Strong vs Weak Pronunciation Forms of English Words

English is a stress-timed language. This means some words are stressed when we speak, while others are not. To understand more of this, let us learn about the strong vs weak pronunciation forms of words in English.

We use the strong form when we pronounce the word alone or when we want to emphasize them. Thus, stressed words carry a strong form.

In the English language, a word takes its strong form when we:

A. Pronounce the word alone
B. Put emphasis on the word

Ready? Now, let’s learn the strong vs weak pronunciation of words in English.

Interestingly, we group English words into two categories: Content Words and Functions Words. When knowing the characteristics of such words, you need to always a couple of very important things. Content words are always strong, meaning they always receive stress in the sentence.

Functions words are naturally weak or unstressed in the sentence. However, they can also become some in certain situations.

As previously mentioned, content words are generally stressed.

Content words include the following words:

– Nouns
– Main verbs
– Adjectives
– Adverbs
– Question words
– Negative auxiliaries

On the other hand, weak forms are pronounced with a schwa sound, making them weak and almost muted. English words are weak in form when they are:

A. Pronounced with a schwa sound
B. Almost muted

Function words, on the contrary, are unstressed. These words include most of the grammar words.

The function words we have in English are:

– Articles
– Prepositions
– Conjunctions
– Relatives
– Pronouns
– Auxiliaries
– Possessive Adjectives
– Modal Verbs

Strong and Weak Pronunciation Forms of English Words in a Sentence

But always remember the function word is not always weak. There are a couple of situations in which they can become strong depending on their position in the sentence. Also, it becomes strong when we want to emphasize it in the sentence. We are going to discuss this one later on in the article.

In the meantime, let’s check out the following sentences below, and let’s identify which words are stressed and which ones are unstressed?

I can bring a bottle of wine to the party.
The women bought some water.
I can’t be late for my appointment.

In the first sentence, stressed words include the main verb “bring”, and the nouns “bottle”, “wine”, and “party”. The rest of the words are just function words and should be unstressed.

I cən bring ə bottle əf wine tə thə party.

When we read the words in the sentence individually, we can put stress on each word. But that is not how we read a sentence in English. Why? It’s simply because English is a non-syllabic language, unlike Japanese or Korean.

The Non-Syllabic Nature of the English Language

We link and reduce words in the sentence to make it sound more natural and pleasant to the ears.

Let’s check out the sentences below and compare the wrong and the right way of reading the sample sentence.

I can bring a bottle of wine to the party.
❌ / aɪ kæn brɪŋ bɑː.t̬əl ɑːv waɪn tu: ði: pɑːr.t̬i/

I can bring a bottle of wine to the party.
/ aɪ kən brɪŋə bɑː.t̬ələv waɪn ðə pɑːr.t̬i/

Note: The function words took their weak form and linking is being applied.

In the second sentence, stressed words include the nouns “women” and “water”, and the verb “bought”. The rest of the words are unstressed.

Thə women bought səme water.

In the third sentence, stressed words include the negative auxiliary “can’t”, the adjective “late”, and the noun “appointment”. The rest of the words are unstressed.

I can’t late fər appointment.

Generally, we use the strong form of the function words to emphasize very important information in the sentence. In some cases, the technically unstressed function word becomes strong or stressed in the sentence if they’re found at the end of the sentence or the question.

Important Reminder: We use the strong form of the function words to emphasize very important information in the sentence.

For example:

Are they from Japan?
Yes, they are.

(/ ɚ/ = weak form)

Yes, they are.

( /ɑːr/ = strong form)

There are also common English words that have both strong and weak pronunciation forms. Here are a few examples.

CAN

Strong form /kæn/                    Weak form /kən/
We know you can.                      Can we sit here?

BUT

Strong form /bʌt/                      Weak form /bət/
She’s but a fool.                          He is good, but not intelligent.

THAT

Strong form /ðæt/                     Weak form /ðət/
That is David’s car.                    I think that we should get a new one.

THE

Strong form /ði/                         Weak form /ðə/
They ate the apples.                   She dislikes the man.

AT

Strong form /æt/                         Weak form /ət/
What are you looking at?           I’ll see you at noon.

When can a function word become strong in the sentence?

As mentioned earlier, there are chances when the function word becomes strong in the sentence. You would ask me how can they become strong when they are not stressed? Here’s how.

1. A function word can become strong when they are found at the end of the sentence.

For example:

Where are you from?
I’m from the Philippines.

2. It becomes strong when it’s a negative.

For example:

I can speak English.
I can’t speak English.

3. When it is an auxiliary or modal substitute or when it includes the main verb.

For example:

I can’t speak English but my friend can.

4. When we use double stress for emphasis.

For example:

I do like your car.
This hat isn’t yours. It’s hers!

Conclusion

In conclusion, the strong and weak pronunciation form of words in English depends on what kind of words they are. Always remember that we categorized the words into two in English: Content and Function Words.

Content words are words that receive stress in the sentence. They are strong. Content words are nouns, main verbs, adjectives, adverbs, question words, and negative auxiliaries.

On the other hand, function words are technically unstressed although they can be strong sometimes. These words are mainly grammar words. They are articles, prepositions, conjunctions, relatives, pronouns, auxiliaries, possessive adjectives, and modal verbs.

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