Introduction to elision

Now we’ll turn to one of the most useful connected speech processes a non-native speaker can learn: elision. As Spanish speakers, we tend to take it for granted that everything we see in the spelling must always be pronounced. However, this is far from the truth in English. Just think of silent letters. You don’t pronounce the s  in island, the g  in weight or the l  in talk, do you?

With elision we go one step further because, in certain contexts, we don’t pronounce phonemes that are an integral part of the word, that is to say, phonemes (sounds) that we would normally utter when the word is said in isolation or in other contexts. For instance, nobody in their right mind would try to pronounce the in next Monday when speaking fast.

sound_loud_speaker See you next Monday.

And why does this happen? Simply because that specific sound, surrounded by other specific sounds, is difficult to say. In next Monday  you have a cluster of four consonants in a row [nekst ˈmʌndeɪ] that becomes a bit of a mouthful. Of course you can say it slowly, but in rapid speech it hampers your fluency. So, English speakers take a short-cut and just drop the /t/.

 

Let me give you some more examples, this time by native speakers:

sound_loud_speaker We start with one of the most significant publications in the career of Britain’s biggest selling crime writer (Mark Lawson, BBC4).

Can you hear the /t/ in most  or biggest? No you can’t, because it isn’t there.

 

Now try this one:

sound_loud_speaker Army Group North, supported by fourteen Finnish divisions in the Karelian peninsula, north of Leningrad, was tasked with the destruction of Soviet forces in the Baltic region and the capture of Leningrad (British documentary).

What happened to the in tasked? The speaker just says /tɑːst/ and if you don’t know about the elision of the /k/ you might have trouble understanding him.

 

And here is a surprising last one:

sound_loud_speaker So, we think that the whole poem must have been something between twelve and fifteen thousand lines long (Laura Ashe, BBC4).

What’s the matter with the auxiliary have? It’s been stripped down to a simple /ə/. The /h/ and the /v/ are elided. Laura Ashe says [mʌst ə biːn ˈsʌmθɪŋ], a fairly common reduction among native speakers which never fails to puzzle foreigners (by the way, this woman teaches English literature at Oxford University, an institution where teachers are famously well-spoken. So, in case you’re a sceptic, this isn’t lazy pronunciation).

 

And now the good news! The great thing about elision is that it’s clearly codified. Speakers of English drop certain sounds in certain contexts, not in others. So, as long as you restrict yourself to the established cases, you can do it too and sound more natural and confident, less foreign.  And you’ll enjoy that wonderful sense of relief which comes from not having to struggle with impossible clusters of consonants.

In the following articles, you can read everything you need to know about the possibilities of elision:

Elision of /t/ and /d/

Elision of /h/

Elision of /v/

Elision of /k/

 

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