Embarrassing Pronunciation Errors


Some of the most common English pronunciation mistakes are also the most embarrassing.

Today’s blog looks at those areas of speech where a simple error can cause the listener to break into laughter……

1. ‘sheets’

Example: “Pass me those sheets.”

What’s the problem?
The /i:/ vowel in this word needs to be front close and not too long. If the vowel is too open or too central, you will not be asking your colleague for paper.

How do you avoid it?
When you make the /i:/ vowel, put your tongue as far forward as possible.

Are there any similar problems?
There are numerous examples: ‘What a lovely beach!’, ‘War and Peace’.

2. ‘can’t’

Example: “No, you can’t”

What’s the problem?
The vowel – if it’s not open enough it can sound like a very rude word indeed!
How do I avoid it?
Open your mouth, imagine you are at the dentist, really open the mouth and say /ɑ:/ – ‘can’t’ rhymes with ‘far’ and ‘park’, so imagine it is spelled with an ‘r': ‘carn’t’.

3. ‘rice’

Example: ‘I’ll have chicken & rice’.

What’s the problem?
If your first language is East Asian, you may replace the /r/ in ‘rice’ with an /l/ as in ‘lice’. You may be in for a surprise if that turns up on your plate in your local restaurant.

How do you avoid it?
Make sure your tongue does not touch the mouth when you pronounce /r/ and make sure it does touch the mouth on the alveolar ridge when you pronounce /l/.

Are there any similar problems?
Any pairs of words with r/l like ‘rake/lake’, ‘rock/lock’ etc.

4. ‘ankle’

Example: ‘I’ve hurt my ankle’

What’s the problem?
The /æ/ in ‘ankle’ needs to be front and open – many 2nd language speakers replace it with the /a/ from their language, sounding more like the /ʌ/ in ‘uncle’.

How do you avoid it?
Push your tongue forward and open your mouth fully when pronouncing /æ/, relax the mouth when pronouncing /ʌ/. You should hear a clear difference between: ‘mad/mud’, ‘cat/cut’, ‘match/much’.

Are there any similarly embarrassing examples?
‘Look at the facts!’ (silent /t/), ‘Where did I leave my bag?’

5. ‘think’

Example: ‘Wait, I’m thinking.’

What’s the problem?
The /θ/ in ‘thinking’ is made dentally, the tongue should touch the teeth. A lot of 2nd language speakers replace this sound with ‘s’, which would produce ‘sinking’. The problem is explored in this hilarious video.

How do you avoid it?
Put your tongue between your teeth for ‘th’.

Are there any similarly embarrassing examples?
Similar problem: ‘It’s very thick!’

6. ‘crab’

Example: ‘For me the crab soup.’

What’s the problem?
The voiced sound /b/ may be devoiced and become a /p/, which would be an entirely different kind of dish.

How do you avoid it?
Make sure the consonant sounds /b d g ð z ʒ v dʒ/ are voiced at the end of syllables.

Send us your examples to enquiries@pronunciationlondon.co.uk, we’ll give a free 1 hour online class for any great entries that make us laugh.


What are the aims of accent reduction?


An authentic ‘English Accent’ or simply ‘Clear Speech’ – what are the aims of accent reduction?

Accent reduction is a term being used more and more frequently in the world of English speech teaching, but its goals are not necessarily clear. Over the past five to ten years numerous courses have appeared aimed at learners of English offering to ‘lose’ or ‘get rid of’ a non-native accent. The concept is strange in linguistic terms – when you learn a language, you generally ‘do’ things: you learn grammar, you memorise vocabulary, you improve your listening and speaking skills. So where does ‘losing’ anything come into this? Is it an action? Is it a lack of action? It almost suggests that an accent is something you carry around with you and by being careless with it, you might suddenly find that it has disappeared – left on a park bench, perhaps.

A clearer analogy would be to lose weight, but you won’t ‘lose’ your accent by not speaking. The term, I believe, that we are looking for is a positive one – to ‘learn’ pronunciation. When a student reaches a very high level of pronunciation, control over accent follows and therefore choice, but nothing has been ‘lost’.

Learning pronunciation is like learning any other aspect of language – when you learn grammar, you start with the basics – subject, object, verbs, nouns, adjectives, then you move on to tenses and conditionals and gradually you reach a higher level until you know all the grammatical constructions of a language, fluency ensues. Pronunciation is the same – you learn the different areas of pronunciation in roughly the following order:

  • Consonant Sounds
  • Vowel Sounds
  • Spelling to Sound Rules
  • Weak/Strong Structure
  • Joining Techniques
  • Word Stress
  • Sentence Stress
  • Intonation Patterns
  • Shifting Stress

A student who has mastered all of these areas, will have a considerable amount of control over their speech. In English, this is something that all advanced learners could benefit from but have rarely ever studied if they have learnt only through ‘General English’ classes or self study.

This explains why most of the students who come to study with us are not aiming to sound British or American or learn any other specific accent – they are simply searching for this part of the jigsaw of English language that they have never been offered in language schools. Their goals are nearly always clear speech – to communicate in English with native English speakers without having to repeat their words or speak unnaturally slowly. This is a logical part of learning English and should not be confused with the different but loosely connected (through phonetics) world of regional accent modification – where somebody (normally a first language English speaker) wants to alter a local accent.

There are a great many examples of people who use clear speech yet have a ‘non-native’ accent, and the results are wonderfully expressive – the person commands authority through clarity and confidence whilst showing their origins. Some notable examples are Tamara Rojo, the Spanish ballerina:

and Werner Herzog, the Austrian film maker:

In the clips it is clear that each would have to correct certain sounds and structures in their speech if their aim were to adopt a British accent (I will post a pronunciation analysis of each at a later date), but each one of these people speak with enviable command and clarity. An example where pronunciation skills obstruct the delivery of speech would be Marina Abramovich, the Serbian performance artist – in this example it is sometimes difficult to follow the narrative:

There is undoubtably a huge stigma attached to accents – barely a week goes by without an article in the press questioning why people want to speak like the queen or whether there is a link between xenophobia the world of elocution. Perhaps if we could move away from the idea of ‘losing’ or ‘getting rid’ of accents and into the progressive world of ‘learning’ pronunciation, gaining control of speech and clear communication, a more positive and progressive approach could be born and a greater understanding of this bizarre language we all live with reached.

English Vowel Sounds

Vowel Sounds

English Vowel Sounds (19 of them)

A neutral British English accent uses 19 vowel sounds, they are (in the order they appear in the sound chart above):

Written English has just 5 spellings – a e i o & u, through combinations of these spellings, we can produce the 19 sounds above.

Each sound uses a unique position of the mouth – with a different jaw, lip & tongue position as follows:

Jaw Position

The first point to consider for each vowel is the position of your jaw – is it nearly closed as in /i:/, half way open as in /ɜ:/ or fully open as in /ɑ:/, which is the sound your dentist will ask you to make in order to see inside your mouth.

Tongue Position

Next, we must think about the tongue – is it high at the front of the mouth, like the short vowel /e/, is it flat, like as in the long vowel /ɜ:/, or is it high at the back, as in /ɔ:/.

Lip Position

Finally we need to think about the lips – are they spread like in /i:/, relaxed as in /ɜ:/ or rounded as in /ɔ:/

Vowel Quality

On top of the position of the mouth, we need to consider the quality of the vowel – this is its length and volume. The higher the level of stress on any vowel sound, the longer it will be. The categorisation of vowels as ‘long’ and ‘short’ is therefore quite unsatisfactory – the length of a vowel is affected by its level of stress and the sounds around it.

So if you thought that ship and sheep could be distinguished by the length of the vowel, think again – you need to make 2 completely different positions with the mouth (1 and 2 in the chart).



Why is English so difficult to pronounce?


Why is English so difficult to pronounce?

As everybody who has studied English as a foreign language knows – English is a relatively easy language to learn, up to a point. It is easy and quick for most learners to reach intermediate level, as the basic grammatical structures are straight forward, and the vocabulary is simple and often has traces in students’ own languages. This is one reason why English has become so popular as an international ‘lingua franca’ – to speak it to a level in which two people can communicate is quite easy.

But then when students aim for a higher level, things get more difficult. Advanced grammar is quite tricky, with numerous conditional and modal constructions to deal with, but this is not the hardest part at all. The real difficulties in mastering English to a proficient level are firstly all the phrasal verbs and strange sayings that natives use (I recommend Steven Collins’ excellent series of books on this topic) and secondly of course, pronunciation.

So why is English pronunciation so difficult? Why do students who speak a high level of grammatical English, make so many mistakes when they actually say their perfectly constructed sentences? On today’s blog, we will look at 5 key difficulties in English pronunciation:

1. Written vs Spoken English

It would be a lot simpler to pronounce English if the written form resembled the spoken form more closely. Amongst the most confusing bits are silent letters – r, l, b, h, k, n, p, s, t & w are all silent some of the time. Then there are letters that can be pronounced in lots of different ways – ‘s’ can be pronounced as /z/, ‘t’ can be pronounced in at least 5 ways, and an ‘n’ can become /m/ or /ŋ/. And that’s just consonants – English contains 19 vowel sounds, but it only has 5 vowels to spell them with, so who could possibly guess that ‘good’, ‘food’ and ‘blood’ all contain different vowel sounds (/ʊ/, /u:/ and /ʌ/)?

2. Sounds

English has 19 vowel sounds and 25 consonant sounds. Its vowel sounds cover the entire range of mouth positions – front, centre, back, open, close, spread, relaxed and rounded. Some vowels are long, others short, but all vowels change length depending on the level of stress on them. Many students speak languages with fewer vowels – a lot of modern languages (Spanish, Japanese, Arabic to name a few) have no more than 5 vowel sounds, for most learners, the 19 vowel sounds present an important area of study.

Consonant sounds are also problematic – nearly everyone needs to learn the ‘th’ sounds /θ/ & /ð/, the approximant ‘r’ sound often requires attention, and other sounds such as /h/, /w/ and /ŋ/ cause a lot of errors. All students need to pay attention to accurate consonant production: voicing and placement need to be mastered.

3. Joining

Aside from the sounds of English, it is important to join everything together correctly. English has various ways of joining words: assimilation (2 sounds change each other), elision (one sound disappears), vowel + vowel joining (we add a /r/, /j/ or /w/ between the sounds) and consonant + vowel joining (a consonant joins the next syllable). Sometimes these are rather bizarre – in the sentence ‘law and order’ only one /r/ would be pronounced – between ‘law_r_and’ – even though it is spelt with a ‘w’.

4. Weak/Strong Structure

English is made of strong and weak sounds. The most common sound in English is the schwa sound /ə/ – which should be pronounced roughly one in every three vowel sounds. The problem is, the schwa is impossible to see on the written page. In order to hear it – listen and read the passage below, which has the sound written in phonetics:

I’d like tə go shopping fər ә pair әf shoes, bәt thə shops ә closed becəse thәs ə weathәr әlert. əparrәntly lots әf snow is coming in frәm thə Highlənds so thә govәrnmәnt hәv әdvised peopәl tә stay ət home

5. Intonation & Stress

The English are famous for saying one thing and meaning another – using intonation to show meaning. These subtleties can be lost on a learner of English. English uses a wide pitch range and four patterns – fall, fall-rise, rise & rise-fall. The rules of English stress are simple to learn, but impossible to see on the written page. If a learner of English is misunderstood, it is more often due to misplaced stress than incorrect pronunciation – for this reason stress is perhaps the most important aspect of clear speech.

Some Good News

Although English is undeniably a very confusing and perhaps complicated language to pronounce well, there is some good news – it can be learnt. Pronunciation is like any other skill – it involves learning new movements and rules and practising them until they become second nature. Through studying the 4 key aspects of speech – sounds, structure, intonation & spelling rules, a student can take their English level to an entirely new level and with regular practice can alter their accent.

How to pronounce ‘are’.


‘are’ – the hardest monosyllabic word to pronounce.

What’s the problem?

‘Are’ is the trickiest word in English. It can be weak (ə) or strong (ɑ:) and it can even disappear completely when it contracts. On top of this, it will join with /r/ if the following sound starts with a vowel, AND it behaves like a function word even when it is a content word.

How do I get it right?

‘are’ is normally pronounced /ə/ (without /r/)
EG ‘What are you doing?’, ‘The police are coming’

It is pronounced /ɑ:/ (without /r/) when it is stressed:
EG ‘What are you doing?’, ‘I don’t think they are.’

It joins with an /r/ when followed by a vowel:
EG ‘Why are Emily’s family here?’, ‘There are a few of them’.

It is weak even when it is the main verb (no other verb can do this in English):
EG ‘How old are you?’, ‘They’re with me’.

What happens if I get it wrong?

The main problem is that it ruins the stress in a sentence. As it is nearly always weak, when students over stress the vowel and add the /r/ it gives the word too much prominence. Since the verb ‘be’ is the second most common word in English, this potentially causes a large number of errors.

How to pronounce ‘ask’.


‘I axed him!’ How to pronounce ‘ask’.

What’s the problem?

It is very hard to pronounce all of the sounds in the word quickly, so native speakers often omit the /k/ and the ‘ed’ ending. If you try and pronounce all the sounds it can cause mistakes.

How do I get it right?

‘ask’ is pronounced:
– /ɑ:s/ before a consonant (‘ask them’) without a /k/ sound.
– /ɑ:sk/ before a vowel (‘ask if’) with a /k/ sound.

‘asked’ is pronounced:
– /ɑ:s/ before a consonant (‘asked them’) without a /k/ or a /t/ sound.
– /ɑ:st/ before a vowel (‘asked if’) without a /k/ sound.

So the only time you pronounce the ‘k’ in ask/asked is when ‘ask’ is followed by a vowel.

Also be careful with the vowel sound – it is long, open, relaxed /ɑ:/, but it is reduced due to the following voiceless consonants, so it isn’t as long as ‘card’ for example.

What happens if I get it wrong?

The most common mistake is to say something like /akst/ with the ‘k’ before the /s/. Literally this means ‘axed’, so the sentence ‘I asked him’ would become ‘I axed him’!

How to pronounce ‘have’.


The 5 pronunciations of ‘have’.

Number 3 in our top 5 most difficult one syllable words is ‘have’.

What’s the problem?

It looks simple enough, but hidden under the surface are many potential errors for the unprepared speaker! In fact there are 5 pronunciations of ‘have’ depending on its position, usage and subject:

1. /hæv/
This is the obvious pronunciation of ‘have’, but is in fact only used when it is a content word (main verb), like in ‘I’ll have a shower’, or ‘Do you have any money?’.

2. /həv/

This is ‘have’ when it is an unstressed auxiliary verb at the beginning of a sentence, like in ‘Have you seen the time?’, or ‘Have they finished?”. Ensure the vowel sound is weak schwa /ə/ when pronouncing this.

3. /əv/

This is ‘have’ when it is an unstressed auxiliary verb when not appearing at the beginning, like in ‘What have you done?’ or ‘The police have been here’. Notice that previous word will join onto this syllable as it starts with a vowel.

4. /hæf/
When ‘have’ is a modal obligation verb, it is pronounced with voiceless /f/ instead of /v/ like in ‘I have to go to work’ or ‘Her students have to work harder’.

5. /v/
After the pronouns ‘I’, ‘we’, or ‘they’, have is often contracted to simply /v/ when it is an auxiliary verb, like in ‘I’ve finished’ or ‘They’ve told us already’.

What happens if I get it wrong?

Mispronouncing ‘have’ will not normally cause misunderstanding, but it can stand out as a pronunciation error, most noticeably when Slavic and Latin speakers replace (or add) the sound /χ/ instead of /h/. In order to achieve fluent connected speech it is essential that learners of English master ‘have’ due to its frequency.

How to Pronounce ‘world’


‘World’ – the 4th most difficult 1 syllable word in English.

Have you ever struggled to say the word ‘world’? Look no further than today’s post:

What’s the problem?

This word contains a trickycombination of a difficult long vowel sound, three tricky consonants and a sneaky silent letter.

How do I get it right?

It should sound like /wɜ:ɫd/

1. Consonant Sound /w/
Round the lips, pull the tongue back and keep the teeth well away from the lips.

2. Long Neutral Vowel Sound /ɜ:/

This is the thinking vowel sound. It is like a long schwa /ə/, you literally relax the jaw, lips and tongue – your mouth should not move at all. The sound is full length in this word.

3. Silent /r/

Don’t say the < r > in ‘world’! Not even a tiny bit, it is completely silent as it is followed by a consonant.

4. Dark /ɫ/
The ‘l’ in world is dark because it comes after a vowel sound. Your tongue should raise at the back and the front, it is a very soft sound, not like the clear /l/ you find at the beginning of a word.

5. Voiced Alveolar Plosive /d/
Make sure your tongue touches the alveolar ridge (the gum behind the teeth, NOT the teeth). This sound must be voiced – if it sounds like a ‘t’, then it is wrong.

What happens if I get it wrong?

English students produce all sorts of strange pronunciations of this word, often it becomes confused with ‘word’, ‘ward’ and even ‘wall’.

How to Pronounce ‘Can’t’


‘Can’t’ – a dangerous word.

On this week’s blog we are counting down the 5 most difficult one syllable words in English pronunciation. At number 5 is ‘can’t – a dangerous word to get wrong!

What’s the problem?

This word comes with three noticeable pronunciation difficulties:

1. Vowel Sound – should be long /ɑ:/
2. Stress – this word cannot be weak. It will either be unstressed, stressed or tonic syllable.
3. Joining the ‘t’ – the ‘t’ at the end is often pronounced as a glottal stop /ʔ/

How do I get it right?

Vowel Sound /ɑ:/
Open your jaw fully, relax the lips, relax the tongue and make a long /ɑ:/ sound as in ‘car’ and ‘palm’. Don’t make /æ/ as in ‘cat’ and definitely don’t make /ʌ/ as in ‘cut’ (see why below).


The differing levels of stress are shown in the examples below:
UNSTRESSED ‘John can’t go!’
STRESSED ‘He can’t believe it’
TONIC SYLLABLE (Main Stress) ‘No, you can’t’.

Joining the ‘t’.
The ‘t’ will be pronounced before a following vowel sound:
‘can’t_I go?’
It will be pronounced as a glottal stop in other cases:
‘I can’t believe it.’

What happens if I get it wrong?

Unfortunately, if you get the vowel wrong, this word could become the rudest word in English (which we won’t write here). The following exchange would take on an entirely different tone.

A ‘Can I buy some ice cream’.
B ‘No you can’t’.

Upper Received Pronunciation

Eton College

How to speak Posh English / Upper RP.

On this week’s blog we have seen three accents well known to any resident of London – Cockney, Estuary and RP. There is one notable absentee from this list – colloquially termed ‘posh’. Technically this accent is known as ‘Upper Received Pronunciation’ and is widely associated with the English aristocracy and educational institutions such as Eton and Oxford.

The accent was also widely heard on the BBC in the first half of the 20th century as Lord Reith, the then director general of the BBC, promoted the accent in order to achieve a standard and ‘proper’ accent among presenters – an attitude that is openly rejected nowadays at the BBC, where regional accents are in demand.

Features of Upper RP

1. Full Articulation of Consonants.

Upper RP does not replace ‘t’ with glottal stops /ʔ/. To speak ‘posh’, you need to articulate fully all of the consonant sounds:
‘football’ is /fʊtbɔ:l/, ‘particularly’ is /pətɪkjuləli/

2. No ‘r’ Joining

Where most accents would use an ‘r’ sound to join words (‘mother_and daughter’), Upper RP would not, instead leaving a pause:
‘four ‘o’ clock’ is /fɔ: əʊ klɒk/ NOR /fɔ:r ə klɒk/.

Intrusive ‘r’ is impossible – ‘China_and India’ would not be connected.

3. Frontal Diphthong /əʊ/ 

The diphthong sound /əʊ/ from words such as ‘go’, ‘no’, ‘show’, ‘don’t’, shifts starting position from the centre-mid /ə/ to front-mid /ɛ/:
/gɛʊ/, /nɛʊ/, /ʃɛʊ/, /dɛʊnt/.

4. Weak Final /i/

Words ending in the weak /i/ sound, such as ‘finally‘ and ‘slowly‘ are pronounced with a more open /e/ sound:
/faɪnəle/, /sləʊle/.

5. /r/ Replaced by Alveolar Tap /ɾ/

Wherever an /r/ sound appears before a weak vowel (ə, ɪ, i, u), it is replaced by a tap /ɾ/ (this is very clear in the 2nd video below):

‘very’ becomes /veɾe/, ‘horror’ becomes /hɒɾə/

Who speaks ‘posh’?

It is not possible to attribute ‘posh’ to a particular region of England, but it is often indicative of a high social class or of particular educational institutions. It is also often reported in the media that people alter their accents to achieve higher social or employment status. The current conservative government has several Upper RP speakers, most notably Jacob Rees-Mogg (who hails from Somerset):

A longer example is from the 90s television series ‘House of Cards’ about a fictional Prime Minister:

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