One of the keys to sounding natural in any language is rhythm. Emphasis and stress are often at least as important as getting the correct speech sounds. The five common words below have special pronunciation rules that affect the whole rhythm of a sentence, and make a huge different in the way a speaker’s accent/speech is perceived. The words are:
This word is always pronounced as “uh” (as in “up”), not as “ey” (as in “pay”). Many speakers think they sound more polished by saying it in a way that rhymes with “pay”, but this is incorrect. It’s quick, subtle, and short. UH!
When you hear native speakers saying “ey”, they are likely reading or reciting. In natural speech pretty much no one says “Let’s take ey break”; it’s “Let’s take uh break”.
This word changes pronunciation depending on the word that comes after it.
If the next word starts with a consonant sound, it’s pronounced “thuh”.
If the next word starts with a vowel sound, it’s pronounced “thee”.
So we have thuh book and thee apple.
Note: We also have “thuh one”, because even though the word “one” starts with the letter O, when we pronounce it we start with the W sound, which is a consonant sound. That’s why I specify that it’s about the sound, not the letter.
It’s worth mentioning here that this pronunciation rule seems to be shifting in common usage. More people are starting to say “thuh airport”.
This word also has two pronunciations, depending on whether it’s followed by a consonant sound or a vowel sound.
If the next word starts with a consonant sound, it’s pronounced “tuh”. “We went tuh the store”. It’s very fast and the vowel is barely noticeable.
If the next word starts with a vowel sound, it’s pronounced “too”. “Let’s go too a store”. That’s because the words connect better that way. “to a” basically becomes “toowuh”.
There is an exception here, which is that in some grammatical positions (especially if used at the end of a phrase, even though that’s technically incorrect), the stress is strong and we get “too”. For instance, when accepting an invitation, it’s “I’d love too!” But as we saw above, it would be “I’d love tuh go.”
A second exception is emphasis. If the word “to” is being stressed for some contextual reason, it’s pronounced “too’. For example, “We were going too the store, not coming from it”.
This word has two pronunciations, a strong form and a weak form. But unlike the previous examples, it is determined by grammar and not the sound that follows the word.
If the word “that” is stressed, it is pronounced like it looks, rhyming with “cat”. “I want that one please”. Or, “That’s yours, right?” Also, “That’s great, thanks!” And, “It’s not that bad.” (Grammatically this is when it is a determiner, pronoun, used with an adjective, or an intensifier).
Most ESL speakers learn this strong form. But the key is that this isn’t always the way native speakers pronounce it.
The word “that” is commonly used in the weak form, in which case it’s pronounced more or less as “th’t”. The vowel is almost absent. Some clauses and relative pronoun use gives us examples like, “The car th’t I bought is red” and “I hope th’t you will join us.”
Learning to use the weak form goes a very long way in making spoken English sound natural and native.
This word is almost always used in the weak form, as discussed above. Unless there is a reason to stress it (which is very unusual), it’s pronounced as “th’n”. The vowel is mostly absent.
“It was better th’n I thought.” “You finished the test faster th’n Ravi did.”
Shortening this word makes the rhythm/music of the sentence sound more like that of a native speaker of English.
If you would like some guidance about how and when to use these rules, or about anything related to being clearer in spoken English, please get in touch!