A limerick is a special kind of rhyme that uses a specific rhythm pattern — and limericks usually tell a funny or silly story. Here is an example:
I knew a man whose name was Shaw.
He ate a rock and broke his jaw.
What do you think?
He said, with a wink.
Perhaps it’s bad to eat them raw.
The rhythm pattern of limericks makes special use of English sentence stress. Strong words fall on the beats — or places that you can clap — and weak words fall between them.
Now, I will repeat the limerick and clap the rhythm at the same time. The strong words are the ones with uppercase letters.
I KNEW a MAN whose NAME was SHAW.
He ATE a ROCK and BROKE his JAW.
WHAT do you THINK?
He SAID, with a WINK.
PerHAPS it’s BAD to EAT them RAW.
Can you hear how the strong words fall on the beats?
The weak words between the beats have to be spoken quickly to maintain the proper rhythm, so they often have reductions. The biggest reductions in this limerick happen with the words “do” and “you” in the third line. The vowels in those words are a very small quick schwa sound. (You may want to go back and listen to the limerick again, so that you can focus your ear on the reductions.)
Limericks are a great way to practice English sentence stress.
The vowel “U” is a bit unique because it has two Long-vowel sounds. The two sounds are very similar, but they are used in different situations. So, how do you know which one to choose?
It all depends on which letter comes just before the Long-U.
Long-U-2 is used after sounds that are made with the front part of the tongue. This includes: T / D / L / N / S / R / TH / J. Here are some examples: tune / duty / elude / nuclear / suit / rule / enthused / June.
Long-U-1 is used after any sounds that are not made with the front part of the tongue. This includes: P / B / F / M / K / G / H / “none”. Some examples are: pupil / bugle / fuse / music / cube / argue / huge / use.
In English there are always exceptions, and in this case the exceptions happen with some Long-U-2 words.
Some words with a “T” or “N” can also be pronounced with Long-U-1. Some examples — pronounced both ways — are: tune / tube / avenue / news. Now, the second way (with Long-U-1) sounds more old-fashioned, like the way some elderly people speak. So, following the rule keeps it more simple for you. But be aware that you may hear some people say a few words the other way, so don’t let it confuse you.
There is a handful of words with “L” and “N” that always go against the rule, and use Long-U-1. You should memorize these ones: volume / value / evaluate / menu / January / monument.
Does it really matter which one you use?
It can. Especially when you accidentally use Long-U-2 in place of Long-U-1.
There are some words that can be confused. For example, if you want to say the word “use” but you pronounce it with Long-U-2 instead of Long-U-1, then you will end up saying the word “ooze”. Likewise, “hue” would sound like “who”.
Even if there is not a word that could be confused, using the wrong sound could make you unclear. For example, if you try to say a word such as “huge” or “pupil” with the wrong sound, others may not understand what you are talking about.
With bigger words, other people will probably still understand you. So if you try to say “regular”, “computer” or “document” with Long-U-2 (instead of Long-U-1), it will sound like a mistake, but most of the time others will know what word you are trying to say.
There is a group of words that have a sound change when a “T” or “D” comes before a Long-U-1. For example, in a word like “actual”, the “T” gets combined with the “Y” part of Long-U-1 (/yuw/) and turns into a “CH” sound. Likewise, in “graduate” the “D” combines with the “Y” and makes a “J” sound. There are quite a few words like this, such as: statue / costume / situation / punctuate / virtual / individual / schedule.
However, this is a phenomenon that does not only happen with Long-U. These words are part of a bigger pattern, and will be the topic of a different post.
The vowel system is the most complicated part of the pronunciation-spelling system of English, because each vowel letter represents three or four different vowel sounds. The letter “U” has three different sounds, but one thing that is unique about “U” is that it has two Long-vowel sounds.
The basic sounds of the English letter “U” are: Long-U-1, Long-U-2, and Short-u.
The sound of Long-U-1 is the same as the name of the letter “U”. However, this long-vowel sound is a little bit unusual because Long-vowels usually have two parts, but Long-U-1 has three parts (in IPA: /yuw/). Some common words with this sound are: use / music / huge / cute / unite / cure / menu / fuel / human / argue.
The second Long-U sound is almost the same as Long-U-1, except that it has only two parts (in IPA: /uw/). Some words with this sound are: true / flute / blue / June / spruce / tune / rule / tube / duty / include.
Short-u is pronounced in the center (not front, not back) middle (not high, not low) part of the mouth, and the tongue needs to be relaxed. Some common words with this sound are: up / just / but / much / under / us / run / study / number / because.
Any vowel letter can use the schwa sound in unstressed syllables. However, since the schwa sound and Short-u are both made in the same place in the mouth, they end up sounding the same. A linguist would make a distinction between Schwa and Short-u based on stress, so for example, the first letter of the word “under” would be considered a Short-u sound, but in the word “upset” the first letter would be called a Schwa. The good news for learners of English is, you can treat them as the same sound, and your English pronunciation will sound great.
So remember, it is very rare to find the letter “U” pronounced with something other than these three basic sounds. There is a handful of words with a “U” pronounced as Short-oo: sugar / put / push / puss / pull / full / bull / cushion. There are also two words with a very unusual pronunciation, “busy” and “business”. In these two words the “U” has a Short-i sound! Otherwise, when you see the letter “U” in a word, it will almost always have the sound of either Long-U-1, Long-U-2, or Short-u (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-u and Short-o. You can test yourself on the “Vowel Test” page of the PronunciationCoach site.