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auxiliar verbs am, are, be, been, can, could, do, does, has, had, shall, should, was, were, would,
prepositions at, for, from, of, to,
pronouns he, her, him, his, me, she, them, us, we, you,
conjunctions for, and, but, or, than, that,
articles a, the, an,
It is worth noting that there are some function words that don’t have weak forms, such as a stranded preposition, as in the example where are you going TO? , where the word to cannot be in its weak form. Function words are closed class items, that is that this limited group of words is exhaustive, and that we can’t make up new ones, whereas open class words (as most content word types are) are invented all the time! See Wikipedia on this for more detail.
These function words have strong forms which are pronounced with their dictionary form—this is the pronunciation we use when we talk about the word. This involves a stressed, full form of its vowel. In their weak form, many of these vowels are reduced all the way to the center of the mouth, the schwa vowel. The indefinite article “A”, is only pronounced with its strong form [eɪ] when we are emphasizing it. Normally it’s just pronounced with a schwa, [ə] . In some cases, weak forms can be reduced by dropping certain sounds from their pronunciation, such as him, her pronounced as ‘im, ‘er. In other cases, vowels are dropped and final continuant consonants like l, n, or m, become syllabic, so words like shall become sh’ll [ʃɫ̩]. Can you work out the strong form of these words?
[ ðə, əm, bɪn, ɪm, ənd, ðəm, ɪz, ðət, ʃɫ, ðn]
So what does this have to do with intelligibility? The basic idea is that we need to find a balance between strong forms and weak forms. Stressed forms are a way of emphasizing words, particularly for function words, so if we need to stress a function word we use its strong dictionary form. But otherwise we don’t use its strong dictionary form and we need to reduce those words appropriately so they don’t stand out. Unfortunately some people are mistaken, and believe that they need to stress these weak form words in order to be clear. Adding emphasis to unimportant function words is a way of making your text less clear, and more confusing. Frequently you can hear journalists or news readers reading their way through a newscast, choosing to emphasize unimportant function words as a way to keep their reading “interesting sounding”. It’s so common that I think most of us have become immune to this strange way of reading aloud! I also tend to hear people who were taught to read aloud as children. Forensics programs teach kids to make presentations, and when they read aloud they frequently are told to elevate articles like the word “the” to their stressed form, “thee”. Unless we mean to say “that particular one”, we should always make this word by using the pronunciation with schwa. It is worth noting that when we hesitate, we do elevate indefinite and definite articles, a and the, to their strong form just before a pause. So though we might say “I bought a dog,” if we hesitated before saying dog, we would say “I bought A… dog” and use the [eɪ] pronunciation.
More formal registers, like those that come with speaking classical text or verse, demand that we avoid these forms. However, they do not require that we avoid weak forms altogether! I recall coaching the voice work on a production of Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller, and the director was insisting that the word “to” in all instances must be pronounced in its strong form, as [tu] always, never [tə] or even [tʊ]. The actors that she hired were very adept at giving her what she wanted (which was no mean feat), but their language sounded stilted, and confusing, as they continued to draw attention to words that weren’t important to their message. What had been adopted as Good Speech was merely an obstacle to the audience’s deeper involvement and engagement with the ideas of the play.
Where’s My Exercise?
OK, I get it. I’ve trained you to want an exercise you can apply this concept with! Here you go:
Start with a text you are familiar with. Let’s use the start of the most famous Shakespearean soliloquy of all time:
To be, or not to be, that is the question, Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them.
Try these steps with the text:
Speak the text, making all the words their strong, dictionary form, even going so far as to dial “the” up to “thee”, and “a” up to “eh”.
Explore the text being very emphatic with your point, and emphasize as many words as possible, but not the function words.
Try to emphasize only one or two words per line, and reduce all the function words as much as you can.
Try eliding words together, like “That’s the question.”
Could you get away with a fully reduced weak form (à la informal register) in some of these words? “An’ by opposin’ end ’em.” How comfortable are you with that?
Now speak the text again, but this time try to find a balance—how far feels appropriate for you in reducing these words from their strong form?
In my experience, many people report that their tolerance to reducing words to their weak form in a classical text is very limited. Part of this comes from the tradition of Classical theatre—that people expect a certain level of elocution associated with these texts, an “extra-daily” approach that goes beyond the way we speak naturally. Overdoing this will also affect the meter, and those of us who feel a responsibility to uphold the structure of the meter will chafe against this idea. But I think it’s a great way of taking note of our expectations of a certain level of diction, and pushing our buttons.
Phonetics: Strong Vs Weak Forms
STRONG VS WEAK FORMS
Grammatical words are words that help us construct the sentence but they don’t mean anything: articles, prepositions, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs, etc.
These words have no stress, and so they are weakened. That weakened form is called “weak form” as opposed to a “strong form”, which is the full form of the word pronounced with stress. The strong form only happens when we pronounce the words alone, or when we emphasize them. Weak forms are very often pronounced with a schwa, and so are very weak and sometimes a bit difficult to hear properly.
Sometimes weak forms are easy to spot, because we use contractions in the spelling to show it:
I am French (strong form) I’m French (weak form)
But usually there is no change of spelling, only the pronunciation is different:
But strong form: /bʌt/ weak form: /bət/
Tell him to go strong forms /hɪm/ /tu:/ weak form: /tel əm tə gəʊ/
As you can see, the grammatical words “him” and “to” are unstressed and have a weak form when pronounced inside a sentence.
another example: I would like some fish and chips
strong forms /aɪ wʊd laɪk sʌm fɪʃ ænd tʃɪps/ This version sounds unnatural and, believe it or not, more difficult to understand for a native speaker.
weak forms /ɑ wəd laɪk səm fɪʃ ən tʃɪps/ and we can use weaker forms sometimes: /ɑd laɪk səm fɪʃ ən tʃɪps/ so we can see that the auxiliary verb “would” has two weak forms /wəd/ and /d/
Students who are learning English usually use only strong forms, and they sound very unnatural. English speakers use weak forms all the time, every single sentence is full of them, and students find it difficult to understand because they are not used to them, and very often they don’t even know they exist.
Why do grammatical words weaken the way they do. It’s all about rhythm. The way English is pronounced makes it necessary to weaken function words so you can keep the rhythm. You can find
more about rhythm here or simply watch this introduction video:
If you want to learn and practise weak forms follow these links:
A video explaining more about
Pronunciar las formas débiles una web con explicaciones en español.
Phonetics in British songs we analyse the pronunciation of the British group One Direction and Ed Sheeran to see the weak forms in action as they sing.
Practice Changing Meaning Through Using Strong And Weak Forms
English is a stress-time language which means that some words are stressed and others are not when speaking. Generally, content words such as nouns and principal verbs are stressed, while structure words such as articles, helping verbs, etc. are not.
The Structure of Words
A number of structure words have both weak and strong pronunciation. As a rule, the structure will take the weak pronunciation which means that the vowel becomes muted. For example, take a look at these sentences:
Here are these two sentences with accented words in italics.
‘Can’, and ‘from’ and ‘is’ are unaccented and the vowel is very weak. This weak vowel sound is often referred to as a schwa. In the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) the schwa is represented as an upside-down ‘e’. It is, however, also possible to use these words with a strong form. Take a look at the same structure words, but used with strong pronunciation:
In these two sentences, the placement at the end of the sentence calls for the strong pronunciation of the word. In other cases, the usually unaccented word becomes accented as a means of stressing that something is contrary to what is understood by others. Look at these two sentences in a dialogue.
You aren’t interested in coming next week, are you?
Yes, I AM interested in coming!
Try the following exercise to practice both the weak and strong form. Write two sentences: One sentence using the weak form, and one using the strong form. Try practicing these sentences taking care to quickly glide over the vowel in the weak form, or pronouncing the vowel or diphthong sound firmly in the strong form. Here are a few examples:
I’ve heard you have a company in the city. No, I work FOR a company in the city.
What are you looking for?
She is our sister.
OUR sister is so talented!
Decide how the word indicated would change the meaning in the following sentences when using the strong form. Practice saying each sentence aloud alternating between weak and strong forms. Do you notice how the meaning changes through stress?
I am an English teacher in Portland, Oregon. – strong ‘am’
I am an English teacher from Portland, Oregon. – strong ‘from’
He said that she should see a doctor. – strong ‘should’
They were able to find a job despite the difficult market. – strong ‘were’
Do you know where he comes from? – strong ‘do’
I’ll give the assignment to them. – strong ‘them’
She’s one of our most valued students. – strong ‘our’
I’d like Tom and Andy to come to the party. – strong ‘and’
I AM an English teacher … = It’s true even though you don’t believe it.
…. teacher FROM Portland, Oregon. = That’s my home city, but not necessarily where I live and teach now.
They WERE able to find a job … = It was possible for them though you think not.
DO you know where … = Do you know the answer to this question or not?
… the assignment to THEM. = Not you, the others.
She’s one of OUR most valued students. = She is one of us, not of you or them.
… Tom AND Andy … = Not only Tom, don’t forget Andy.
Here are some of the most common words that have weak/strong pronunciations. Generally speaking, use the week form (schwa) pronunciation of these words unless they are stressed by coming at the end of a sentence or due to unnatural stress made to facilitate understanding.
Common Weak and Strong Words
Working With Fields And Forms In Word 2022
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