English spelling · Pronunciation

The E in Dress – How You Can Always Know How to Pronounce a Word

A brief explanation of the phonetic alphabet and how to use it.

Any idea what this is?

phonemic alphabet

It’s a phonetic key. If you have an English dictionary, particularly if it’s an English-English dictionary, you will find this phonetic key always somewhere in the first or last pages. You use the key to find the pronunciation of the words.

How it works is simple. As you know, English spelling is a big headache. You can learn some rules for spelling, but even if you know those, you can never fully predict how to say an English word in the correct way. Even English people who were born and raised in England or the US make mistakes in the way they pronounce some words. For example, some less common words, such as dour and azure, are famously mispronounced.

Dour is supposed to rhyme with poor, but you’ll hear it pronounced with an “ou” sound as in the word “out.”

And azure should sound with the “a” like the a-sound in the word “cat,” but instead people say the a like in the word “pay.”

There are other words that are frequently mispronounced by learners of English. Many students of English are unaware that “debt” is pronounced without the “b.”

Something similar goes for the word “receipt” which has a silent “p” and should be said as [reseet].

The word “recipe” is problematic too, as many learners of English think it’s pronounced [resaip]. But it actually sounds like [ressippy].

Solve all your pronunciation questions and problems

If you learn the phonectic alphabet, or at least learn how to use it, you will never have to ask yourself again how to pronounce a word. You will just know.

How does it work?

English has a fixed number of sounds.  The phonetic alphabet just writes down the sounds of English. This has nothing to do with spelling. This is only about how you say the word.

Let’s look at the word “debt” from above.

In my dictionary I find the phonetic spelling indicated like this: /det/

You see, no further questions. The b-sound isn’t there in the phonetic spelling, so I know I don’t say the b in this word.

Next, I’m going to look up the word “receipt.”

I’m finding it phonetically spelt like this: /rɪsi:t/

Easy, isn’t it? The ɪ is the sound in “sit.” And after I’ve looked at my phonetic key I know that the i: sounds like the vowel in sea or see.

Last example: “recipe.”

In my dictionary I find it listed as /resɪpi/.

Some other time we will talk about the stress in words, because that’s important too. For now, please do the following small exercise.

Exercise:

Look up the pronunciation of the following words in a dictionary (book or online). You may be surprised by what you’ll find!

psychology

draught

height

who

often

suit

determine

chameleon

said

money

work

because

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