How to Pronounce A, An and The – The Schwa Vowel

The is the most common word in English, but how do we pronounce it? And how do we say a and an too?
In this lesson we look at how we say these words in British and American. You’ll learn the rules we follow when words start with a vowel or consonant sound and also, how we pronounce the schwa vowel.

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The pronunciation of A, An and The in British and American English – The Schwa Vowel

This is the most common word in English, but how do we pronounce it?
Yes, and what about these words too?
Hi I’m Vicki and I’m British.
And I’m Jay and I’m American.
Several people have asked us to make a video about how we both say these words.
And if you have requests for videos you want us to make, write and tell us.
We can’t promise we can do it, but we’ll try.
OK. Let’s show everyone how we say these words in action.

I’m off.
Oh, are you going to the cafeteria?
Well, yes.
Could you get me an apple, and a bag of crisps and a sandwich?
What kind of sandwich?
An egg sandwich.
Got it. That’s an apple, a bag of eggs and a chip sandwich.
No, no!

So you heard the.
The cafeteria
You heard a.
A sandwich.
And an.
An apple and an egg sandwich.

What kind of sandwich?
An egg sandwich.

So when do we say a and when do we say an?
We say a before consonant sounds and an before vowel sounds. So it’s an apple, an egg, an ice cream, an orange, an umbrella.
Well that sounds easy.
Yes, the tricky thing is the schwa sound.
The schwa is the most common sound in spoken English and it’s a nothing sound. With other English vowel sounds you have to move your mouth or tongue into position, but for the schwa, you do nothing. Just stay relaxed, release your voice and it happens. A. Try it.
A.
A sandwich.
A.
A bag of chips.
Now, just add an n sound and you’ve got an. It’s also unstressed. Try it.
An.
An apple.
An.
An egg sandwich.
Great. Now the. That’s th and the schwa sound again. The.
The.
The sandwich.
The.
The cafeteria.
You want a weak pronunciation for a, an and the, so a short, quiet sound that’s low in pitch. If you focus on stressing the words that follow them. It’ll help you pronounce them weakly. Try some more.
An apple, a bag of crisps and a sandwich.
An apple, a bag of eggs and a chip sandwich.
Great. Now something about this rule. It’s about vowel SOUNDS. It’s not the letter of the alphabet that’s important. It’s the sound.
Let’s watch another conversation and you’ll see what we mean.

Here’s your lunch.
Oh thank you. How much do I owe you?
Seven dollars.
Here you go.
Err, what’s this?
Oh, that’s a euro.
Ah! And what’s this?
That’s a one-pound coin.
But I can’t use them.
Oh well I’ll keep them then. Thanks.
Hmmph!
What’s the matter? It was an honest mistake!

What word goes here – a or an? It’s a. And here?
It’s a again.

Err. What’s this?
Oh, that’s a euro.
Ah! And what’s this?
That’s a one-pound coin.
But I can’t use them.

Euro starts with the letter e and one starts with the letter o. They’re vowels. But it’s the sound that matters not the spelling.
Euro starts with a /j/ sound and one starts with a /w/ sound. They’re consonant sounds, not vowels so we say a.
Here’s a different one. What goes here? Let’s see.

Hmmph!
What’s the matter? It was an honest mistake!

Is it a or an? It’s an. Honest starts with the letter h – a consonant, but it’s a silent letter in this word and it’s the sound that matters.
o – honest – o – that’s a vowel sound, so we say and write an honest mistake.
OK, that’s a and an, but what about the?
A similar rule operates. It has one pronunciation before vowel sounds and another before consonant sounds.
See if you can spot both sounds in this conversation.

Can I borrow a button?
But they’re mine.
I know. Give me the pink one.
But this is the= only one I have that makes this noise.
Then give me the other one.
The orange one?
Yes.
But this is my favourite.

Did you spot the two pronunciations? The and the (thee). The becomes the (thee) in front of vowel sounds.
The pink one. The (thee) orange one.
Did you hear the difference?
The pink one. The (thee) orange one.
And something else happened there too. When Vicki said the orange one, did you hear a little linking sound? The -j- orange. The -j- orange – it’s a very small sound. You heard it here too.
The only one.
The other one.
j- it links words that end in /i:/ when the next word begins with a vowel sound – so with two vowel sounds, we put a little consonant in there. Try it.
The only one.
The other one.
The – the (thee) – a- an. Is there a difference between how we say these words?
You mean in British and American English?
Yes.
I can only think of one case where we say them differently.
What’s that?
Herb.
You mean herb.
A herb is a plant we add to food to make it taste good – like parsley, mint or oregano.
You mean oregano.
But we say this word differently. I say herb.
And I say herb – the h is silent.
So it’s a herb for me
And it’s an erb for me.
But we still follow the same rule. I say a because it starts with a consonant sound for me.
And I say an because it starts with a vowel sound for me.
It’s all about the sounds.
Let’s have a quiz on that.
OK, we’re going to show you a word or phrase and you have to decide if goes with a, an, the or the (thee). Ready?

An or an? It’s an. The h is silent so it starts with a vowel sound. An hour.
A or an? It’s a – a hotel – it starts with a consonant sound – h.
And this one? It’s a unicorn. It starts with a j sound – a consonant sound.
This stands for United States of America – but is it the or the (thee)? It’s the. It starts with a j sound – the USA.
And this stands for European Union. The European Union. It starts with a j sound too.
This stands for Federal Bureau of Investigation and it’s… It’s the (thee). It starts with an e sound – a vowel sound.
And this stands for United Nations – and it’s the. It starts with j. And it’s the same for the United Nations. And the United Kingdom.
This is an MP3 player. An. MP3.
What’s this? A xylophone. It starts with a zed sound.
She means a zee sound, a xylophone. But what’s this? It’s an X-ray. e. X-ray.
This is Prince William and he’s… the (thee) heir to the throne. The h is silent.
And the last one. This one is a message. And what about this? It’s an SOS message. e. SOS.

So how did you do?
You can watch again if you didn’t get them right.
Now I have another question.
Yes?
We’ve been looking at how we say these words when they’re unstressed, but do we ever stress them?
It’s very unusual, but we can and then their pronunciation changes.
A becomes a (ay), and an becomes an (aan). And if we’re saying the letter of the alphabet, we say Ay.
What about the?
Again, we don’t normally stress that either, but sometimes we can and then the pronunciation changes to the (thee). Let’s see an example.

You know I met the queen last week.
Uhuh.
She seems very nice.
You mean you met the (thee) queen?
Yes.
The queen of the United Kingdom.
Yes.
Where did you meet?
Online. Look, she’s following me on twitter.
Oh!

Did you spot it? I said ‘You mean you met THE (thee) queen?’
That’s interesting because queen starts with a consonant.

She seems very nice.
You mean you met THE (thee) queen?
Yes.
The queen of the United Kingdom.
Yes.

I stressed the because I was surprised and I wanted to emphasize the word queen – to check I’d understood.
So we can say the (thee) to emphasize the word that follows?
That’s right. But it doesn’t happen very often. The important thing to know is how to say these words when they’re unstressed.
And we’ve practiced that.
Yes, so that’s it. We’re done for this week.
Subscribe to our channel so you don’t miss our next video!
Yes. See you all next Friday everyone.
Bye!
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