If you’re learning English, you’ve probably noticed that it’s often hard to hear where one word ends and another begins when listening to a native speaker. That’s because English, like any other language, is not spoken in individual words with neat, little breaks between them, but in phrases where words flow together and interact with each other. This phrasal way of speaking is connected speech.
In English, there are several unique things that can happen when words meet. Taking some time to internalize these features of connected speech will help you to understand spoken English better, and also help to make your own speech sound more fluent and natural.
Note that all the examples and rules given here apply specifically to Standard Southern British English, or SSBE. While much of this information also applies to other varieties of English, it’s important to have a reference accent to give consistent examples.
Contractions In Connected Speech
Probably the most obvious and best-taught features of connected speech in English are contractions. For example, even the most conservative teachers will highlight that it’s more common to say it’s than it is in most circumstances.
The vast majority of contractions in English happen with the main verb “be,” the auxiliary verb “have” and the participle “not.” So we get I’m from I am, we’re from we are, you’ve from you have, could’ve from could have, don’t from do not, and can’t from cannot. The double-L of I’ll and other future tense constructions, such as we’ll, she’ll and they’ll.
But you already knew this, right? Let’s get on to the more complicated stuff.
Weak Forms In Connected Speech
Probably the most important of all the connected speech features in English — but one of the most overlooked — is weak forms. Weak forms are a group of words that have an alternate pronunciation when they appear in unstressed syllables. The list of these words is long, and they’re almost all function words, meaning words which perform a grammatical function (for example: prepositions, articles, pronouns, modal verbs) rather than carry meaning.
Some of the most common words with weak forms in English are: a, am, an, and, are, as, at, but, can, could, do, does, for, from, had, has, have, he, her, him, his, must, of, she, should, some, than, the, them, them, there, to, us, was, were, would, you and yours, although this is not an exhaustive list.
While the so-called “strong forms” (meaning the pronunciation you’re taught at school or would find in a pronunciation dictionary) of these words all contain a strong vowel, what weak forms have in common is that they contain a weak vowel. In most cases, this weak vowel is schwa.
Schwa, represented in phonemic transcription by the symbol /ə/, is the most common vowel sound in English. (Fun fact: The name comes from the Hebrew words for “nothingness.”) It’s the easiest vowel sound to make, as it’s essentially the sound of the English filler word “uh.” To make it, you just relax your jaw, tongue, and lips and expel air!
Not all of them exhibit this sound, though. Here’s a table with transcriptions the strong and weak forms of the words listed above next to each other for comparison. From this, we can consider the contractions above as special types of weak forms that have become broadly accepted and standardized.
When should you use weak forms?
But when do we use these weak forms? Almost all the time. The only reason to use a strong form of one of these words is if you want to emphasize it, or if it’s at the end of a sentence — otherwise always use the weak form!
For example, in the following phrases, the underlined words would all be pronounced with their weak forms:
- Do you like to eat cereal for breakfast?
- Am I giving him a discount?
- There’s no reason to accuse her of wrongdoing.
- Could she move this but keep that?
Dropping T- And D-Sounds
The technical term for this is alveolar plosive elision, and it just means that /t/ and /d/ sounds can be “deleted” (or “elided,” if you want to get technical) from the ends of syllables. The rules for this can seem a little complicated at first, but will feel more natural the more you practice. Here are the basics:
- The T- or D-sound must be the last syllable of the word
- Other consonant sounds must surround this sound
- In the case of T, it can be dropped if it follows a voiceless consonant sound
- In the case of D, it can be dropped if it follows a voiced consonant sound
- (For an easy explanation of voiced vs. voiceless consonant sounds, see here)
- For both T- and D-sounds, the next sound cannot be H
Here are some examples of places where alveolar plosive elision may occur (highlighted in bold):
- last time
- slapped by
- send back
But watch out for situations where this can’t happen, so you don’t accidentally drop syllables that you should keep! Here are some instances where it doesn’t work:
- sent home (H follows the T-sound)
- last act (a vowel sound follows T rather than a consonant)
- bad boy (a consonant doesn’t come before D)
Try saying these example sentences out loud, first with all of the bolded T- and D-sounds pronounced fully, and then with them removed. Doesn’t it flow more naturally with the elision?
- Did you send back all the bruised bananas?
- I think he’s the last person on the right with the cleft chin.
- That was the first time you reached to touch the ceiling.
If you can get your head around these features of connected speech and use them often, your English will sound a lot more fluent as a result. So it might seem like a chore at first, but like with applying any new knowledge to your language learning, persistence is key!