Weak Syllables and Strong Syllables
A syllable is a rhythmic unit of speech. Syllables exist to make the speech stream easier
for the human mind to process. A syllable comprises one or more segments; segments are
the building blocks for syllables
A syllable is a unit of organization for a sequence of speech sounds. For example, the word
water is composed of two syllables: wa and ter. A syllable is typically made up of a
syllable nucleus (most often a vowel) with optional initial and final margins (typically,
consonants)Syllables are often considered the phonological quot;building blocksquot; of words.
They can influence the rhythm of a language, its prosody, its poetic meter, its stress
patterns, etc.Syllablic writ ng began several hundred years before the first letters. The
earliest recorded syllables are on tablets written around 2800 BC in the Sumerian city of
Ur. This shift from pictograms to syllables has been called 'the most important advance in
the history of writing'. A word that consists of a single syllable (like English cat) is called a
monosyllable (such a word is monosyllabic), while a word consisting of two syllables (like
monkey) is called a disyllable (such a word is disyllabic). A word consisting of three
syllables (such as indigent) is called a trisyllable (the adjective form is trisyllabic). A word
consisting of more than three syllables (such as intelligence) is called a polysyllable (and
could be described as polysyllabic), although this term is often used to describe words of
two syllables or more.
The general structure of a syllable consists of the following segments:
Onset (obligatory in some languages, optional or even restricted in others)
o Nucleus (obligatory in all languages)
o Coda (optional in some languages, highly restricted or prohibited in others)
tree representation of a CVC syllable.In some theories of phonology, these syllable
structures are displayed as tree diagrams (similar to the trees found in some types of
syntax). Not all phonologists agree that syllables have internal structure; in fact, some
phonologists doubt the existence of the syllable as a theoretical entity. The syllable nucleus
is typically a sonorant, usually making a vowel sound, in the form of a monophthong,
diphthong, or triphthong, but sometimes sonorant consonants like /l/or /r/. The syllable
onset is the sound or sounds occurring before the nucleus, and the syllable coda (literally
'tail') is the sound or sounds that follow the nucleus. The term rime covers the nucleus plus
coda. In the one-syllable English word cat, the nucleus is a, the onset c, the coda t, and the
rime at. This syllable can be abstracted as a consonant-vowel-consonant syllable,
abbreviated CVC.Generally, every syllable requires a nucleus. Onsets are extremely
common, and some languages require all syllables to have an onset. (That is, a CVC
syllable like cat is possible, but a VC syllable such as at is not.) A coda-less syllable of the
form V, CV, CCV, etc. is called an open syllable, while a syllable that has a coda (VC,
CVC, CVCC, etc.) is called a closed syllable (or checked syllable). All languages allow
open syllables, but some, such as Hawaiian, do not have closed syllables.
In other languages, including English, a consonant may be analyzed as acting
simultaneously as the coda of one syllable and the onset of the following syllable, a
phenomenon known as ambisyl abicity. Examples occurring in Received Pronunciation
include words such as arrow /ærəʊ]/, error /erə/, mirror ‘/mɪrə/, borrow /bɒrəʊ/, burrow
/bʌrəʊ, which can't be divided into separately pronounceable syllables: neither [æ] nor
[ær] is a possible independent syllable, and likewise with the other short vowels /e ɪ ɒ ʌ/.
The domain of suprasegmental features is the syllable and not a specific sound, that is to
say, they affect all the segments of a syllable:
Sometimes syllable length is also counted as a suprasegmental feature; for example, in
most Germanic languages, long vowels may only exist with short consonants and vice
versa. However, syllables can be analyzed as compositions of long and short phonemes, as
in Finnish and Japanese, where consonant germination and vowel length are independent.
Strong and weak syllables
A close observation of English phonology will reveal that many syllables are
weak;this is true of many other languages,but their constant occurrence and their
importance makes it imperative to study them closely.So it is necessary to study how these
weak syllables are pronounced and where they occur in English..
What do we mean by :strong: and :weak:? In the present context, we are using these terms
to refer to phonetic characteristics of syllables. We could describe them partly in terms of
stress (by saying, for example,that strong syllables are stressed and weak syllables
unstressed),but until we describe what quot; stressquot; means such a description would be very
The more important thing to note at present is that any strong syllable will have as
its centre one of the vowel phonemes(or possibly a triphthong )but not Shwa.Weak
syllables on the other hand can have
While comparing the weak syllables containing vowels with strong syllables, it is
obeserved that vowel in a weak syllable tends to be shorter, of lower intensity and
different in quality.For example, in the other word quot; father /f ɑ: ə the second
syllable , which is weak is shorter than the first,is less loud and has a vowel that cannot
occur in strong vowels.In a word like quot; bottlequot; /bɒtl/ the weak second syllable
contains no vowel at all, but consists entirely of the consonant.We call this a syllabic
The vowel ( quot; shwaquot; ) ə
The most frequently occuring vowel in English language is shwa ə , which is always
associated with weak syllables.In quality it is mid( that is, half-way between close and
open) and central ( that is, half way between front and back).It is generally described as
lax, that is , not articulated with much force and energy.Although the quality of the vowel
is not always the same ,yet the variation is of the least importance.
Most of the weak syllables in English have but it does not mean that all weak syllables
have . Learners of English will have to know about the proper placement of the .
Sometimes they can not get help from the traditional phonemic theory rather they have to
rely on information from common usage.A considerable attention has to be given to
spellings.The question to ask is : if the speaker were to pronounce a particular weak
syllable as strong instead, which vowel would it be most likely to have, according to the
usual rules of English spelling?Of course,knowing this will not tell usa rough guide to the
correct pronunciation of weak syllables.In the case of quot; weak formquot; words the rules
are rather complicated.
Here are some examples in which spellings act as guide to predict the weak syllable.
i)Spelt with quot; a '; strong pronuciation would be æ
attend / ətend / character /kærəktə/
barracks / bærəks /
ii) Spelt with quot; arquot; ;strong pronuciation would have ɑ:
particular / pətIkjələ/ molar /məʊlə(r)/
iii) Adjectival endings spelt quot; atequot; ; strong pronunciation would be eI
intimate / IntImət / accurate/ækjərət /
There are exceptions to this for example quot; private is usually /praIvIt /
iv) Spelt with quot; o quot; ; strong pronuciation would have ɒ or əʊ
tomorrow /təmɒrəʊ / potato / pəteItəʊ /
carrot / kærət /
v) Spelt with quot; or quot; ; strong pronunciation would have ɔ:
forget / f əget / ambassador / æmbæsədə /
opportunity /ɒpətju:nItI /
vi) Spelt with “ e “ ; strong pronunciation would have e
settlement /setlmənt/ violet /vaIlət /
postman /pəʊstmən /
vii) Spelt with “ er “; strong pronunciation would have ɜ:
perhaps / pəhæps / stronger /strɒŋgə /
superman /su:pəmæn /
viii) Spelt with “ ough” ( there are other pronunciation of the letter sequence
“ ough” )
Borough / bʌrə/ thorough / θʌ rə /
ix) Spelt with “ u “ ; strong form would have
x) Autumn /ɔ:təm / support / səpɔ: t / halibut/ hælIbət/
xi) Spelt with “ ous”
Gracious /greIəs / callous / kæləs/
Close front and close back vowels
Two other vowels are commonly found in weak syllables, one close front ( in the general
area of i: and i) and the other close back rounded ( in the general region of u: and ʊ ) . In
strong syllables it is easy to distinguish i: from ,u: from ʊ , but in weak syllables the
difference is not so clear.For example, although it is easy enough to decide which vowel
one hears in quot; beat quot; or quot; bitquot; , it is much less easy to decide which vowel one hearsin the
second syllable of words such as, for example, quot; easyquot; or quot; busyquot;.There are
accents of English ( for example , Welsh accent) in which the second syllable sounds most
like the i: in the first syllable of easy and others ( for example Yorkshire accents) in which
it sounds more like in the first syllable of ' busy ' .In present day R.P. however, the
matter is not so clear.There is uncertainty , too , about the corresponding close back
rounded vowels.If we look at the words quot; good to eatquot; and quot; food to eatquot; , we must ask if
the word quot; to quot; is pronounced with ʊ vowel phoneme of quot; good quot; or the u: phonemen
of quot; foodquot;. Again, which vowel comes in quot; to quot; in quot; I want to quot;?
One common feature is that the vowels in question are more like i: or u: when
they precede another vowel, less so when they precedea consonant or pause.We should
notice one further thing : with exception of one or two very artificial examples,there is
possiblity in these contexts of contrast between i: and I u: and ʊ . Effectively,then two
distinctions ,which undoubtedly exist within strong syllables, are neutralized in R.P.How
should we transcribe the words “ easy” and “ busy” as pronounced in R.P.?We will use the
close front unrounded case as an example, since it is more straight-forward.The
possiblities, using our phoneme symbols, are the following:
i) i:zi: bIzi:
ii) i:zI bIzI
Few speakers of RP seem to feel satisfied with any of these transcriptions. There is a
possible solution to this problem, but it goes against standard phonemic theory.We should
symbolize this weak vowel as i, that is , using symbol for the vowel in “ beat” but without
the length mark. Thus:
The i vowel is neither the i: of “ beat “ nor the I of the “ bit” , and is not in contrast with
them .We can set up a corresponding vowel u that is neither u: of the “ shoe” nor ʊ of
the “ book” but a weak vowel that shares the characteristics of both.If we use i and u in our
transcription as well as i: , I , and ʊ , it is no longer true phonemic transcription in the
traditional sense.However , this need not to be a serious objection , and the fact that native
speakers seem to think that this transcription fits better with their feelings about the
language is good argument in its favour.
These vowels are generlly used
i) In word-final position in words spelt with final “ y” or “ ey” ( after one or more
consonant letter e.g. “ happy / hæpi / valley /væli /
and in morpheme final position when such words have suffixes beginning with
vowelss,e.g. “ happier / hæpiə / easiest /i:ziəst /
“ hurrying” / hʌriIŋ /
ii) In prefix such as those spelt “ re” , “ pre” , “ de” if is precedes a vowel and is
unstressed,for example in react / riækt / preocupied /priɒkjəpaId/
deactivate /diæktIveIt /
iii) In suffixes spelt “ iate”, “ious” when they have two syllables, for example
in “ appreciate”, “hilarious”
iv) In the following words when unstressed: “ he”, “ she” , “ we” “ me” , “ be” and the
word “ the” when it precedes a vowel.
In most other cases of weak syllables containing a close front unrounded vowel we can
assign the vowel to the phoneme, as in the first syllable of “ resist”/rIzIst/ “
Inane / IneIn / “ enough” /In ʌ f / and the middle syllable of “ incident” and the final
syllable of “ swimming” / swImIŋ / liquid / lIkwId / Optic / ɒptIk /.It can be seen that this
vowel is most often representedin spelling by the letters “ i’’ and “ e”
Weak syllbles with close back rounded vowel are not so common.Their most frequent
occurrence is in the words “ you” , “ into”, “ to”, “ do”,when they are unstressed and are
not immediately preceding a consonant, and “ through” and “ who” in all positions whey
they are unstressed.We also find weak syllable where the vowel tends to sound more like
the ʊ vowel of the book;usually this is found with a preceding j glide, as in evacuation
/ IvækjueIʃn /.An example of such a vowel without a preceding j is Influenza
/ Inflluenza /
There are syllables in which no vowel is found and even then they are considred weak
syllables.In these cases, a consonant, either l , r or a nasal , stands as the centre of the
syllable instead of the vowel.It is usual to indicate that a consonant is syllabic by means of
small vertical mark, for example “ cattle” / kætl / .
Syllabic ‘l’ is perhaps the most notceable example of the English syllabic
consonant,though it would be wrong to expect it in all accent.It occurs after another
consonant, and the way it is produced depends to someextent on the nature of that
consonant.If the preceding consonant is alveolar, as in “ bottle” / bɒtl/ “ muddle
/m ʌdl / “ tunnel” / t ʌnl/ , the articulatory movement from the preceding consonant to the
syllabic l is quite simple.The sides of tongue , which are raised for the preceding
consonant, are lowered to allow air to escape over them.The tip and blade of the tongue do
not move until articulatory contact for the l is released. The ‘ l’ is a dark l .In some
accents—particulary London one—we often find a close back rounded vowel is found
i) with alveolar consonant preceding
cattle / kætl / bottle / bɒtl / muddle /mʌdl/
With non-alveolar consonant preceding
Couple /k ʌ pl/ trouble/ trʌbl /
Knuckle /n ʌ kl/
Such words usually lose their final letter “ e” when a suffix is beginning with a vowel is
attached, but the l usually remains syllabic.Thus:
Mudlle-muddling / mʌdlIŋ/
Similar words not derived in this way do not have the syllabic l –it has been pointed out
that the two words ‘codling” ( derived from the verb coddle) and codling ( meaning small
cod, derived from by adding the diminutive suffix ‘ –ling to ‘cod” ) provide a pair of words
to show a contrast between syllabic and non-syllabic l : coddling / kɒdlIŋ/
Codling/ kɒdlIŋ /.In the case of words such as ‘ bottle’ , ‘ muddle’ and ‘ struggle’ , it
would be mispronunciation between the l and the preceding consonant. There are a few
accents of English which may do this, so that , for example, cattle is pronounced
/ kætəl/ ,but this is not the case in RP.
We also find syllabic l in words spelt with, at the end , one or more
consonant letter followed by ‘ al’ or ‘ el’ for example:
‘panel’ /pænl/ papal / peIpl /
Petal / petl / parcel / pɑ:sl /
Kernel / k ɜ:nl/ Babel / beIbl /
Pedal / pedl / ducal /dju:kl /
In some less common and more technical words, it is not obligatory to pronounce syllabic
l and the sequence may be used instead, though it is less likey: missal / mIsl /
or / mIsəl / acquittal / əkwItl / or / əkwItəl/
Of the syllabic nasals, the frequently found and the most important is n. A general rule
could be made that weak syllables which are phonologically composed of a plosive and or
fricative consonant plus are uncommon except in initial position. So we can find
words like ‘ tonight’ / tənaIt / ‘ canary’ / kəneəri / with an ə before n, but medially
and finally, as in words like ‘ threaten’ , threatening, we find much more commonly a
syllabic n ,/ θretn / / θretnIŋ/
To pronounce a vowel before the nasal consonant would sound strange in RP.Syllabic n is
most common after alveolar plosives and fricatives;in the case of t and d followed by n the
plosive is nasaly released by lowering the soft palate, so that in the word eaten , for
example, the tongue does not move in the tn sequence but the soft palate is lowered at the
end of t so that compressed air escapes through the nose.We do not find n after l or so
that for example’ ‘ sullen’ must be pronounced /sʌlən/ Christian
/ krIstʃ ən/and pidgeon as / pIdʒən /
• Syllabic n after non-alveolar consonants is not so common.In words where the
syllable following a velar consonant is spelt ‘ an’ or ‘ on’ ( for example, wagon) it
is rarely heard, the more usual pronunciation being /təbɒgən / or / wægən/
.After bilabial consonants, in words like happen, happening, ribbon, we can
consider it equally acceptable to pronounce them with syllabic n / hæpnIŋ/ /
rIbn /or with ən / hæpən / / hæpən Iŋ / / rIbən/.As we shall see,syllabic m
is also possible in this context.In similar way , after velar consonants in
words like , ‘ thicken’ ,’ weaken’ , syllabic n is possible but ən is also
acceptable.Syllabic nasal is also possible in this context.
After f pr v, syllablic n is more common than ən ( except, as with the other
cases described , in word intial syllables).Thus seven , heaven , often are more
usually /sevn/ ,
/hevn/ /ɒfn/ than /sevən/ /hevən/ and / ɒfən /.
One special rule needs to be remembered.In all the examples given so far the
syllabic n has been following another consonant;sometimes it is possible for
another consonant to precede that consonant ( for example, s precding tn in
Boston /bɒstn/; l preceding tn in Wilton /wIltn/-- this can also be pronounced
/wIltən/).How ever,we never find the sequences ntn,ndn in RP;thus ‘ Minton’ ,
lantern, ‘ London’, abandon, must have ə in the last syllable and be pronounced
/mIntən/ /læntən/ /l ʌndən/ /əbændən/.Other nasals also prevent a following
plosive plus syllabic nasal, so that for example ‘ Camden must /kæmdən/
Both m , can occur as syllabic , but only as result of processes such as
assimilation and elision.We find them sometimes in words like ‘ happen’ which
can be pronounced
/hæpm/ though /hæpn and / hæpən/ are equally acceptable, and ‘ uppermost’
which could be pronounced as / ʌpəməʊst / though / ʌpəməʊst
/ would be more usual.Examples of syllabic velar nasals would be ‘ thicken’ /
/ where / / and / / are also possible and ‘ broken key’ /
/ where the nasal consonant occurs between velar consonants ( again, n or ən
could be subsituted for )
In many accents of the type called ‘ rhotic’ such as American accents, syllabic r is
very common.The word particular for example would probably be pronounced /
by most Americans, while RP speaker would pronounce the word as / prtIkəlr/
Syllabic r is less common in RP and in most cases where it occurs there
are perfectly acceptable alternative pronunciations without the syllabic
i) There are few pair of words in which a difference in meaning appears
to depend on whether a particular r is syllabic or not for example:
Hungry / hʌŋɡri / hungry / hʌŋɡri/
But we find no case of syllabic r where it would not be possible to
subsitute either non- syllabic r or ər ; In the example above, Hungry could
equally be pronounced
/ hʌŋɡəri /
Use of syllables in Poetry
Feet or Foot is another prominent item which should be considered when stress is being
discussed. Words are made up of rhythmic units called feet and these comprise one or
more syllables. Feet represent the rhythmic structure of the word. In every foot, one of the
syllables is more prominent or stronger than the others and it is called the strong syllable. It
is the head of the syllable. The other syllables in the foot are the weak syllables. English is
a left side dominant language. It is a property of English that the leftmost branch is always
associated with a full vowel. All reduced vowels will be in the nucleus of the right-handed
Rhythm and Meter in English Poetry
English poetry employs five basic rhythms ofvarying stressed (/) and unstressed (x)
syllables. The meters are iambs, trochees, spondees, anapests and dactyls. In this document
the stressed syllables are marked in boldface type rather than the tradition al quot;/quot; and quot;x.quot;
Each unit of rhythm is called a quot;footquot; of poetry.
The meters with two-syllable feet are
IAMBIC (x /) : That time of year thou mayst in me behold
TROCHAIC (/ x): Tell me not in mournful numbers
SPONDAIC (/ /): Break, break, break/ On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
Meters with three-syllable feet are
ANAPESTIC (x x /): And the sound of a voice that is still
DACTYLIC (/ x x): This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the
hemlock (a trochee replaces the final dactyl)
Each line of a poem contains a certain number of feet of iambs, trochees, spondees, dactyls
or anapests. A line of one foot is a monometer, 2 feet is a dimeter, and so on--trimeter (3),
tetrameter (4), pentameter (5), hexameter (6), heptameter (7), and o ctameter (8). The
number of syllables in a line varies therefore according to the meter. A good example of
trochaic monometer, for example, is this poem entitled quot;Fleasquot;:
Here are some more serious examples of the various meters.
iambic pentameter (5 iambs, 10 syllables)
That time | of year | thou mayst | in me | behold
trochaic tetrameter (4 trochees, 8 syllables)
Tell me | not in | mournful | numbers
anapestic trimeter (3 anapests, 9 syllables)
And the sound | of a voice | that is still
dactylic hexameter (6 dactyls, 17 syllables; a trochee replaces the last dactyl)
This is the | forest pri | meval, the | murmuring | pine and the | hemlocks
English stress is dependant on origin of words and the rhythmic factors ( heavy-light
syllables). Words borrowed from Latin and other donor languages are stressed differently.
In the case of Anglo-Saxon words the first syllable of the root is stressed. For example, in
the following words the stress is in the first syllable, “blossom, body, holy, never,
What are the ways in Determining the main stress in English? The steps to be taken in this
process are, first:
1) remove inflectional suffixes and stress neutral suffixes,
2) if the word has two syllables, stress the first one.
The following words are examples for this two step process: “donkey, exit,finger, bonus.”
3) If the words are of three syllables or more, determine whether the penult (the
next to last syllable in a word ) is heavy or light. Following are examples of heavy and light
“Recruitment, entailment, detergent, escapist (heavy)
Average, bungalow, regiment, resolute (light)”
4) If the penult is heavy, stress it.
A, E, I,O,U and diphtong are long vowels. Spacious, spicy, ocean, rejoice are examples for
5) If the penult is light, stress the antepenult.
As seen in “ACtivate, MULtiply, reVItalize, VACcinate.”
(English Words, 2001)
Main stress falls on the penultimate syllable if it has a long vowel or is closed by a
consonant; otherwise, main stress falls on the antepenultimate (the 3rd syllable of a word
counting back from the end ) syllable.
The location of the stress depends on the distribution of heavy syllables, as well as location
in the word. So, English makes distinction between heavy (long vowels, more prominent)
and light (short vowels) syllables. Foot with one heavy syllable is stressed, however a foot
with one light syllable is not stressed. (Dresher, B. E. 1999)
The affixes which change the word stress are various, some examples are -ain
(entertain), -ee(refugee,trainee), -ese(Portugese, Japanese), -ique(unique), -ette
(cigarette,laundrette), -esque(picturesque), -ial(proverbial), -ic(climatic), -ion
(perfection), -ive(reflexive), -cal (political), -ity(complexity), -aire(millionaire), -eer
(mountaineer), -ian(Italian), -et(ballet)
On the other hand, there are some other affixes which don’t effect the distribution of stress,
they are -able, -age, -al, -ful, -en, -ish, -ish, -like, -less, -ment, -wise, -y, -hood, -ship, -ness,
-ing, -our etc.
Role of Weak and Strong Syllables in Communication
Strong–weak syllable distinction may play an important role in word segmentation. Cutler
and Norris (1988) asked subjects to identify words at the beginnings of two syllable
nonwords. Subjects were faster to identify a word when the second syl able was weak than
when it was strong. The present study included lax vowels in addition to the tense and
neutral vowels previously used to form the second syllables. The lax vowel produces a
strong syllable of short duration; something not previously present. By comparing word
identification for items in which the second sylable is strong with either a tense or lax
vowel to the weak syllables, the relative roles of strong versus weak syllables and vowel
duration can be explored. To the extent that tense and lax vowel syllables produce
equivalent effects, strong syllables act as a cue to word boundaries in English.
Strong forms are often found:
When they occur at the end of a word
When a word is contrasted with another word
When a word is stressed for emphasis
When a words is being quoted.
The use of the weak form is a common feature of spoken English; however, in my teaching
experience I've found that few Chinese students actually use it when speaking English. One
possible reason could be that they have never been taught weak forms, therefore, they don't
have any idea what the weak form is and they do not use it in their speech. There are at
least three reasons why teachers do not teach weak forms. First, teachers themselves don't
know the weak forms very well. Second, even if they have some knowledge of weak forms,
they don't know how to teach them. After all, it's easier to teach individual sounds, such as
vowels and consonants, than weak forms. Although there are many materials for teaching
segmentals, materials for teaching weak forms are not readily available. Third, teachers'
prejudices may prevent them from teaching weak forms. They may hold the view that weak
forms are not as important as phonemes, so they don't want to take the trouble to teach
Whatever the reason, the failure to teach weak forms makes it difficult for Chinese students
to speak English comprehensibly and to comprehend the speech of native and other fluent
speakers of English. This article aims to build teachers' awareness of the importance of
teaching weak forms and suggests some practical ways to do so, regardless of what native
language students speak.
What is the weak form?
English is a stress-timed language, which means that stressed syllables are equal in timing.
In order to fit our words into this pattern, we tend to quot;squashquot; or compress other syllables
or words occurring between stresses, in order to keep up with the more or less regular
rhythm (Mayers 1981:422). Therefore, compressing or quot;weakeningquot; some sounds is
necessary to keep the rhythm of English.
Weak forms are usually distinguished by a change in vowel quality from a border position
on the vowel quadrilateral to a central position. The vowel in a weak form is usually the
schwa (ə). Weak forms are pronounced more quickly and at lower volume in comparison
to the stressed syllables. They are also not central to changes in intonation.
Fig. 1. The change of position of vowel production for the articulation of weak forms
A weak form is the pronunciation of a word or syllable in an unstressed manner. Of course,
the difference between the strong form (stressed) and the weak form (unstressed) of a word
is not apparent in writing, but in speech these two variations in pronunciation can be
drastically different. If spoken in isolation, the weak form of a word would probably be
unintelligible. The difference between the two forms can affect meaning. Here is an
example to show how strong and weak forms of a single word (that) can change the entire
meaning of a sentence:
John thinks that man is evil. /ð ə t/
This version of the sentence, with the weak (unstressed) form of that, means quot;John
thinks all humans are evil.quot; ə
John thinks that man is evil. / æt/
This version of the sentence, with the strong (stressed) form of that, means quot;John
thinks a specific (male) individual is evil.quot;
As indicated by this example, if a speaker unknowingly uses the strong form instead of the
weak form, misunderstandings can occur.
There are 40 words in English which have weak forms.
Rationale for teaching weak forms
There are two good reasons why weak forms ought to be taught. First, teaching weak forms
can help students improve their production of spoken English. Because of the influence of
their first language, foreign students tend to pronounce every word very clearly. As a
result, their speech always sounds foreign, sometimes unintelligible, because enunciating
each word in a sentence can disrupt the natural rhythm of spoken English. Second, not
knowing the weak form may inhibit students' comprehension of the English spoken by
fluent speakers. Therefore, acquiring weak forms is important not only for students'
production of spoken English but also for their listening comprehension.
We must distinguish between weak forms and contracted form. Certain words are
shortened so severely (usual y to a single phoneme) and so consistently that they are
represented differently in informal writing. it is – it’s ;we have – we’ve; do not –
don’t.These contracted forms are studied separately.
There is also another fact with regard to strong and weak syllables: they all
are functional or grammatical words – words that do not have a dictionary meaning in the
way we normally expect nouns, verbs,adjectives and adverbs to have. The grammatical
words are words such as auxiliary verbs, prepositions, and conjunctions etc. all of which
are in certain circumstances pronounced in their strong forms but which are more
frequently pronounced in their weak forms. There are some rules to determine whether
weak or strong form will be used.We can say that strong form is used in following cases:
i ) Some weak form words , when they occur at the end of a sentence.
For example, the word ‘ of’ has the weak form əv as in the following sentence:
I am fond of books /aIm fnd əv bks /
But if it is used in the end then it will take strong form:
/bks ə wt aIm fnd v/
Many of the words given below (particularly the first nine) never occur at the end of a of
the sentence e.g. your. Some words like him, her, they, we, you, he may occur in the weak
forms at the end.
ii) When a weak form is contrasted with another word e.g.
The letter’s from him, not to him. /ðə letəz frɒm Im nɒt tu: Im/
A similar case is what we might call a co-coordinated use of the prepositions:
• I travel to and from London a lot / aI trævl tu: ən frɒm lʌ ndən ə lɒt/
iii ) When a weak form is stressed for the purpose of emaphasis, e’g’ :
You must give me more money /ju mʌst gIv mi mɔ: mʌni/
When a weak form is being ‘cited’ or ‘ quoted’
You shouldn’t put ‘ and’ at the end of a sentence
/ju dɒnt pt nd ət ði end əv ə sentəns/
Introducing the concept of weak forms
It is a good idea to begin instruction of weak forms by raising students' awareness of the
concept. Let them know that using weak forms is a common feature of natural English
speech and does not represent a degenerate manner of speaking (Seymour 1969). If
students know the rationale for using weak forms, then they will be motivated to learn
The teacher can have students listen to some sentences in which weak forms are used. For
example, the weak form of to /t / is used in the following two sentences:
He went to the library to read magazines.
After the accident, she had to go to the hospital.
The teacher could first ask students to pronounce the word to in isolation in the strong
form, then have them listen to these two sentences and draw their attention to the
pronunciation of to in the weak form, comparing the different pronunciations. When the
students perceive the difference, the teacher can introduce the notion of weak forms.
Stron Weak Form Example
Do du: də Where do you live?
Are ə(r)* John and Mary are here.
was wəz I was quite interested.
Were wə(r) They were bored.
Would wəd She said she would be here.
Could kəd What could I do?
Should d They should be here by now.
Can kæn kən What can you do with it?
Must məs(t) You must be a bit more patient.
Strong Weak form Example
to tu: tə I went to the market.
For fə(r) Wait for me!
From frəm She's from York.
Put it into the box.
A bottle of wine.
Of ɒv ə(v)
As æz əz ..as good as gold...
at æz ət He's not at home.
Strong Weak Form Example
And ænd Rock 'n' roll.
ənd, ən, n̩
but bət ...but one of the main points...
Than It's faster than mine.
that (as a relative) The dog that bit me ...
you (as object pronoun) ju: jə Where do you live?
your jə (r) Where's your jumper?
her (as object pronoun) (h)ə(r)* I'll give her a ring later.
A ə Take a good book.
an æn ən He's an idiot!
The ði: What's the time?
ðə, ði (before a vowel)
Conversion from Strong form to Weak form
There are generally three ways in which the strong form is changed into the weak form.
1. A vowel is reduced to a schwa (the neutral vowel / /) in function words, such as to,
a, the, and, and of. If the students are not familiar with the term of function word,
the teacher can explain that function words are usually articles, conjunctions, and
prepositions, as well as auxiliary verbs.
2. A final consonant is omitted from a function word, such as and.
3. An initial consonant is omitted from pronouns, such as he, him, her, and them
(except when the pronoun occurs at the start of a sentence).
First, the teacher writes three sentences on the blackboard:
1. Can you swim?
2. Yes, I can.
3. He can swim, too.
and says them out loud. Just like the awareness-raising activity mentioned above, the
teacher focuses the students' attention on the pronunciation of can in these sentences,
helping them perceive that the strong form /kæn/ is used in the first two sentences, while
the weak form /k n/ is used in the third sentence. In the initial or final position of a
sentence, the strong form of function words will usually be used even if it is unstressed. If
students are familiar with the phonetic symbols, the teacher can write the two different
phonetic transcriptions next to each sentence, then read them aloud, having students listen
to the two forms in isolation. The teacher can check whether they can distinguish these two
sounds accurately with a minimal pair exercise. The teacher says one form of can and asks
students whether it is the strong (/kæn/) or weak (/kən/) form. Next, the teacher can briefly
use some imitation exercises, saying aloud and having students repeat the two forms of the
word can. With these activities, the teacher can be sure that the students can recognize and
produce these two sounds, at this point, in isolation.
It's usually easier for my students to pronounce the weak form in isolation than in a
sentence, so controlled practice with sentences is needed. I have them read the model
sentences out loud; if necessary, I read first and the students repeat. After they have read
these three sentences correctly a few times, drilling can reinforce the proper pronunciation
of the weak form in sentences. I have found that there is no need to practice the strong
form, because my students are quite familiar with it.
Substitution drills can be used. Based on the model sentence quot;He can swim,quot; the teacher
can give some cue words. For example, the verb dance is given, and students have to
produce the sentence quot;He can dance.quot; If the pronoun they is given, then the students have
to produce quot;They can swim,quot; etc. This kind of substitution drilling should be done first in
chorus and then individually. Choral drilling can help to build students' confidence and
give them the chance to practice anonymously, without feeling nervous about whether they
can pronounce correctly in front of the entire class (Kelly 2000). After the choral drilling,
the teacher can call on individual students to pronounce. In this way, the teacher can
determine how well individuals can pronounce the weak form in sentences.
At this point of instruction, there are other kinds of activities that can be used in teaching
weak forms. One is the use of a tape recorder. Students read aloud and record a dialogue or
passage then compare their reading with a recording of the same material made by fluent
speakers of English, paying special attention to the weak forms used. This activity not only
raises students' awareness of weak forms, but also helps them to know what they need to
improve in their pronunciation.
After the weak forms of some function words have been taught, the teacher can give
students a listening passage to practice recognition. Students identify the strong and weak
forms of function words in the passage. Also, students can listen to a passage from which
some function words have been deleted; they have to decide which form is appropriate
(strong or weak) and fill in the blanks.
If only controlled practice is used in teachin weak forms, the teacher cannot be sure
whether the students can apply what they have learned in natural English speech and the
students may get bored with the mechanical drills. The teacher must involve students in
meaningful and communicative pronunciation activities to make learning interesting and
motivating (Fangzhi 1998:39). Therefore the teacher must design some communicative
activities in which the weak forms will inevitably be used. The following three-step activity
is one that I have used successfully with my students:
1. In pairs, students interview each other about what special sk each of them has.
2. If the initial questions are not adequate for the students to get a comprehensive idea
of the special abilities of his/her partner, the student being interviewed should
provide more information voluntarily.
3. Students report to the whole class what abilities his/her partner has.
In this activity, students get a lot of chances to practice the two forms of can. In step 1,
some interview questions should contain can, for example: quot;Can you play _____ (a game
or sport)?quot; quot;What else can you do?quot; quot;I remember you can _____, can't you?quot; The answers
quot;Yes, I canquot; and quot;No, I can'tquot; will be used. In step 2, the statement quot;I can _____quot; will be
used spontaneously. In this activity, both the strong form and weak form should be used in
the students' speech many times, so the teacher can determine whether students can use
them in the appropriate places. In the interview, students ask their partners something that
they don't know and talk about themselves, which makes this activity meaningful to them.
Roach,Peter.(2004) English Phonetics and Phonology, Cambridge University Press.
Fangzhi, Cheng. 1998. The teaching of pronunciation to Chinese students of English.
English Teaching Forum, 36, 1, pp. 37-39.
Kelly, G. 2000. How to teach pronunciation. London: Longman/Pearson Educati n
Mayers, R. P. 1981. A new approach to the teaching of weak form. ELT Journal, 35, 1, pp.
Seymour, G. 1969. Practical English phonetics. London: Leonard Hill.