Pronunciation and Listening in English Part 3

Bob Schoenfeld

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Whadya say?

Content and Function Words


In our continuing look at American pronunciation, today we are examining pesky little words – prepositions. Preposition, like in, of, to, for, at and many more, are a small, but essential part of English grammar.


One common problem in English is that listening can be hard. You may understand some words, but you miss other words. You notice that some words are louder and some are quieter. Some words seem to be longer and some seem to be shorter.


And sometimes, you stop listening when you a miss a single word. You get frustrated or nervous – and you stop. You miss what people say because you missed a word or phrase.


Often, the words people miss are prepositions or articles. These are terrible words in English. Why?


The problem is they are not meaningful words like nouns, verbs and adjectives. When people speak, they pronounce nouns, verbs and adjectives louder, longer and clearer because they have meaning. They are easy to describe. You can explain what a hospital is. You can explain run, read or shoot. Big, small, scary and dirty are easy words to describe. These words have meaning. In linguistics, we call these words CONTENT words.


Content Words - Big, Scary, Dirty 


However, English has lots of words that don’t have a lot of meaning. What does for mean? How do you describe the meaning of a, an or the?  These words are necessary for English structure, but don’t have a lot of meaning. These words are called FUNCTION words. These words are shorter, quieter and less clear when spoken in English.


Listen to the sentence below in normal American English speed.


The man went to the store to buy milk.


What words did you hear clearly? Listen again.


The man went to the store to buy milk.


Listen to another sentence in normal American English.


My brother took his books out of his bag.


Listen again. What words did you hear clearly?


My brother took his books out of his bag.


The words above in bold  - man, went, store, buy, milk, brother, took, books and bag – are content words. They are nouns and verbs, and we pronounce them louder, longer and clearer than the function words.


No American – except an ESL teacher – will ever say:


My brother took his books out of his bag.


No one in America sounds like that.


Remember, the words that you miss are usually not important. The words that are quieter, faster, and less clear are not necessary to understanding the meaning of the sentence.


Listen to the sound file. Listen to the louder, longer, and clearer words. What do you hear?


Listen again. This is real, normal-speed English. What words did you hear? Look below.


I told my brother I’d meet him in front of the movie theater in 2 hours.




Listening in English may seem hard at times. Americans speak very fast. We push our words together. We don’t pronounce each word individually, but we do pronounce each content word louder, longer and more clearly than function words. Think about this the next time you’re listening to the news, watching TV or listening to Americans speak with each other. Your life will be a little easier.


Listen to the above paragraph in normal American English.


Listen to the above paragraph in ESL teacher English – no one in America sounds like this.



Thank you for reading – and listening.  

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