More about the /r/

For those who have trouble assimilating the idea that in British English the r is only pronounced when it’s followed by a vowel sound, here is an enlightening clip. Notice how the parts in red are not pronounced:

sound_loud_speaker  Why when as a nation we’re becoming more and more irreligious, is there more and more religion in our schools. Find out (Laurie Taylor, BBC4).

If you want to remember when the r is pronounced and when isn’t, you’ll find all the necessary information here.



Dropping the h in pronouns


The idea of dropping sounds which we see in the spelling is always a bit strange to us, Spanish speakers of English. We’ve grown up thinking that every letter included in a word must be pronounced because this is the nature of our native tongue. But things are rather different in English.

At the most basic level, there are sounds that aren’t produced within individual words, the l in half or the s in island, for instance. We normally learn this very soon. But there are other sounds which are currently dropped in English as a result of connected speech processes, and this is a key factor if we want to sound more natural and fluent.

One of these cases is the dropping of the sound /h/ in the pronouns he, her, his, him. This is what native speakers normally do unless the pronoun comes at the beginning of a clause. So, it is not obligatory but it will certainly improve your fluency and will make your life a bit easier.

Today I have two good examples to illustrate this process. I find it very interesting that the speakers come from completely different backgrounds. The first one is a presenter from the BBC, the second is film director Elia Kazan in an interview from many years ago.

sound_loud_speaker And the In our time podcast gets some extra time now with a few minutes of bonus material from Melvyn and his guests (BBC Radio 4).

sound_loud_speaker I was like a father to him, a big brother to him, and looked after him. Every morning I’d call him out and see what condition he was in, whether he had a miserable night or not (Elia Kazan, NPR).

By the way, Elia Kazan is speaking about James Dean, if you’re interested.


Intrusive r

I’ve always been interested in what British people do with the letter r and the sound /r/. As a non-rhotic variety of English, the /r/ sound isn’t pronounced when it’s not followed by a vowel, which I find reasonably ok (this is the type of English I speak, after all).

But then, strangely enough, they have this thing called intrusive r which complicates things much further. The intrusive r is an /r/ sound that doesn’t exist in the spelling, so you won’t see any letter r anywhere. It’s used betwen vowels, especially after /ə/ and /ɔː/ and it might be sort of puzzling if you don’t know about it.

I haven’t written a full article about the intrusive r yet -I promise to do it as soon as I can-, but this morning I found a wonderful example and I thought I wanted to share it with you:

sound_loud_speaker This was the time of the start of perestroika and glasnost, the thawing of relations (Louise Hidalgo, BBC World Service).

As you can see, she pronounces thawing as /ˈθɔːrɪŋ/ instead of /ˈθɔːɪŋ/.

So, if you don’t know about this phenomenon beforehand, it’ll make your life a little bit more difficult.



Pronunciation of the i


Very often I tell my students that, in English, the letter i sounds much closer to a Spanish e than to a Spanish i. Today I found this very good example. Listen to how this BBC presenter pronounces the word service.

sound_loud_speaker …the BBC World Service. /ˈsɜːvɪs/

Isn’t this clear?



Crises? What crises?

I was pleasantly surprised the other day because rather unexpectedly I found a good example of how the plural of the word crisis –which is spelled crises, as you probaby know- has to be pronounced. Again, this was in an old BBC4 programme I had downloaded years ago, and I thought it was a good opportunity to brush up on a case many Spanish speakers might not know or have forgotten.

The rules are the same for all words ending in –sis, so this also applies to the plural of terms such as analysis, basis, crisis, thesis, genesis, oasis, diagnosis, synthesis, prosthesis and emphasis, among others.

Before starting with the explanation, let’s listen to the recording:

 There’d been a series of crises in which the Republic seemed to have shown itself as corrupt, as weak, as divisive and so on… (Robert Tombs, BBC4).


First, the spelling rule:

  • Words ending in -sis make their plural in -ses, like this:

crisis/crises, basis/bases, analysis/analyses, etc.


Second, the pronunciation rule. There are two changes and a warning. The changes are:

  1. The /ɪ/ becomes //
  2. The second /s/ becomes /z/

For example:

crisis /ˈkraɪsɪs/ – crises /ˈkraɪsiːz/

basis /ˈbeɪsɪs/ – bases /ˈbeɪsiːz/

analysis /əˈnæləsɪs/ – analyses /əˈnæləsiːz/

The warning, I’ll write about later.


Now, let’s listen to the recorded example again:

 There’d been a series of crises.

The first change, the long // is very noticeable. Let’s listen to it again:  crises.

However, the second change, the /s/ turning into a /z/, is nowhere to be seen or heard. Why is it?

Here is when we have to talk about the warning: because voiced consonants become devoiced at the end of words if they aren’t followed by another voiced sound. This process is thoroughly explained in this article. So, in actual fact, the /s/ remains as it is (voiceless) unless it is linked to a following vowel or voiced consonant. In the example we’re analysing, the speaker makes a pause after the word crises, so he pronounces an /s/. If he had linked it to the following word, in, he would certainly have produced the voiced version of the sound, /z/.


The /r/ and its subtleties


I was listening to a radio programme about the Bronze Age when one of the speakers, who was talking about that metal, said the following sentence:

sound_loud_speaker One very important skill was finding the ores.

It suddenly struck me that, for someone not aware of when the letter r  is pronounced and when it isn’t, the word ores  /ɔːz/ might be difficult to understand. As a non-native speaker, I’ve always found this quirky thing about the r  somewhat disconcerting. In some varieties of English (American, Scottish, Irish…), the r  is always pronounced when it’s found in the spelling, whereas in others (British, Australian, South-African…) the r  is silent unless it’s followed by a vowel. They are known as rhotic and non-rhotic varieties respectively.

In British English (the variety I speak, which is non-rhotic), this gives rise to many sets of homophones (as though there weren’t enough already in English!). Court is pronounced as caught  /kɔːt/, and floor as flaw  /flɔː/ and ore as awe  (and oar and or) /ɔː/. It is a feature that puts an additional strain on the non-native listener, who has to choose among different words that sound the same. And, although this is normally done through context, it is certainly true that it produces some strange sounds. This is what happens with the word mayor, in which the absence of the r  is compounded by the smoothing of the previous triphthong, and this is the result:

sound_loud_speaker “You know, he’s a bussinesman”. “The mayor?” “The mayor“. /m/

A particularly difficult case is the word iron, which of course is exceptional because the r  isn’t pronounced even though it’s followed by a vowel in the spelling. And, again, the smoothing of the triphthong makes it even more difficult. Listen to these two examples:

sound_loud_speaker But perhaps the most interesting discovery of all was the remains of a furnace, dating from 5th century B.C. and used for smelting iron. /aɪən/

sound_loud_speaker A blacksmith with an iron bar hitting random Frenchmen in the street over the head. /ən ˈaən bɑː/


The rhotic/non-rhotic dilemma has always fascinated me. I really think that as non-native speakers we have to choose how we do it and stick to it for the sake of consistency (and of course this is embedded in the broader question of which variety of English we speak). I find pros and cons in both, actually. I admit non-rhoticity makes the understanding of some words more difficult, but to a certain extent it’s similar to what happens in American English with the letter t, which is dropped or produced as a tap on many occasions. This, too, results in many challenging words for the non-accustomed listener. On the other hand, I’ve always found it easier to speak in a non-rhotic variety, but this is a personal idiosyncrasy of mine, I suppose.

In any case, when choosing where you say the r  or not, keep in mind that this sound is not always the same in the different varieties of English. The American /r/ is rather different from the British, and both of them are really poles apart from the Scottish /r/, which might sound very strange indeed (but lovely, of course).

Where does the stress go in the phrase “the only one”?

There is a useful rule that says that, whenever you have the word one  after an adjective, the word that carries the stress is the adjective and the pronoun one is deaccented. This is what happens in the following examples:

Would you like the RED one or the GREEN one?

My car broke down again. I’m going to buy a NEW one.

There are a few expressions, however, which don’t follow the rule. Against the general principle, in the phrase the only one, the stress is placed on one instead of only.

I was very lucky this morning because I chanced upon a very good example of this phenomenon on BBC4, which made my day. Now I can share it with you:

sound_loud_speaker But, he’s not the only ONE, though. You’ll see in the show his paintings are alongside pictures by his followers and contemporaries (Letizia Treves, BBC4).

The only one is not the only case in which this happens. According to J.C. Wells (English Intonation, Cambridge. Great book!), the same accentuation pattern is found in the right one, the wrong one, the first one and the last one.

So, we would say:

She was the first ONE to see it. or

I don’t like that hat you’re wearing. You bought the wrong ONE.

Stress is a slippery matter sometimes indeed!


It all boils down to stress

Many phonologists have pointed out that, in achieving intelligibility, the correct placing of stress is actually more important than the accuracy of the sounds we utter. The eminent A.C. Gimson exemplified this by saying that if in a restaurant we want to ask for potatoes and say something like beDEdos, the waiter is likely to understand no matter how deformed our vowels are, but if we moved the stress onto the first syllable and ordered BOdedos or BEdedos, he would be puzzled.

Let’s try:

sound_loud_speaker May I have some bededos, please? Sure! It’ll be right up!

sound_loud_speaker May I have some bededos, please? What the heck is that???

It is clear that keeping the correct stress pattern is vital for making yourself understood in English. Gimson and others thought so and therefore they concluded that the teaching of stress –that is, where the stress goes in words and sentences- has to be a high priority in English class.

I couldn’t agree more. And, as I see so many mistakes being made by Spanish speakers which are all down to the wrong placement of stress, I would like to contribute some comments to flesh out the idea.

Vowel quality

The first effect stress has is to determine the quality of the vowels in a word. Let’s see this famous example:

sound_loud_speaker photograph /ˈfəʊtəgrɑːf/

sound_loud_speaker photography /fəˈtɒgrəfi/

sound_loud_speaker photographic /ˌfəʊtəˈgræfɪk/

We can easily observe how the vowels change on account of the main stress being placed on the first, second or third syllable.

Word Main Stress Sequence of vowel phonemes
Photograph Syllable 1


ə ɑː

Photography Syllable 2


ɒ ə


Photographic Syllable 3


ə æ


For more information about vowel sounds go here.

The conclusion is that to pronounce words correctly in English the first thing you need to know is where the stress goes in that word. And of course this isn’t something you’ll always be able to deduce. On many occasions -a lot of them, actually- you’ll have to look them up in a dictionary.

Typical Spanish mistakes

Even very advanced Spanish speakers of English make a mistake consisting of adopting the Spanish stress pattern of some verbs, which makes their speech sound absolutely non-English and might confuse their interlocutors. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. I’m talking about saying realIZE  instead of REalize  or communiCATE instead of coMMUnicate. Since the words are very similar, we assume that the stress is going to be in the same place. Unfortunately, it isnt’ like that at all.

Overall rhythm of the sentece

It is a well-known fact that keeping the correct rhythm is crucial if we want to sound natural and fluent in English. But this isn’t possible unless we know the stress pattern of individual words. Stressing the wrong syllable mangles the whole of it.

Now the good news!

The wonderful thing about stress is that it’s very easy to correct. The moment you know about it, you start doing it right. There’s nothing really complicated about it. So, the secret lies in that great word, awareness, or even knowledge. Again, knowing about things makes all the difference.

A final tip

Many years ago, I started reading literature in English and, as a writer myself, I was really worried about gettting the right sounds, rhythm and music of the language in my mind. So I began taking notes in phonetics whenever I had the slightest doubt about the pronunciation of a word. These jottings were at first really complicated -always the whole word transcribed-, but by and by I started narrowing them down, leaving out sounds which were obvious and focusing on the very important sounds and symbols. Nowadays, if I have to take a note like that I’m likely to mark just the stress. A single pencil mark before the right syllable and everything else falls into place.


Rodrigo Brunori