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The schwa in words | Better pronunciation

Do you wonder how to sound more natural when you speak English?

Listen to part 1 here.

There is a sound that is key in English pronunciation because it has a huge impact on how English words and sentences sound: the schwa /ə/. It is the most frequent vowel sound in English – and if I say frequent, I mean frequent!

The schwa shapes the rhythm of individual words and entire sentences. In this post we’ll be looking at the role of the schwa in words.

And as with all aspects of pronunciation, being aware of the schwa and learning to use it has a double benefit:

  1. It will boost your pronunciation skills, making your English sound more natural.
  2. Being aware of how the schwa acts also helps you to understand English better.

You will learn some facts about the schwa, about the disappearing schwa, and about ways to spell it. You will learn how to produce the schwa, and finally you will get the opportunity to practise with some example sentences. So let’s get started!

🇬🇧 Before we continue, please bear in mind that this post looks at British pronunciation. 🇬🇧

The schwa: What, where, and why?

  • The schwa is a very short, neutral vowel sound: /ə/.
    It is essentially a reduced vowel.
  • The schwa only occurs in unstressed syllables or words.
    That way, more important sounds and words stand out more.
  • The schwa saves us time: we can speak faster by “gliding” over the unstressed syllables.
    In fact, some unstressed syllables can disappear altogether when we speak fast.
  • It saves us energy when we speak because it minimises our effort.
    We just produce a quick, soft sound without having to move our mouth.
  • In the phonetic alphabet the schwa is written as an upside-down e: /ə/.
    But it doesn’t have its own letter.
  • It can be spelt by any of the five vowels in the English alphabet.
    In particular the letters A, O and U, when unstressed, are often pronounced as schwas.

A lot of unstressed prefixes and suffixes contain a schwa. Let’s compare the pronunciation of a few common prefixes in their stressed and unstressed version. Can you hear the difference?

  • advancedadverb
  • completecomplicated
  • concernconcert
  • percent perfect
  • profession profit
  • submitsubway

Besides, you can hear a schwa in four of the eight commonly used English diphthongs:
/əʊ/ as in go, /ɪə/ as in near, /eə/ as in fair, and /ʊə/ as in sure

The disappearing schwa

In connected speech, some syllables with a schwa can disappear altogether. This goes to show how the schwa saves time and effort when we speak quickly. So don’t be surprised if you hear people say

  • fam’ly instead of family
  • p’lice instead of police
  • av’rage instead of average
  • diff’rent instead of different
  • gen’ral instead of general
  • int’resting instead of interesting
  • sep’rate instead of separate
  • med’cine instead of medicine, to name just a few.

The suffixes -ful and -cal often lose their schwa when -ly is added to form an adverb. So this is what happens:

  • beautiful → beautifully → beautif’ly /ˈbjuːtəfli/ (You can listen to it on dictionary.cambridge.org)
  • practical → practically → practic’ly /ˈpræktɪkli/ (Here’s how it sounds on dictionary.cambridge.org)

Spelling

Here you can listen to part 2.

Surprisingly, even though it is so frequent, the schwa doesn’t have a letter of its own.
Instead, it takes the shape of any of the five vowel letters in the English alphabet as well as the semi-vowel Y. It can also be represented by some vowel combinations. And believe it or not, in some words the schwa even has no letter at all, but is added as an extra sound.

Here are just a few examples of how the schwa can be written. I have marked the schwa in purple, the stressed syllable is underlined. Remember: The schwa is never in the stressed syllable.

  • Aappear, woman, Africa
  • Efrequency, movement, tired
  • IApril, family, cousin
  • Ooppose, aeroplane, doctor
  • U – supply, industry, focus
  • Y – syringe, analysis, vinyl
  • AImountain, certain
  • IOfashion, cushion
  • OUnervous, serious
  • NO LETTER: before the m in word endings -thm and -sm, eg. rhythm, tourism
  • British English also pronounces these endings as schwas:
    ar: sugar, popular
    er: teacher, faster
    or: doctor, editor
    our: colour, favour
    re: centre, theatre
    ur: Arthur, murmur
    ure: figure, nature

So I guess you could say that the schwa is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
It is very frequent on the one hand; on the other hand, it is spoken as a quick, subtle sound, and it is written in many different ways.
As a result, it is almost hidden to the ear and the eye and can be tricky to recognise when listening or reading.

Now on to the technical part.

How to pronounce the schwa: Relax!

This is the audio for part 3.

In order to pronounce the schwa, your mouth needs to relax for a very brief moment. Nothing moves.

Your jaw, lips and tongue are in a neutral position. There should be no tension anywhere inside or around your mouth.
Let’s go through it step by step:

  • Relax your jaw: it is just slightly open.
    The schwa is a soft sound, so the mouth barely opens.
  • Relax your lips: they open naturally, together with your jaw.
    There is no tension in them. Do not try to actively form the schwa: don’t smile or round your lips to say “ah”, “eh” or “oo”.
  • Relax your tongue: it is flat and relaxed, neither high nor low in your mouth.

I know all this sounds easier than it is. Learning a language involves training your mouth to move in new and unfamiliar ways. But with the schwa, the challenge consists in not making any movements at all – which can also feel strange and unfamiliar.

Let’s start to practise with a simple word: about

  • The first syllable is pronounced as a schwa. It is spoken quickly and softly. /ə/. It is not an “ah” or “eh” sound.
  • The second syllable carries the stress and is pronounced more strongly. /baʊt/
  • Together they form /əˈbaʊt/.

Now let’s look at the word remedy.

  • The first syllable is stressed; the second one contains a schwa: /ˈremədi/

Here’s a word with three As and two schwas: banana.

  • No, it’s not banana. The three syllables don’t all sound the same because only one is stressed.
  • The second A is stressed: it is spoken longer and higher.
  • The first and the last As are schwas: they sound short and weak.
  • The result is a fluent /bəˈnɑːnə/ instead of a rather robotic banana.

Practise

Now it’s your turn to practise the schwa. You will notice that some unstressed words, such as articles (the, a), prepositions (at, from, to) and conjunctions (and, or) also contain schwas.

 Here’s a tip: Focus on the stressed syllable when you speak. 
  1. at quarter to seven – They came at quarter to seven.
  2. a pleasant afternoon – It was a pleasant afternoon.
  3. lots of beautiful pictures – We took lots of beautiful pictures.
  4. pizza or salad – Would you like pizza or salad?
  5. to the theatre on Saturday – We went to the theatre on Saturday.
  6. an excellent idea – That’s an excellent idea.
  7. some butter for breakfast – Please buy some butter for breakfast.
  8. at the general hospital – He works at the general hospital.
  9. carefully measured the portions – He carefully measured the portions.
  10. a reliable payment system – We need a reliable payment system.
  11. difficult to understand – It’s not difficult to understand.
  12. about a year ago – They moved about a year ago.
  13. from London to Bristol – He drove from London to Bristol.
  14. America and Canada – She’s lived in America and Canada.
  15. a famous actor – He became a famous actor.

So next time you listen to a podcast or watch your favourite series in English, get your antennas out and try to catch as many schwas as you can. They could be anywhere!

You can find more about the schwa in my post on the letter O as a diphthong, as well as in my other ones in which I write about a range of suffixes: -our, -ate and -able.

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