English Pronunciation – The Rules you Don’t Know


Here’s a question that’s kicked off an interesting discussion on quora.com:

  • What are some English language rules that native speakers don’t know, but still follow?

According to Mark Ettlinger, Linguistics PhD at UC Berkley, the answer is, ‘pretty much all of them’:

One of the first things you realize, when you study linguistics, is that language—every language—is filled with an amazing amount of complexity and irregularity to the point of defying description. And I mean that literally. There is not one single natural language that has been completely formalized at all levels of description in any way.

This post looks at some examples of English pronunciation that might surprise you.

They illustrate how we follow rules that we aren’t even aware of when we speak. It’s a fascinating case of ‘unconscious competence’ – where you don’t know what you know.

Dictation Computer

  • Imagine a dictation computer that prints exactly what it hears.
  • Sometimes there’s more than one possibility and the computer makes a mistake.
  • Can you spot the errors in the computer’s work in the left-hand column of the table below? (Scroll down for hints!)


 Source: Pronunciation Games by Mark Hancock.

Hint 1: Read each sentence in the left-hand column aloud in a natural voice, without pausing between words. In most cases you’ll ‘hear’ the correct sentence.

Hint 2: The right-hand column contains an appropriate response for each sentence. Can you match them? The responses give you clues.

Hint 3: The first sentence-and-response has been done for you.

Hint 4: The answers will be posted in next week’s blog. (To get next week’s post by email, sign up on the right or below this post. It’s free.)

English Pronunciation

So how and why do the following two sentences sound identical?

.. Alaska if she wants to come with us.

.. I’ll ask her if she wants to come with us.

Many English sounds are pronounced differently when they’re isolated compared to when they’re combined in words and sentences. The reason ‘Alaska’ sounds the same as ‘I’ll ask her’ in the above sentences, is to do with their matching syllable pattern and the fact that English vowels are pronounced differently in unstressed syllables than in stressed ones. So, whereas ‘I’ll’ by itself rhymes with ‘aisle’, in ‘I’ll ask her’ it rhymes with … well … the first syllable of ‘Alaska’!

If you’re a native speaker, this behaviour of English sounds rarely causes problems because you automatically use the context of an utterance to make sense of it. You expect to hear sentences that are grammatical. ‘Alaska if she wants to come with us’ isn’t, so you assume that what was intended is the grammatical alternative, ‘I’ll ask her if she wants to come with us’.

But it’s a different story for learners of English whose grammatical knowledge may not yet be strong enough to help them. The Dictation Computer activity was designed for them, but it’s informative too for native speakers because it so clearly demonstrates our unconscious competence.

What do you think of the Dictation Computer activity and the claims it makes about English pronunciation? Your comments are welcome in the box below.

I’ve a feeling there are jokes that rely on misunderstandings in pronunciation – do you know one? Scroll down to share it.

And please feel free to share this post with English learners, or friends with English as a second language.

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  1. Alison Hirst says:

    It’s not quite the same thing, but when I was at primary school, to get the attention of the whole class my teacher would call out, “Now listen”. I always used to look up, a little afraid I was doing something wrong because it sounded like “Alison”.

  2. Brian Green says:

    I enjoyed this , Alison, but I can’t think of one to send to you!
    Love M xx

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