You over-pronouncing this word?

areA very important aspect of English is its distinction between prominent syllables and weak syllables. It’s an aspect of the language that’s not shown in writing, and many non-natives don’t show it very much when they speak.

Among the most common words of English are ‘function words’, such as articles, prepositions and auxiliary verbs, which serve to frame the more meaning-rich ‘content words’. These framing words are often pronounced very weakly in native speech, many of them with the colourless little vowel ‘schwa’ (phonetic symbol ə). frameIt would be a mistake to see natives as ‘failing’ to pronounce such words the way they’re written: rather, it’s the writing system that ‘fails’ to reflect this key feature of the language. If function words are pronounced strongly, as they are by many non-natives, then the content words stand out less; it’s like making the frame of a painting too big.

Non-natives are particularly reluctant to weaken the word are. In England, this frequently weakens to no more than a little ə, just like the indefinite article a. (Other accents, including General American, can weaken are without losing its r sound.) Here are native utterances by British speakers in which are is merely a schwa:

  ə we happy?

  wars ə fought

  some people ə suggesting

  I think those things ə very important

  these ə people that we can talk to

  frames which ə roughly of the same period and date

  they say, when ə you coming back

At the start of a sentence, are can sometimes disappear altogether, e.g. Are you sure? -> You sure?

Are is not always weak. It can be pronounced strongly if emphasized, or when there’s no immediately following word for it to lean on:

  I would like to understand what human beings are

  they are… one of the, considered one of the best
  professional chamber choirs in the country

6 replies
  1. Doug B.
    Doug B. says:

    It would be a mistake to see natives as ‘failing’ to pronounce such words the way they’re written…

    And the problem is, it’s often natives who see things that way. Then they’ll often tell non-native learners that pronouncing “are” as “er” is wrong, even if lots of native speakers do it. In so doing, they help the non-native learners sound less native. It’s really annoying and I see it happen all the time.

    • Andrew Usher
      Andrew Usher says:

      However, those natives aren’t necessarily lying for the listener’s perceived benefit – they may not know just how often such weak forms are used, even if speech that cannot be called ‘lazy’. Before recording no one knew! Throughout the history of Modern English we have people complaining about the reduction of unstressed vowels, while doing it themselves as much as anyone else.

      People, when imaging how something ‘should’ be pronounced, always imagine the ‘citation form’, which is certainly not reduced here. The best example (which can be found on YouTube if you look) is speakers of languages in which the citation form of ‘r’ is the alveolar trill typically say that as THE way to pronounce it, even when (as in Polish and Greek) analysis has shown the tap to be the exclusive articulation in speech. Even a few Scots still say that,

      k_over_hbarc at

  2. CP Huxley
    CP Huxley says:

    Haha, I see what you did with the title of this post. Very droll.

    To my ear (born 1976, raised Wirral), the sixth audio example could even be ‘frames which were roughly of the same period and date.’ What are your thoughts about that possibility? Does were get weakened in a similar way?

  3. David Bauckham
    David Bauckham says:

    Hi Geoff,
    Thank you for your interesting book, “English After RP”. I mainly teach non-native speakers RP, or another more modern name! One thing which is exercising me at the moment is not just “are” being over-pronounced, but “at”, “as”, and many other function words, most notably “a”, which is reaching epidemic proportions. I even heard David Attenborough use it the other day, and many distinguished journalists and radio/TV presenters are stressing this word more and more. Weather forecasters and sports reporters seem to be the worst. Do you think I need to resign myself to a permanent change?


    • Geoff Lindsey
      Geoff Lindsey says:

      It’s an interesting point. It’s my impression that weak forms are becoming less rather than more common, but they’re still an integral part of the language. Some accents use them less (I often notice Scouse speakers using a strong form of the conjunction ‘that’), and it probably varies from word to word, like the strong ‘a’ that you mention. By the way, do the same speakers also use strong ‘an’?. I also notice far fewer weak forms in YouTube videos of the explanatory kind (e.g. product reviews or ‘how to’ videos). But I suspect that these speakers use more weak forms in their day-to-day lives.

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