International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for English: Consonants

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my guide to the Most Common Pronunciation Errors in English. It will teach you about commonly mispronounced words, pro­nunci­ation patterns, and the basics of English phonology.

This article is an introduction to the symbols of consonants of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as it is used to denote pronunciation of English words (there is a separate article on vowels). Each symbol is treated separately, with explanation and examples that are at the same time a link to a dictionary where you can listen to the word pronounced both in American and British English; the first three examples always contain the consonant at the beginning, the other three at the end (unless there are no such words).

Remark: when I write “most languages”, I mean “most languages that use the Latin alphabet”). Voiced consonants are those in which the vocal chords are active while pronouncing it (e.g. b, v, z, d, g), and unvoiced consonants are the rest (e.g. p, s, t, k, sh).

[b] buy, bet, big, hub, knob, superb
This sound exists in most languages and is also usually denoted by the letter “b”. One thing to pay attention to is that it doesn’t become “p” when it is at the end of a word (unless it follows an unvoiced consonant), listen to hub, knob, superbin British English, the sound is somewhere in between of “b” and “p”, in American, it is clearly “b”. Also, “mb” at the end of a word is pronounced just as “m”, as in numb, dumb, lamb.
[d] do, deal, dust, odd, prod, cod
Also a common sound, denoted by “d” in most languages, including English. Again, it doesn’t become “t” when it is at the end of a word (unless it follows an unvoiced consonant), listen to odd, prod, codin British English, the sound is somewhere in between of “d” and “t”, in American, it is clearly “d”.
[ð] that, though, there, father, breathe, bathe
A common source of problems for English learners. It is pronounced as if you wanted to say “d”, but you only slightly touched the back of your teeth by your tongue instead. In particular, it is not pronounced as [d] or [dz]. It is represented by “th” in writing, but “th” is also often [θ] (see below), so you will have to learn by heart when to use which one.
[dʒ] jet, joke, giant, purge, huge, banjo
A sound approximately like [d] and [ʒ] (see below) pronounced together. It is usually represented by “j” (which is always pronounced as []) or by “g” which is sometimes pronounced as [] and sometimes as [g] (as in “go”), and there is no general rule to distinguish the two uses.
[f] fast, fat, philosophy, off, stuff, cough
Again, a sound that usually causes little trouble. It is usually represented by “f” or “ph”, and also often by “gh” at the end of a word (but “gh” can be pronounced also in many different ways).
[g] go, get, grass, big, dog, fig
The sound similar to “k” but voiced, i.e. with an almost uninterrupted stream of sound coming out of your vocal chords. It is represented by the letter “g”, but “g” can by pronounced also many different ways in different contexts. Pay attention to “g” at the end of a word; it is not pronounced as “k”.
[h] high, how, hot, somehow, ahead, adhere
Native speakers of French and Russian beware! This sound may require some training. Try to make a neutral sound just by letting air to flow through your vocal chords, and then try to “squeeze’ the stream of air at the very bottom of your throat. The sound is represented by the letter “h” in writing, but pay attention to all the possible letter groups in which the letter “h” participates, e.g. “ch”, “sh”, “th”, “gh” etc. It is never located at the very end of a word or a syllable (there’s always at least one vowel after it).
[j] you, yet, yawn, pure, cure, few
The symbol can be slightly confusing, especially for speakers of French and Spanish. In the IPA it represents what is usually written as “y” in English at the beginning of a syllable. It can also appear after another consonant when written as “u”, pronounced [], or “ew”, pronounced [juː]. Notice: in words like buy [baɪ], hey [heɪ], the sound at the end is in fact not [j], but the vowel [ɪ] as a part of a diphthong.
[kh], [k] keep, cat, character, sock, bloc, cheek
When [k] is at the beginning of a stressed syllable, it is always aspirated (there is always a short “h” after it which is denoted by a superscript “h”). In many dialects, especially in British English, this aspiration can be heard almost for all occurrences of [k] (it doesn’t matter by what letter it is represented, only that there is [k] in pronunciation). If you say [k] in place where [kh] is expected, it can lead to misunderstanding; for example if you pronounce “call” just [kɔːl] instead of [khɔːl], some people will think that you said “gall” [gɔːl]. It is, however, never aspirated after “s”; listen to skin, sky, skate.

However, for simplicity, virtually all dictionaries write just [k] and suppose that the reader implicitly understands that it is in fact [kh], including the dictionary I am linking to. This can be very confusing for speakers of languages in which k is not aspirated.

There are many possible ways how [k] can be written: k, c, ch, ck and others. “Ch” and “c” can be pronounced also differently and there is no reliable rule to decide when it is pronounced as [k].

[l], [ɫ] low, let, like, owl, cool, well
The sound [ɫ] is called “the dark l”. Some dictionaries use [l] to denote pronunciation of the letter “l” that precedes a vowel and [ɫ] otherwise. However, there are some dialects in which an “l” is always dark while in others it is never dark, irrespective of its position. The difference is minor, and it is pointless to worry about it much.
[m] man, my, more, some, doom, seem
This sound is present in almost every language in the world and shouldn’t pose any problem. It is always represented by the letter “m”.
[n] no, new, nose, ban, soon, keen
Again, no problem here. Speakers of languages in which [n] can be softened to [ɲ] (e.g. Spanish “España”, French and German “champignons”, Czech ”ňouma”) should pay attention to the pronunciation of words like “new”; which are pronounced with [juː], e.g. [njuː], not [ɲuː].
[ŋ] thing, long, sang, singer, longing, bringing
This sound is produced as if you wanted to say “n” but with the back of your tongue (the part with which you say [g]). It’s never at the beginning of a word but can be in the middle of a word derived from a verb by adding “-er” or “-ing” (singer, longing). In other cases when “ng” appears in the middle of a word, it is pronounced [ŋg], as in longer. The letter group “nk” is usually pronounced [ŋk], as in think, spank.
[ph], [p] pit, pale, poke, top, hip, cap
The very same same rules (in terms of aspirations) that hold for “k” hold also for “p”. It is always aspirated when it is at the beginning of a stressed syllable and in many dialects also almost everywhere else, except after “s”, e.g. spit, speak.
[r], [ɹ] red, rich, rake, boar, care, tour
The correct IPA symbol of the typical English “r” is [ɹ], unless you mean the rolled Scottish [r]. However, the vast majority of English dictionaries denote the sound by [r]. It never appears at the end of a standalone word in British English (listen to the recordings of the last three examples), but it is pronounced in British English if the word is immediately followed by another word beginning with a vowel. For example, “a boar is” would be pronounced approximately the same in American and in British English.
[s] sit, soap, same, boss, kiss, house
Again, most people have no problem with the sound, but the way it’s written may be a source of confusion. It is usually represented by “s”, “c”, “sc”, “ss”, but all of these can be pronounced also differently (“s” and “ss” as [z], “c” as [k], “sc” as [sk]) and there is no general rule which would help you decide which pronunciation is the correct one. However, you should remember that “-s” at the end of a word when it means the third person singular of a verb (e.g. “he goes”) or a plural noun (e.g. “beds”) is always pronounced as [z], unless it follows an unvoiced consonant (e.g. “bets”)then it’s pronounced as [s].
[ʃ] shy, shot, chef, posh, bush, douche
This sound is created by saying [s] but bending your tongue further to the upper palate. It is usually represented by “sh”, but sometimes also by “ch; see my article on words in which “ch” is pronounced as “sh”.
[th], [t] two, tall, tea, hot, bat, put
The very same rules about aspiration that hold for “k” and “p” hold also for “t”, i.e. it is always aspirated when it is at the beginning of a stressed syllable (two, tall, tea) and in many dialects also almost everywhere else, except after “s” (e.g. step, still)
[ɾ] letter, better, written (Am. English only)
Listen carefully to recordings of speakers in American English. Where a Brit would say [th], an American often says something that sounds like a fast touch of [d]. It is called “alveolar flap” and is usually represented by a double “t”. However, many dictionaries ignore the distinction and denote it also by [t].
[tʃ] chat, China, choose, rich, catch, much
This sound sounds approximately like [t] and [ʃ] together. It is usually represented by “ch” or “tch” in writing, but “ch” is also often pronounced [k] and sometimes [ʃ].
[v] van, very, vile, stove, leave, save
This sound is the “v” sound of most languages. The letter “v” always represents the sound which you can hear in the words above, never [w] (as in “wow”). It is important to pronounce it as [v] and not as [f] also at the end of a word; “leave” and “leaf” are not pronounced the same (although the difference is subtle).
[w] we, wow, wax, dwell, swine, twain
This sound must be distinguished from [v]; “wary” and “vary” don’t sound the same. It never occurs at the end of a word, but may appear in the middle. It is usually represented by the letter “w”.
[z] zoo, xenon, zoom, is, has, booze
This sound usually causes few pronunciation problems, but the way it’s written can be confusing. The letter “z” usually represents [z], but “x-” at the beginning of a word is also usually pronounced [z], and “s” at the end of a word is also often pronounced [z] if it is preceded by a vowel, but not always.
[ʒ] genre, version, measure, garage, equation,
This sound is a softer version of [z]. It is usually represented by “s” in “-sion”, “-sure”, or by “g” in “-ge”. As far as I know, there is only one English word which starts with this sound: genre.

This article was based on my guide to English pronunciation mistakes, which explains many similar topics. Why don’t you check it out?

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