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.