American English Phonetics

Another American English Faculty Project

In this section, we discuss the spelling characteristics of a number of consonants that are often confused.

/θ/ or /ð/ ?

Note first of all that the only way that these phonemes can be spelled is th(e), but that th may also represent /t/. It does so in the following words:

posthumous – /ˈpɑːstjəməs/

thyme – /taɪm/

Chatham – t͡ʃæt̬əm/

Esther – /ˈɛstər/

Mathilda – /məˈtɪldə/

Thames – /tɛmz/

Theresa – /təˈriːsə/

Thomas – /ˈtɑːməs/

Thom(p)son – /ˈtɑːmpsən/

Thai(land) – /ˈtaɪ(lænd)/


Anthony – /ˈænθəni/

In words other than these, the situation is as follows:

Initial th (/ð/) only occurs in function words:

the – /ðə/

this – /ðɪs/

that – /ðæt/

these – /ðiːz/

those – /ðoʊz/

they – /ðeɪ/

them – /ðɛm/

their(s) – /ðɛr(z)/

there – /ðɛr/

then – /ðɛn/

than – /ðæn/

thus – /ðʌs/

(al)though – /ðoʊ/

All other words with initial th have /θ/ (‘major-class words’).

think – /θɪŋk/

thumb – /θʌm/

thorough – /ˈθɜroʊ/

  • Initial th: /ð/ only occurs in function words: the, this (/ðɪs/), that, these, those, they, them, their(s), there, then, than, thus, (al)though. (In Archaic English also thou, thee, thine, thy, thither, and thence.) All other words with initial th have /θ/: think, thumb, thorough, etc. (‘major-class words’).
  • Medial th: /ð/ normally occurs in words of Germanic origin, like gather, leather, mother, while /θ/ normally occurs in words that have come into English from Greek or Latin, like author, method, pathos /ˈpeɪθɑːs/. However, rhythm and logarithm have /ð/.
  • Final -the: always represents /ð/. Final -th almost always represents /θ/, except in to mouth and smooth. The verb to bequeath (nalaten van erfenis) has either /ð/ or /θ/.

Note: In the following cases a word with final /θ/ has a related word with /ð/: (north) northern/ˈnɔrðərn/, (south) southern /sʌðərn/, worthy/ˈwɔrði/. The word smithy (smidse) has either /ð/ or /θ/.

/s/ or /z/ ?

First of all, note that ss, c, sc represent /s/, as in lesson, mice, science.
In a number of words ss represents /z/, however. These are dessert /dɪˈzɜrt/ (id.), dissolve, hussar /hʊˈzɑr/, posses(ion) /pəˈzɛs, pəˈzɛʃn/ and scissors /ˈsɪzərz/.

Secondly, note that final s represents /s/, except:

  • in the words as, does, has, his, is, was
  • in lens, series (/ˈsɪriːz/ ag. And pl.), species (/ˈspiːʃiːz/ or /ˈspiːsiːz/ biologische soort, sg, and pl.), Mrs /ˈmɪsɪz/ and Ms (/mɪz/, used to avoid a choice between Miss and Mrs);
  • in many proper names geographical names, like Dickens, Knowles, Leeds, Williams. Note that Greek names in –es have / /i:z/, like Socrates (/ˈsɑːkrətiːz/), Ulysses (/ˈjuːləsiːz/), and Latin names in –us have /əs/, like Brutus, Tiberius (/taɪˈbɪriəs/).

Thirdly, note that ns is almost always /ns/, as in defensive, consonant, rinse, while rs is /rs/ conversation, university, coarse, except in –rsion, where /rʒən/ is used (e.g. immersion).
The following words are exceptional, because they end in /z/, not /s/: lens, to cleanse, Mars.
The prefix trans– has either /z/ or /s/.

Fourth, s before b, d, m, 1 usually represents /z/, as in husband, wisdom, prism, muslin (/ˈmʌzlɪn/ neteldoek, katoen).


  • For s as the plural of nouns or as the third person sg. of verbs there are separate rules: see 2.1.
  • In some words -s is not pronounced, as in chassis /ˈʃæsi/, Illinois /ɪləˈnɔɪ/, etc.
  • The prefix mis is always /mɪs/. The prefix dis is always /dɪs/, except when an accented vowel immediately follows, in which case usage varies between /dɪz/ and /dɪs/. Examples are dishonest and disorder. Note that disaster, disease, dismal and dissolve are pronounced with /z/: /dɪˈzæstr̩, dɪˈziːz, dɪzml/ and /dɪˈzɑːlv/.

/ʃ/ or /ʒ/ ?

/ʃ/ in Ci, ti, Csi, Csu /ʒ/ in Vsion, Vsu, Vzu, rsion
musician, Confucian vision, evasion
attention, nation measure, usual
mission, tension seizure
pressure, censure excursion, version

/g/ or /d͡ʒ/ ?

Before i, e and y, the letter g represents either / d͡ʒ /, as in German, or /g/, as in Gertrude.
In other situations, only /g/ occurs, as in bargain (n/v: koopje; onderhandelen), goal. An exception is margarine /ˈmɑrd͡ʒərɪn/). Note that veg /vɛd͡ʒ/ is short for vegetable(s) /ˈvɛd͡ʒ(ə)təbl(z)/.

/f/ or /v/ ?

f, ph only represent /v/ in Stephen(son) and of (/ʌv/ or /əv/, see Chapter 7.) In Stephen some speakers use /f/ (spelling pronunciation).

/j/ or /d͡ʒ/ ?

Initial j is always / d͡ʒ /, as in jam, jet, Jones, while initial y is always /j/, as in yet, yoke.

‘Silent’ Letters

  1. There is no /h/ in:

    • herb, heir, honest, honor, hour and their derivatives. (NB Herb(ert) hs an /h/!);
    • exhaust /ɪgˈzɑːst/ (n/v: uitlaat; uitputten), exhibit /ɛgˈzɪbɪt/ (n/v: tentoongesteld voorwerp; vertonen), exhibition /ˈɛksəˈbɪʃn/, exhilarate /ɪgˈzɪləreɪt/ (verblijden, opvrolijken), exhort /ɪgˈzɔrt/ (aansporen) and their derivatives;
    • annihilate /ənˈaɪəleɪt/ (vernietigen), shepherd, vehement /ˈviːəmənt/, vehicle /ˈviːəkl/.
  2. Word-final -gm and -gn are pronounced /m/ and /n/ respectively: diaphragm /ˈdaɪəfræm/, deign /deɪn/, reign /reɪn/, sign.
  3. Word-initial kn-, gn, and mn- are /n/: knight, gnat, mnemonic /niˈmɑːnɪk/noun/ adj.: ezelsbruggetje; geheugen-)
  4. Word-final -mb and -mn are pronounced /m/: climb, limb /lɪm/, plumb(er) /ˈplʌm(r̩)/, comb /koʊm/, tomb /tuːm/, womb /wuːm/ (baarmoeder); autumn, condemn, solemn, etc. However, /mn/ occurs in derivations like autumnal, condemnation, solemnity /səˈlɛmnəti/, etc.
  5. Word-initial ps- is /s/: psyche /ˈsaɪki/, pseudo /ˈsuːdoʊ/.
  6. Word-final -ten is pronounced /n̩/ after s and f: hasten, moisten, soften. Often /ɑːfn̩/ has an alternative pronunciation /ˈɑːftən/.
  7. Word-final -tle is pronounced /l̩/ after s: castle, jostle (tegen iemand aan­duwen), thistle, mistletoe.
  8. There is no /w/ in who(m), whose, whole, whooping-cough, whore and in words beginning with wr (wrench, write, wrong).
  9. There is no /b/ in debt, doubt, subtle(ty) /ˈsʌtl(ti)/.

Place Name Suffixes

The following regularities may be noted with respect to place name suffixes: -borough, -burgh are /bɜroʊ/: Middlesborough, Peterborough. A British-type /ˈɛdnbɜrə/ would be used for the well-known capital of Scotland, however. -bury is /bɛri/, as in Canterbury, Shaftesbury. (Note that also berry is pronounced this way; as in cranberry, strawberry.)