Can you relate to this experience?
You see a word all the time in writing. You know what it means and how to use it.
But then when you go to say it, you realize that you actually don’t feel confident pronouncing it out loud.
You stumble over the word, hoping that you got it close enough so that the other person understands you.
Don’t worry – we’ve all been there!
That’s why I’m going to share my best tips for figuring out how to clearly say new or unfamiliar words.
This will also help with any tricky or challenging words you’ve been struggling to pronounce.
Let’s get started!
Tips for Looking Up New, Unfamiliar, or Tricky Words
When you come across a new, unfamiliar, or tricky word, and you want to figure out how to say it clearly, start by looking it up.
You can simply enter it into Google, check your favorite dictionary, or use an app, whichever is easiest for you.
When you look at the entry for the word you want to look for the phonetic spelling of the word.
That’s the version of the word that often has interesting symbols.
It’s important to remember that English is not a phonetically consistent language, which means the letters aren’t always pronounced the way they look.
That’s why you can find this alternate version of the word in any dictionary.
The IPA, or International Phonetic Alphabet, uses symbols to help people recognize sounds across languages.
When you’re looking at phonetic versions of words, pay special attention to the vowel sounds.
As you continue to look at the phonetic transcriptions of words, you’ll start to remember what the vowel symbols look like.
(That’s actually how I learned to use the IPA myself.)
If you’re still not sure, you can listen to someone reading the word to double check the vowels.
Identifying Stressed Syllables Using Phonetic Symbols
So now that you have the phonetic spelling of the word, I want you to look for the symbol that looks like an apostrophe (ˈ) at the top of the word.
Let’s start with this example: /ˌrɛdʒɪˈstreɪʃən/
This ˈ symbol signals the stressed syllable, which is the syllable that’s pronounced the most clearly in the entire word.
When we stress a syllable, we make its vowel sound the longest, the loudest, and the highest in pitch.
We make an effort to clearly pronounce this vowel sound.
We actually relax and put less effort into the rest of the syllables.
When you’re trying to figure out how to clearly say a word, you want to find and focus on this stressed vowel sound.
Quite honestly, the rest of the sounds don’t matter as much.
Don’t get me wrong – they matter, but not as much.
If there are consonant sounds that surround this syllable, they should also be clearly pronounced because they influence the stressed vowel sound.
They’re like bookends framing either side of the vowel sound.
Practice Clearly Saying the Stressed Vowel Sound
Let’s look at our example word: registration or /ˌrɛdʒɪˈstreɪʃən/.
In this example, the stressed syllable is “stra” or /streɪ/.
Try saying this syllable clearly by making sure you pronounce the sounds to the best of your ability.
You want to really use your mouth on this syllable: STRA, /ˈstreɪ/, STRA, /streɪ/
Remember, you can hold the stressed syllable for longer, which gives you time to fully form the vowel and the sounds around it.
Your pitch will also be higher and your volume will be louder.
Think of this sound as a burst of energy.
You’re directing people’s attention to this syllable.
Now that you’re comfortable saying this syllable, let’s add in more of the word:
- STRA /ˈstreɪ/
- STRAtion /ˈstreɪʃən/
- giSTRAtion /dʒɪˈstreɪʃən/
- regiSTRAtion /ˌrɛdʒɪˈstreɪʃən/
Build Tricky Words From the Stressed Syllable
Let’s look at another word: appreciate or /əˈpriʃiˌeɪt/.
Let’s find the stressed syllable of this word.
Remember to use the apostrophe-like symbol to help you identify it: PRE, /ˈpri/, PRE, /pri/
Next, fill in the end of the word one syllable at a time:
- PRE /pri/
- PREci /ˈpriʃi/
- PREciate /ˈpriʃiˌeɪt/
Now let’s add the first syllable: apPREciate or /əˈpriʃiˌeɪt/.
If you feel like the first syllable isn’t particularly clear, you’re right.
The vowel sound in the first syllable is actually the schwa sound or /ə/, which is a very short, very relaxed “uh” sound.
Because this vowel is not being stressed, the vowel sound is reduced until it’s barely there.
Create Clear Contrast to Clearly Say Words
By focusing on the stressed syllable and relaxing on the rest, we’re creating clear contrast.
We listen for this stressed syllable to identify a word.
By putting less effort into the rest of the syllables, you’re allowing the most important one to shine.
This is great news for you if you find it tricky to pronounce certain sounds, as they can often hide behind the stressed syllable.
Besides that, carefully pronouncing each and every syllable can be exhausting for your mouth.
If you give every sound equal importance in English, nothing stands out, and it can be challenging for other people to understand the word.
Practice Saying Words By Focusing on the Stressed Syllable
Let’s try this approach with a few more words.
thermometer or /θərˈmɑmətər/:
- MO /mɑ/
- MOme /ˈmɑmə/
- MOmeter /ˈmɑmətər/
- therMOmeter /θərˈmɑmətər/
analysis or /əˈnæləsɪs/:
- NAL /næl/
- NALy /ˈnælə/
- NALysis /ˈnæləsɪs/
- aNALysis /əˈnæləsɪs/
refrigerator or /rɪˈfrɪdʒəˌreɪtər/:
- FRI /frɪ/
- FRIge /ˈfrɪdʒə/
- FRIgera /ˈfrɪdʒəˌreɪ/
- FRIgerator /ˈfrɪdʒəˌreɪtər/
- reFRIgerator /rɪˈfrɪdʒəˌreɪtər/
Focus on Getting the Vowel Sounds Close Enough
Here’s a quick note about vowels:
If you can believe it, there are 15 vowel sounds in American English.
Besides that, regional dialects can influence and slightly change the pronunciation of these vowels.
That’s why you’re trying to get the sounds as close as possible, but it’s okay if there’s some variation between how you say the sounds and how someone else says them.
Let’s look at a couple more words.
supervise or /ˈsupərˌvaɪz/:
- SU /su/
- SUper /ˈsupər/
- supervise /ˈsupərˌvaɪz/
society or /səˈsaɪəti/:
- CI /saɪ/
- CIe /ˈsaɪə/
- CIety /ˈsaɪəti/
- soCIety /səˈsaɪəti/
Just so you know, working from the stressed syllable is a slightly different approach than you may learn elsewhere.
Some people practice words by frontchaining, or working from the first syllable and moving to the end.
Others suggest backchaining, which means you start from the end and move towards the front.
Since the stressed syllable is the most important for clear pronunciation, I encourage you to start from the stressed vowel sound and then build the word from there.
As always, find what works best for you.
Pay Attention to Contrast Figuring Out How to Say New Words
When you’re figuring out how to say new words clearly, pay attention to contrast.
Sometimes unfamiliar words look intimidating because you feel like you have to clearly pronounce each and every sound in the word.
But as you’ve seen, your goal is to get the stressed syllable as accurate as possible.
You can relax and do less work on the rest of the syllables.
Let them fade into the background a little bit.
Now that you understand how to figure out the pronunciation of a word by starting with this stressed syllable, think of a word that’s been tricky for you.
See if you can figure out how to say it more clearly by identifying and clearly pronouncing the stressed vowel sound, then build the rest of the word from the stressed syllable.
For more tips that will help you if you have trouble pronouncing words, check out this video.
To get started with word stress, sentence stress, and thought groups, head over to Find Your Flow When Speaking English.
If you’re ready to practice stress with me, check out Stress Simplified. You’ll find over 50 practice exercises to help you feel more confident stressing words in American English.