Let’s talk about this little letter here: s.
When you see it, you should pronounce it like “s,” right?
If only English were that simple!
In this article and video, we’re going to talk about how to pronounce words ending in -s and -es.
There are actually three possible pronunciations of these two endings on plural nouns, third person singular verbs, contractions, and possessives: /s/, /z/, and /ɪz/.
The -s suffix and ‘s contraction can be tricky for non-native English speakers, so let’s go back to basics.
Let’s fix this common pronunciation mistake so that people understand you better and you sound more natural.
How to Pronounce the -s and -es Endings in English
If you speak a phonetic language, or a language that’s pronounced the way it looks, English can be more than a little bit frustrating.
Why does the -s suffix sound like /s/ or /z/? And why does the -es ending actually sound like /ɪz/?
Getting the sound right is essential for communicating your meaning clearly.
Choosing the wrong sound can confuse your listener because it can actually sound like another word, or even sound incomplete. Let’s break it down.
As I mentioned in my video on how to pronounce the -ed ending, we actually choose the appropriate pronunciation, /s/, /z/, or /ɪz/, based on the sound at the end of the main word.
The letters don’t matter, only the sound does.
We choose /s/, /z/, or /ɪz/ based on how we move our mouth and our voice box to form the sound.
In other words, we choose the sound that’s most efficient for our mouth, jaw, tongue, and voice box.
Understanding Voiced and Voiceless Sounds for the -s Suffix and ‘s Contraction
We can separate sounds into two categories: voiced and voiceless sounds.
Voiced sounds are the ones produced by vibrating your vocal cords within your voice box.
Voiceless sounds are produced without using your voice box.
In order to decide whether or not a sound is voiced or voiceless, you have to understand how the sound is produced within your body.
That’s why you want to take your hand and place it over your voice box.
That’s right: take your hand and place it on your neck.
This has the added bonus of helping you physically remember how the sound is made.
And you don’t have to memorize a list of rules! You can always remember how the sound is made in your throat.
Before we start practicing, I want to remind you that we’re trying to feel whether or not our vocal cords vibrate on the final sound of the word.
Don’t get confused by the vowel sounds that come before the final sound – those will vibrate.
You want the sound at the end. Let’s get started.
Practicing the -s Ending After Voiceless Sounds: /s/
Let’s start with voiceless sounds. First, let’s look at the word “map.”
Let’s try the sound at the end of the word: /p/. Repeat it a few times: /p/, /p/, /p/.
Do you feel your voice box vibrating on the /p/ sound?
No, it doesn’t vibrate, which means it’s a voiceless sound.
Now let’s try the /s/ sound. Try saying it a few times: /s/, /s,/, /s/.
Feel your voice box. Is it vibrating when you say /s/? Nope!
We use the /s/ sound after other voiceless sounds because we can flow smoothly into that following sound.
Going back to our example, that means the plural of “map” is “maps,” followed by the /s/ sound.
Try saying it: /mæps/, /mæps/, /mæps/.
Let’s try another word: cat. “Cat” ends in the /t/ sound.
Let’s try it: /t/, /t/, /t/. Do you notice your voice box vibrating?
Once again, it’s not vibrating. That’s because /t/ is a voiceless sound.
Let’s add the /s/ ending to the plural of “cat”: cats, or /kæts/, /kæts/, /kæts/.
The /t/ sound flows smoothly into the /s/ sound.
Here’s another one: pick. The sound at the end is /k/. Try saying it: /k/, /k/, /k/.
Do you feel a vibration from your vocal cords? Once again, you don’t.
That means the third person singular version of this verb is “picks.”
It’s followed by the /s/ sound: /pɪks/, /pɪks/, /pɪks/.
Here’s another example: laugh. As you can see, this word is spelled differently than it sounds.
Laugh ends in the /f/ sound: /f/, /f/, /f/. Do you feel your voice box vibrating on this sound?
Once again, there’s no vibration because the /f/ sound is also voiceless.
The third person singular form of this verb is “laughs,” or /læfs/, /læfs/, /læfs/.
Pronouncing the ‘s (Apostrophe S) After Possessives and Contractions
Let’s try an example of a possessive. “Kate” is a common name in English, and it ends in the /t/ sound.
As you’ve already discovered, the /t/ sound is voiceless, which means we use the /s/ sound for the possessive form: Kate’s, or /keɪts/, /keɪts/, /keɪts/.
This rule also works for contractions. For example, take a look at the word “that.”
When we contract “that” with “is” it sounds like that’s, or /ðæts/.
That’s because /t/ is a voiceless sound: /ðæts/, /ðæts/, /ðæts/.
Try it in a simple sentence: That’s really cool! That’s Kate’s book.
Practicing the -s Ending After Voiced Sounds: /z/
Now let’s move on to voiced sounds. Voiced sounds are the ones where your voice box vibrates.
Let’s try the word “move.” Move ends in the /v/ sound. Can you feel your voice box vibrating on that sound?
Try it: /v/, /v/, /v/. Yes, you can!
Now let’s try the /z/ sound. Do your vocal cords vibrate?
Let’s try it: /z/, /z/, /z/. Yes, they do!
/z/ is a voiced sound, which means it follows other voiced sounds.
Once again, this helps us be more efficient when producing these sounds.
The third person singular of “move” is “moves”: /muvz/, /muvz/, /muvz/.
Here’s another one: road. “Road” ends in the /d/ sound: /d/, /d/, /d/.
You can feel your voice box vibrating, right?
That means the plural of “road” is “roads,” with the /z/ sound at the end: /roʊdz/, /roʊdz/, /roʊdz/.
Let’s try another: plan. “Plan” ends in the /n/ sound: /n/, /n/, /n/.
Can you feel your voice box vibrating? Yes, you can!
This means the third person singular, or the plural, should be plans, or /plænz/, /plænz/, /plænz/
The /z/ sound follows a voiced sound.
Here’s another: call. “Call” ends in the /l/ sound: /l/, /l/, /l/.
Can you feel it vibrating? Yup.
That means the third person singular should be “calls”: /kɔlz/, /kɔlz/, /kɔlz/.
Now let’s try a possessive, or a contraction, or both. Let’s look at my name: Kim. Kim ends in /m/.
Try saying it: /m/, /m/, /m/. You can feel your voice box vibrating, am I right?
When we add apostrophe -s to my name, such as when we say “Kim’s video,” or “Kim’s on her way,” we add the /z/ sound to the end: /kɪmz/, /kɪmz/, /kɪmz/.
Pronouncing the -S Ending After Vowel Sounds
Let’s look at the word “try.” It ends in a vowel sound, /aɪ/, /aɪ/, /aɪ/.
You’ll notice that the /aɪ/ sound is also voiced.
In fact, all vowel sounds are voiced.
That means the third person singular, or the plural, of the word “try” is “tries”: /traɪz/, /traɪz/, /traɪz/.
Now let’s move on to the pronoun “she.” “She” ends in the /i/ sound: /i/, /i/, /i/.
You can feel your voice box vibrating, right?
That means that the contraction of “she and “is” is she’s: /ʃiz/, /ʃiz/, /ʃiz/.
You’ll notice the same thing for a possessive. For example, with the name “Laura,” you’ll notice the “uh” sound, or the schwa, at the end: /ə/, /ə/, /ə/.
Another voiced vowel. That means the possessive form will be Laura’s, with a /z/ at the end: /ˈlɔrəz/, /ˈlɔrəz/, /ˈlɔrəz/.
Practicing the -es Ending After Certain Sounds: /ɪz/
Now let’s talk about the -es ending. Despite how it’s spelled, the -es ending actually sounds like /ɪz/.
This is because it’s a reduction.
The -es ending on plural nouns or third person singular verbs will never be stressed.
When we reduce sounds, they actually sound like the schwa sound /ə/ or the /ɪ/ sound.
In this case, the -es ending sounds like /ɪz/.
We add /iz/ to words that end in the following sounds: /s/, /z/, /ks/, /ʃ/, /tʃ/, /dʒ/.
The reason we add /ɪz/ has to do with the way we move our mouths to form these sounds.
/ɪz/ adds an extra syllable to the end of the word, which gives us more time to make the distinction.
For example, with the word “miss,” you wouldn’t be able to clearly hear that it’s the third person singular version of this verb without that extra sound.
Try it without it: missss, missssss, misssssss. It doesn’t sound right.
That’s why you need to add the /ɪz/: misses, or /’mɪsɪz/.
The meaning is clear when we add that extra syllable: /’mɪsɪz/, /’mɪsɪz/, /’mɪsɪz/.
Let’s try another one: close.
Even though the word contains the letter “s,” it actually sounds like the /z/ sound: /kloʊz/.
The plural is “closes”: /’kloʊzɪz/, /’kloʊzɪz/, /’kloʊzɪz/.
The extra syllable gives us time to make sure that we’re clear that it is the third person singular version
What about “mix”?
When we make this word plural, or turn it into the third person singular version, it sounds like mixes, or /’mɪksɪz/, /’mɪksɪz/, /’mɪksɪz/.
Let’s look at “wash.” Once again, we need to add /iz/ to the end: washes, or /’wɑʃɪz/, /’wɑʃɪz/, /’wɑʃɪz/.
Here’s another one: teach. The third person singular version is “teaches,” or /’titʃɪz/, /’titʃɪz/, /’titʃɪz/.
Once again, we’re adding /ɪz/ to the end.
One last example: edge. We’re going to add /ɪz/ to the end: edges, or /’ɛdʒɪz/, /’ɛdʒɪz/, /’ɛdʒɪz/.
Word Stress and the -es Ending
A quick reminder about word stress: When you’re pronouncing words that add that extra /ɪz/ sound, make sure to pay attention to word stress.
The main word should be stressed, and the /ɪz/ ending should be reduced.
For example, “washes,” “teaches,” and “changes” should sound like /’wɑʃɪz/, /’titʃɪz/, and /’tʃeɪndʒɪz/.
You want to make sure you lengthen the vowel sound on the stressed syllable of that word: /’wɑʃɪz/, /’titʃɪz/, /’tʃeɪndʒɪz/.
For longer words that end in these sounds, you want to make sure you identify which syllable should be stressed.
Be sure to review my video on word stress in American English for more guidance.
Now that you’ve learned the three different ways we pronounce the -s and -es endings on plural nouns, third person singular verbs, possessives, and contractions, it’s time to practice.
If you’re not sure how to pronounce the -s ending on nouns or verbs, be sure to take your hand and place it on your voice box in order to decide whether or not your vocal cords are vibrating on the final sound of that word.
It’s the quickest and easiest way to know how to pronounce the word accurately!
If you’re not sure if you’re making mistakes with the -s or -es ending, pay attention to whether or not people understand you when you’re pronouncing plurals or you’re pronouncing third person singular verbs, possessives, or contractions.
When you drop the ending entirely, or you pronounce /s/ when you should say /z/, or /z/ when you should say /s/, it can confuse your listener.
The word may sound like a different word, or it will simply sound “off.”
If you catch yourself mispronouncing the word, don’t be afraid to repeat yourself with the correct sound at the end.
For more practice on voiced and voiceless sounds, be sure to check out my video on how to pronounce the -ed ending on past tense verbs.