Pronunciation Meets (Hides) Grammar

3792703838_76f1ce142eLast month I posted about helping verbs. I described how we use them. And I told you that they are the key to building English verb tenses.

Today, I wanted to tell you: helping verbs can be hard to hear.

Function and Content Words

We can divide all the words in English into just two categories:

  1. function words
  2. content words

Function words are grammar words. “The,” “was,” “if,” helping verbs, and so on. Yes, they need to be there. They make our sentences understandable and orderly, but they don’t make them different. In other words, they don’t really carry most of our meaning.

Content words carry the meaning. “Swim,” “chicken,” “cried,” “bought,” “stop.” They are super important. They are the reason we have chosen to say anything.

De-Stressing Function Words

English is a stress-timed language. This means that we stress and give extra time to content words. And we de-stress function words. It’s like word stress, but on the sentence level. It gives English its rhythm.

So I might write something like, “I am going to go to the mall later today.”

But if I say this to you in normal conversation, it will probably sound more like, “I’mgonna Gotuthe mall latertoday.”


Helping Verbs Exist! Really!

I’ve heard from students directly and through other teachers that it’s hard for students to hear Present Perfect. Colleagues have also told me that some students think Present Perfect is almost never used. But it’s used a lot! They just have trouble hearing it.

Here’s what happens:

They learn in class that Present Perfect is “I have been to Russia.”

But what we say is “I’ve been to Russia.” This is a contraction.

And the way this contraction sounds in normal speech is, “Ivbeen to Russia.

This sounds to many students like “I been to Russia.” The helping verb is so short and subtle that many don’t hear it at all. Students with native languages that don’t tend to end words with consonants (Mandarin, Vietnamese, and others) may have extra difficulty with this.



My advice to ESL learners is to take both written and spoken English seriously. They are surprisingly different.

If you’re bookish, spend extra energy getting into conversations or watching English language TV. Listen hard for helping verb contractions. They will not be fully enunciated. Also, try reading sentences out loud in the spoken style, with a lot of contractions and linking.

If you’re an auditory learner, take the extra time to go over written English and notice the verb tenses. Are you saying all of the helping verbs, at least in contractions? Do you write all of them? Try saying a sentence out loud, then writing it down with its fully spelled-out grammar.

A set curriculum or group classroom will probably not have just the right balance for you to connect spoken and written English. They’ll help! But pay extra attention to what you need, and don’t be afraid to ask your teacher for advice.

Listen to Emily read this post (3:30).  (A new window will open.)


Photo Credit: gfpeck on Flickr

This post appeared first at English with Emily.

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