This episode is inspired by a question I received from my student Mohamed from Egypt. He asked why the word “to” when used in the middle of the sentence is often shortened, or de-emphasized.
There are many examples of words spoken with weak stress and disappearing syllables – and it often confuses students of American English.
If you’ve ever had similar questions about why certain words – such as “to” – are shortened, this episode is for you.
Ready? Let’s go!
Picking up on the nuances of American English takes time. One way to achieve mastery of American English faster is recognizing these nuances that would otherwise take you years to learn on your own.
For example, having a clear understanding of words that are spoken with a weak stress in some sentences and a primary stress in others can improve both your pronunciation and the rhythm of your speech.
In my Master Real American English program, students learn how to perfect their American English so it’s second-nature. In other words, students in this program learn techniques to speak without cross-translating in your head so conversations flow naturally.
This ability to think in American English can improve conversations and strengthen connections between friends and co-workers.
The word “to” in the middle of the sentence
As you listen to American English speakers talk, especially in informal conversations, you’ve probably noticed that the word “to” is often shortened.
This is most common when “to” is used as a preposition in the middle of a sentence (“I’m going to the mall! See you later!”), or in an infinitive structure (“Do you want to come with me?”)
When the word “to” is used in the middle of the sentence we can often understand the meaning of the sentence without the word “to” being fully pronounced.
For example, one of my students asked if it’s possible to shorten the word “to” in a sentence, such as: “I’m trying to…”
You may have noticed that “to” is indeed shortened in such sentences, with the result sounding like… “I’m trying tuh avoid traffic,” or even “I’m trying t’avoid traffic.”
Or, “I’m trying tuh call a client.”
Or, “I’m trying tuh hold a meeting.”
Or, “It belongs tuh John.”
Do you hear how each time “to” is actually pronounced “tuh”?
Schwa – the weak sound in spoken English
This sound “uh” actually has a name – it’s called “schwa.” “Schwa” is the weak stress in a word and represents 30% of all sounds in English.
It can be very difficult for non native speakers to recognize. In fact, many students mistake the schwa for being a unique word.
Here’s another example:
“Today” isn’t pronounced as “Too-day.” This word is pronounced as “Tuh-day.” The weak stress is “tuh” and the primary stress is “Day.”
Or take these examples: “Tuh-night.” “Tuh-morrow.” Because Schwa is the most common sound in english, it’s very important to understand it.
You can find Schwa in many words, such as: uh-Bility (ability), Univer-suh-de (University)
As an unstressed sound, Schwa is so easy to miss.
Perfecting the schwa sound is a great way to drastically improve your pronunciation and help make your speech rhythm sound more natural.
We actually focus on this common and easy-to-overlook mistake in the first module of the course Understand Real American English.
“Too”: To stress or not to stress?
As I mentioned, if you emphasize a word that should be weak and unstressed, your English will sound unrhythmic and unnatural. Just listen to the way Americans speak when they speak fast!
Let’s look back at our first example: “I’m trying tuh avoid traffic.”
If you pronounce the word “to” with a primary stress, the sentence sounds very strange to American English speakers. “I’m trying TO avoid traffic.”
But there’s a difference between “to” and “too”!
When the word “t-o-o” is spoken, the word is always stressed. This is because “too” always comes at the end of the sentence.
For example: “I’m going to lunch too.”
The primary stress is on the word “too.” Because it’s at the end of the sentence, it would sound strange to use a schwa here. “I’m going to lunch tuh.”
That just doesn’t sound right to an American English speaker.
Even though you’re using the correct word – “to” – because it’s not spoken with a primary stress, the entire sentence may be misunderstood.
Of course, be sure to watch the episode, so you actually hear the pronunciation of the examples in this lesson! It’s indispensable if you want to improve your own pronunciation!
What about you?
Have you noticed other examples of schwa – when a word is spoken with a weak stress?
If so, share them in the comments.
If you’re a busy professional who needs to level up your fluency, but you find it difficult to go it alone, let me help you, with Master Real American English.
It’s a 3-month coaching program in which my team and I empower you to express yourself fluently and naturally, so that people focus on your professional skills & expertise, not on your level of English.
For more information, visit this page, where you can also apply to join this program.
Thank you for learning with Speak English with Christina, and I’ll see you next time!
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