The importance of dropping the /h/

Here is a recording from The Guardian podcasts which illustrates how important it is not to pronounce the /h/ phoneme in certain contexts.

Notice that the speaker says ǀwɪl iǀ and not ǀwɪl hiǀ.

sound_loud_speaker Today, Emmanuel Macron has won the presidential election in France, but how will he try to unite a divided contry (Nosheen Iqbal, The Guardian podcast).

Interesting, isn’t it? However, you’re not allowed to do this whenever you want. There are very precise rules (and they are quite easy to learn).

If you want to know everything there is to know about the elision of the /h/ (and other types of elision), go here:

Elision of /h/



More about repeated words


A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about deaccentuation of repeated words in English  (your name, your REGNAL name). The idea is basically that when you repeat a word, you don’t stress it (for a very thorough treatment of this subject go to the section called Sentence Stress on this website)

This morning I found another wonderful example which I’ll share with you too:

sound_loud_speaker Gyllenhaal started acting as a teenager. Her mother is a screenwriter and producer, her father a director. Her brother is actor JAKE Gyllenhaal (Terry Gross, Fresh Air).


As you can see, this feature is absolutely pervasive in English, so if you want to keep a good English rhythm, try to internalize it.




Pronunciation of Burt Reynolds

Now Burt Reynolds has died, let’s learn how to pronounce his name correctly.

This is what we normally say in Spanish:

sound_loud_speaker /bart ˈreinolds/

It might be acceptable when we are speaking Spanish, but in English we must pronounce it in this way:

sound_loud_speaker /bɜːt ˈrenəlz/


Let’s see what we’re doing wrong:


First, the name:

Spanish people usually pronounce /bart/ (as in Bart Simpson), but it’s /bɜːt/ (in the same way, the surname of actor William Hurt is not /hart/, but /hɜːt/.) To know everything about the vowel /ɜː/ click here.

As you know, the colon (:) after the vowel /ɜː/ means it’s a long sound, but since it’s followed by a voiceless consonant it becomes a little shorter because of the phenomenon known as pre fortis clipping.

I say it in the British non-rothic way –that is, without the uttering the /r/, see explanation here-, but of course Americans pronounce the /r/ as well.


Now, the surname:

The most noticeable thing is that the letter y  in the first syllable is silent, so it’s not /r/ but /re/.
Also, the second, unstressed syllable is not an /o/, as we tend to do in Spanish, but an /ə/, that is, the famous, ubiquitous schwa.

Put all the above together and your pronunciation of Burt Reynolds will be perfect!


And here you can listen to a native speaker informing about Burt Reynolds’ death on the radio (NPR):

sound_loud_speaker TV and film star Burt Reynolds died yesterday in Jupiter, Fla., from a heart attack. He was 82. Reynolds appeared in a hundred films. Many, he joked, were so bad they were shown in prisons and on airplanes because no one could leave. Reynolds began acting in the ’50s, but his career really took off when he became a regular on the TV talk show circuit in the ’70s…

Your name, your REGNAL name

In the past I’ve written extensively about the deaccentuation of repeated words in English. Today I found a very good example which I’m sharing with you.

But let’s remember the theory first. In short, it’s as follows:

When you repeat a word in English, that word is deaccented. This means that it doesn’t carry any stress, which is displaced onto the previous lexical item.

The classical example to explain this is:

My name is BOND. JAMES  Bond.

Since Bond has already been stressed, the second time you say it you don’t stress it and put the emphasis on the previous lexical item, JAMES.


I found a very good example of this phenomenon in a short excerpt from The Crown, a new TV drama (Netflix):


sound_loud_speaker Martin Charteris: Though, it would help if we could decide here and now on your name.

Queen Elizabeth II: My name?

Martin Charteris: Yes ma’am, your REGNAL name. That is the name you’ll take as queen.


If you wish to learn more about the placement of English stress within the sentence you can go to the section called Sentence Stress on this website, where you’ll find a very detailed explanation about the subject with many examples.




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).