.


Long-I is the normal Long-vowel sound for “I”, because it is the same as the name of the letter “I”. Some common words with this sound are: like / write / time / line / right / kind / while / life / side / five / ice / sign / child / tie / item / my / why / type / style / rhyme / cycle / deny / apply / rely.


The second Long sound that the letter “I” (or “Y”) uses is the “old style” Long-I — it is the sound that the letter “I” used hundreds of years ago, before the English vowels made a shift. A few words with the letter “I” retained the old sound, which is the same as the Long-E sound today. Here are some examples: ski / chic / police / machine / tangerine / mobile / souvenir / antique / magazine / unique / many / only / funny / baby / lady / very.


Short-i is pronounced in the front upper part of the mouth, and it is very important to relax the tongue to avoid confusion with the Long-E sound (see This or These). There are quite a few frequently used words with the Short-i sound, so it is important to learn to relax the tongue well. Some words are: with / six / which / if / give / thing / think / big / list / inch / spring / quick / sing / myth / gyp / gym / cyst / lynx / system / rhythm / symbol.

(Words covered in Short-i in Frequent words:  is / it / its / his / him / will / did / still.)
(Words covered in This or These: this / bit / chip / itch / fill / hit / lip / living / sit / sick.)


In addition to the basic Long and Short-vowel sounds, any vowel letter can also use the schwa sound. This happens in weak (unstressed) syllables, especially in a syllable that is adjacent to the strongest syllable of a word. In the following words, the letter “I” (or “Y”) is in an unstressed syllable: pencil / decimal / practice / office / chemical / flexible / dactyl.

Some tricky cases

The following words can be confusing because they are homographs

L-I-V-E: this word could be a verb or an adjective, and they are pronounced differently. When it is a verb, it has a Short-i: “live”. When it is an adjective, it is pronounced with a Long-I: “live”.

W-I-N-D: this word could be a noun or a verb. As a noun, it has a Short-i: “wind”. As a verb, it has a Long-I: “wind”. 

So remember, when you see the letter “I”, it will be pronounced with one of the four choices: Long-I, Long-I-2, Short-i, or Schwa. It is very unusual for an “I” to use some other sound.