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Bad or bat? Sad or sat? Bag or back?

Native speakers often don’t pronounce the final consonant sound such as the ‘d’ in bad and the ‘t’ in bat.

Without their final consonant sounds, both words may look the same, but native speakers are still able to easily distinguish between the two.

For bad, they will pronounce the ‘a’ vowel sound much longer than for bat.

Listen to each word said without its final consonant, and check you can still hear the difference between them.

Bad

Bat

Pronunciation rule: vowels (e.g. a) often sounds longer when they come before a voiced consonant (such as d), and shorter when they are before an unvoiced consonant (such as t).

The length of a in bag sounds longer than in backbecause g is voiced whereas ck is unvoiced.

Bag

Back

The lengths of other vowels (e, i, o, u) also sound longer when followed by a voiced consonant compared to when followed by an unvoiced one. However, e, i, o, and are not quite as long as the sound.

Can you guess which word has the longer vowel sound in each of the following pairs?

  1. dock (where ships park) OR  dog (an animal)
  2. love (a nice feeling)  OR  luff (what ship’s sails do in the wind)
  3. mend (fix)  OR  meant (past tense of the verb to mean)
  4. pod (a type of container) OR  pot (another type of container)
  5. meat (flesh of an animal) OR  mead (alcoholic drink made from honey)
  6. dribs (negligible amounts)  OR  drips (small drops of liquid)
  7. cop (slang word for police officer) OR  cob (British word for a round loaf of bread)
  8. peg (used to attach clothes to a hanging line)  OR  peck (what birds do with their beaks to attack)

Special case

The word “can” has three possible lengths for the ‘a’ sound:

1. very short a, almost no sound:   modal verb before a main verb, to mean able to

(almost no “a” sound) You can have a drink if you like.

2. short-medium length sound:   modal verb on its own

(medium a) I can?

(medium a) Yes, you can.

3. long a sound:                             can (of Coca Cola)

(long aOk, I’ll have a can of Coke. (long)

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