Sentence Stress Part 6

Reductions and Formality

The rhythm of English sentences causes weak words to be reduced, but the amount of reduction varies according to formality. As a general rule, in more formal situations, there are less reductions, while in casual, or informal, conversations weak words tend to be more reduced.

As an example, I will say one sentence (I should have got a cup of tea.) three different times, with a different level of reduction each time.

Example 1: I should have got a cup of tea.
In this example, all of the words are spoken clearly, and it sounds more formal. The strong words are still more prominent, but this sentence does take a little bit more time to say because the weak words are fully pronounced.

Example 2: I should have got a cup of tea. (sounds like “I should’ve gotta cupuv tea.”)
This has a medium level of reductions — it is pronounced with a contraction, and the weak words are spoken more quickly, but are still fairly clear.

Example 3: I should have got a cup of tea. (“have”, “of” and “a” are all schwa)
This example has very strong reductions, and is very casual or informal. This is also quickest to say.

More formal types of speaking would include speeches, lectures, or news reports. The most informal conversations would include the way someone might talk with a best friend or a brother or sister.

Even among TV programs you can see a difference in the level of reductions, depending on the type of show. A documentary about science or history is spoken more formally, so there are fewer reductions. In contrast, a comedy show is more informal and would have a greater level of reductions.

Is it necessary to speak with reductions?

Not absolutely… If you pronounce every word carefully, articulating all of the sounds clearly, nobody will have trouble understanding the words that you say… BUT… your speaking may not sound smooth and natural. And remember, the level of reductions is related to the level of formality, so if you do not use any reductions, it could make you sound very formal and therefore less friendly, or perhaps even a little bit boring.

You do not need to become an expert at using extremely reduced words, but you should learn to speak with some basic reductions, so that your sentence stress can have a natural-sounding rhythm. You will sound more smooth, and be easier to listen to.

Of course, it is important to be aware of the more extreme reductions, so that you are able to understand native speakers who talk that way.

Two basic ways to make reductions.

1. Use schwa, or very small, quick vowel sounds in weak words.
2. Learn how to say and use common contractions. Some students have a habit of not saying contractions, even when they are reading aloud and see one that is written. It is normal to say a contraction that is written, so if you see “he’d” it is not necessary to say “he would”, and you don’t need to say “they have” when you see “they’ve”.

Remember, the main goal is to achieve a fairly natural rhythm to your English sentences, with strong words sounding more prominent, and weak words spoken quickly. And it is easier to say weak words quickly if you reduce the sounds a little bit.


Sentence Stress Part 5 Confusable Reductions

The rhythm of English sentences, or sentence stress, causes weak words to be reduced. Reduced words have some of their sounds missing, so that they can be spoken more easily and quickly. However, this can make it really crazy for students of English –especially beginners– because sometimes some of the weak words end up sounding the same!!

Schwa Group
The words “to”, “have”, “of” and “a” can all be pronounced as a schwa sound. Look at these examples:

“TO” — In the phrases “want to” and “going to”, the word “to” often ends up as just a schwa.

They want to take a break. (“want to” sounds like “wanna”)
She’s going to call us later. (“going to” sounds like “gonna”)

“OF” — Sometimes the word “of” ends up as a schwa. This happens often in phrases such as “most of”, “lots of” and “out of”.

Most of the people are gone. (“most of” sounds like “mosta”)
We have lots of food left. (“lots of” sounds like “lotsa”)
I ran out of sugar. (“out of” sounds like “outta”)

“HAVE” — The word “have” can be a schwa, especially when it follows a modal verb.

You should have warned me. (“should have” sounds like “shoulda”)
We could have taken the other road. (“could have” sounds like “coulda”)
I would have given him a ride. (“would have” sounds like “woulda”)
That must have been difficult. (“must have” sounds like “musta”)
They might have been delayed. (“might have” sounds like “mighta”)

“A” — The word “a” is usually pronounced as a schwa.

Those cost 10 bucks a piece.
I would like a small coffee.

Now here is a sentence, with 3 different words all pronounced as schwa!

I should have had a cup of tea.

“R” Group
The words “are”, “or” and “her” can all be reduced to just an “R” sound, plus they can end up sounding like a suffix such as “-er” or “-or”.

What are you doing?
Do you prefer black or brown? (“black or” sounds like “blacker”)
Don’t tell her yet! (“tell her” sounds like “teller”)

“N” Group
The words “and”, “an”, “in” and “on” can be reduced to schwa-plus-“N” or sometimes even just an “N”, plus they can end up sounding like the suffix “-en” or the prefix “un-“.

Let’s have ham and eggs.
Take an umbrella just in case. (“take an” sounds like “taken”)
It’s in real-time. (not: “It’s unreal time.”)
Can it fit on less space? (not: “Can it fit unless space?”)

“Z” Group
The words “is”, “as” and “his” can all be reduced to schwa-plus-“Z”.

That flower is real?
It’s as good as gold.
What’s his name?

“T-D” Group
The words “at” and “it” plus the suffix “-ed” often use a schwa and can end up sounding the same. Listen to how similar the following sentence pairs sound.

Look at the view! — Look it over. (“look at” sounds like “look it”)
I want it to go. — I wanted to go. (“want it” sounds like “wanted”)
They end at the lake. — They ended the round early. (“end at” sounds like “ended”)

Wow! Since there are words that can get confused with each other, you might wonder how anyone is able to communicate with English!

It can definitely be difficult for students of English, but the good news is that these strong reductions are not used all the time. The stronger reductions happen more often in informal conversations. In more formal speaking, such as, news reports, speeches, or even books for language learners, the weak words are usually less reduced, and easier to hear. In fact, this is true for the way I speak on this blog. Since I want it to be clear for students of any level, I speak a little more carefully than I would when I am having a casual conversation with a friend or family member.  (Sentence Stress Part 6  — coming soon — discusses this more.)

Sentence Stress Part 4 – Common Reductions

Sentence stress is the combination of strong words and weak words in a sentence, which creates a sort of rhythm. Strong words, such as nouns and verbs, are spoken stronger and more clearly than weak words, such as articles, pronouns or prepositions. (See Sentence Stress Part 2)

Weak words are not usually pronounced very clearly because they are spoken quickly, and they get reduced. This means that part of their sound is missing. Reducing weak words makes it easier to say them quickly.

Here are some examples of weak words that are used every day, and are normally reduced.

Prepositions: to / for / at / then / from / on / with.
Pronouns: you / your / he / she / it / them / his / him / her.
Helping verbs and BE: can / do / have / am / are / is / been / will.
Others words: and / an / the / or / than.

Notice, however, that when I say these words as part of a list, I do not say them with reductions. The reductions happen when they are in a sentence.

The most common ways that weak words get reduced are the following.

Schwa reduction

The most basic kind of reduction is using a schwa sound instead of a clearly pronounced vowel. In these examples, the word in parentheses after the sentence is the word that has a schwa rather than a full vowel sound.

I love to read. (to)
Look at this! (at)
They took it already. (it)
Do you like it? (do/you)
What is that? (is)
We need more than that. (than)

Skipping vowels

Sometimes a vowel is reduced so much, that it gets skipped completely. This is how some contractions are formed. In these sentences, the vowel of the weak word is missing.

He has to go. (to)
Thanks for your help. (for/your)
I’m almost finished. (am)
It’s getting late. (is)
We’re not ready yet. (are)


Another very common kind of reduction is skipping the “H” in these words: have / has / had / he / her / him / his. In these sentences, those words are weak and the “H” is missing.

They will call him later.
We should have waited.
Can her brother drive?
I had hoped to finish sooner.

It is important to know that H-deletion is only for weak words. If one of these words is said with strong stress, the “H” does not get deleted. For example, if I say: “That’s his book not mine” the “H” in the word “his” is said clearly because the word is strong. Also, when the word “have” is a main verb, it does not get reduced, as in “We have two days left.”

Other skipped consonants

Besides “H”, there are a few other consonant sounds that regularly get skipped.

“F” in the word “of”: We have lots of time.
“V” in “have”: He should have told us.
“D” in “and”: Let’s stop and eat.
“W” in “will”: That’ll be fine.

Sentence Stress Part 5 shows how some frequently used weak words can be confused with each other, because they can sometimes sound the same!