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.)

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