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by Michael Vaughan-Rees

• Transcription
• The schwa sound
• Stress
• Primary and secondary stress

• Making sure that people understand you when you speak
• Understanding native speakers


The words in the Macmillan Essential Dictionary are followed by a transcription to show the pronunciation:

come /km/, home /hm/

Often the number of symbols in the transcription will be different from the number of letters in the written word. This is because symbols in a transcription represent the sounds rather than the letters.

Written letters may correspond to a number of different sounds – or to no sound at all! But symbols always represent the same sound. Look at the following groups of words. They all contain the same vowel sound – but the spelling is different:

come /km/, sum /sm/, dumb /dm/
home /hm/, roam /rm/, comb /km/

Some symbols are familiar and easy to recognise, for example, /p, b, t, d, k, g, f /. Others are less easy. The 'ng' sound in words such as song /s/ and thing // is represented by the single symbol . And the symbols for 'th' show that this pair of letters can cover two different sounds. Compare:

thing // and this /s/


The schwa sound //

The schwa represents the most common sound in English. It is the first sound in above /bv/ and the last sound in under /nd/. In fact, almost any written vowel can, when unstressed, be sounded as a schwa:

allow /la/, perform /pfm/, commit /kmt/, supply /spla/



Both above /bv/ and under /nd/ have two syllables. But they are different in terms of the relative importance of the syllables. In above the first syllable is relatively short and weak, while the second syllable is relatively strong and long. In under, by contrast, it is the first syllable that is relatively strong and long. In other words, the first syllable in under is stressed, and we indicate this in the dictionary by using the symbol // directly before the stressed syllable. You can imagine these two words written as aBOVE and UNder.

It is useful to know that:

most two-syllable nouns and adjectives have front stress (the first syllable is stressed): FLOWer, LITTle, VILLage, PREtty, BOdy, FOrest etc.
most two-syllable verbs have end stress (the second syllable is stressed): forGIVE, aLLOW, coMMIT etc.

It is worth checking the pronunciation in the dictionary, especially if a two-syllable word can be both a noun and a verb. In such cases one of two things can happen:

either there is no change in the pronunciation or in the stress, for example: reply /rpla/, damage /dmd/, and wonder /wnd/
or the written form stays the same, but the stress changes, often causing a change in the vowel sound: compare:
permit (noun) /pmt/ and permit (verb) /pmt/
record (noun) /rekd/ and record (verb) /rkd/
import (noun) /mpt/ and import (verb) /mpt/


Primary and secondary stress

In words of three or more syllables, there are sometimes two levels of stress: primary and secondary. When this happens, we use the symbol // before the secondary stressed syllable. Look at the examples in the table below.

j   o o o o o
l l l STA tion
l l re AC tion
l SA tis FAC tion
pro NUN ci A tion


Making sure that people understand you when you speak

If you want to be easily understood, then the first thing to do is to make sure that your consonant sounds are as clear and accurate as possible.

In the case of vowel sounds, you should pay special attention to vowel length. In British English, the difference between the short vowels (the schwa, in particular) and the long ones is much greater than in most languages. There are two types of long vowel: firstly, those where the vowel symbol is followed by , the symbol that indicates length. So pay particular attention to vowel length in pairs such as:

cat = /kt/ and cart = /kt/
sit = /st/ and seat = /sit/
shot = /t/ and short = /t/

The other long vowels, the diphthongs, are indicated by double symbols, for example:

day /de/, nice /nas/, boy /b/, go /g/

In all of these the tongue moves from one position to another as the vowel sound continues.

You should also make sure that your word stress is as accurate as possible. You will see that the dictionary shows the stress patterns of compound words and phrasal verbs, for example:

question mark
put up with sb/sth


Understanding native speakers

The dictionary shows the pronunciations of words spoken in their slow, careful form. But in normal rapid speech, this changes, particularly in the following ways:

1 It is sometimes difficult to hear when one word ends and the next begins. Here are examples of the four main types of word linking.

an apple sounds like a napple
two apples sounds like two wapples
three apples sounds like three yapples
four apples sounds like four rapples

2 The schwa can disappear between certain consonants. This means that support /spt/ may sound like sport /spt/ and parade
/pred/ like prayed /pred/. The consonants /t/ and /d/ may disappear when found between two other consonants. So facts may sound like fax and friendly like frienly.

If you see a symbol in brackets in this dictionary (as in /ste()n/ or
/fren(d)li/), it means that the sound may disappear in normal rapid speech.

3 Finally, consonants may change to make it easier to produce the next sound. Sometimes words change permanently, as with handkerchief where the /d/ has disappeared completely and it now sounds like hangkerchief. Other words change when spoken fast, such as handbag which is on its way to sounding permanently like hambag.