All languages have rules. If you speak English as a second language, then you probably learned the rules of English grammar by studying and practicing until they came automatically. Just as there are rules of grammar, there are rules of pronunciation. These pronunciation rules affect the way native speakers produce the sounds of English. This post is about one of those rules in particular, which can improve your pronunciation of spoken English so listeners can hear your ideas, not your accent.

This rule has to do with the voice. As you may know, some sounds are produced with voice, and some sounds are produced without voice. (These are often referred to as voiceless sounds.) If you are not sure if a sound has voice or not, try saying the sound while feeling with your hand on the front of your throat. If you feel a vibration, that is your voice. If you do not feel a vibration, the sound is voiceless.

Voiced sounds include vowels and roughly half the consonants. Most consonants have a voiced and a voiceless version. For example, /z/ is voiced, but /s/ is not. Besides the voiced/voiceless difference, these sounds are exactly the same.

But back to that rule. Here it is:

A sound that follows a voiced sound will also be voiced.

Sounds simple, right? This rule is of particular importance in English, because of a couple of commonly-used grammatical forms. When we add an S to the end of a word, either because we’re conjugating a verb in the third person singular (he/she/it…) or because we’re making a noun plural, that S is often pronounced as its voiced counterpart /z/, if the sound before it is a voiced sound. If -es has been added to a word to make it plural, it is always pronounced as uh + z. The voiced schwa (written here as ‘uh’) turns the S into a /z/ sound. When we add -ed to apply the past tense to a word, that /d/ actually turns into the unvoiced /t/ if the sound before it is a voiceless sound.

Grammatical Form If the sound before it is voiced If the sound before it is voiceless
Plural -s S is pronounced as Z S is pronounced as S
3rd person singular verb -s S is pronounced as Z S is pronounced as S
Past tense -ed -ed is pronounced as -d* -ed is pronounced as -t*

*After /t/ or /d/, the past tense ending -ed is pronounced as -id, as in the words added, collected, demanded, expected, painted, and sounded.

 

Test Yourself

In the following sentences, a word with one of these endings is in bold, with the ending underlined. How should the ending be pronounced? Scroll down to see the answers.

  1. He backed up the truck.
  2. Some people are afraid of snakes.
  3. The chef fries the potatoes.
  4. The dictator banged his fist on the podium.
  5. Do you have the rings?
  6. The mosquito bites itched.
  7. She walked up the stairs.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Answers

  1. backed = t  2. snakes = s  3. fries = z  4. banged = d  5. rings = z  6. bites = s, itched = t  7. walked = t, stairs = z