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How Unstressed Syllables Can Help You Spell

By: Sarah Folega - Updated: 25 Aug 2012 | comments*Discuss
How Unstressed Syllables Can Help You Spell

In order to learn and understand ‘unstressed syllables’ in English, first you need to learn what a syllable is, and what it does to a word.

What Is A Syllable

A syllable is the smallest part of a word and they are often thought to be the ‘building blocks’ of the words. A syllable will influence the stress patterns and the rhythm of the words, and therefore affect the way in which we pronounce them.

A lot of words in the English language are easy to misspell due to the way the stress pattern affects the words pronunciation. When unstressed syllables are in words, the different sounds you make may merge into one sound, rather than one distinct sound.

What Is An Unstressed Syllable?

Unstressed syllables may also be referred to as ‘neutral’ or even ‘muted’ syllables. The vowel sound that is often heard in the unstressed syllable is known as the ‘schwa’ sound. This is represented in the English dictionaries as an ‘upside down e’.

What Does Schwa Mean

The ‘schwa’ is known as a weak vowel, and it is the most commonly used sound in the English language. You can find examples of the ‘schwa’ sound in many words that end with the letter ‘a’.

  • Sofa
  • Canada
  • America
  • Sauna
  • Banana

Other words that may have the ‘schwa’ sound (dependant on the speaker’s accent) are as follows:

  • Support
  • Excellent
  • Experiment
  • Colour
  • Sister
  • Picture

The sound ‘schwa’ doesn’t just show singular letters; schwa can also show the sound of several letters or an entire syllable. Look at the following sentence, (the schwa sound is in bold):

  • This present is for my brother
  • This book is about a boy wizard

Other Unstressed Syllables

When you come across unstressed letters such as ‘a’ and ‘e’ in words like separate, grammar, category and desperate; it is easy to get these confused. People often muddle the two letters as some of these words sound as though they should have an ‘a’ when they have an ‘e’ and vice versa.

There isn’t any sure fire way to remember the right spelling by learning the rules, but just learning the correct spelling will help you identify the unstressed syllables. This will then, in turn, help you to spell correctly.

Unstressed ‘E’

The letter ‘e’ when unstressed can sound more like the sound /er/. It may help you to remember unstressed syllables by writing them down as they should sound, rather than the actual spelling of the word.

The letter ‘e’ can also sound like a short /i/. Consider the words ‘elicit’ and ‘illicit’. Native speaker swill say these words quicker than people learning English as a second language. So, the two words end up sounding the same; this is why so many people confuse the two spellings.

Using Unstressed Syllables To Help You Spell

Learning how unstressed syllables work in the English language can help you understand how words are formed. You will need to learn how to spot unstressed syllables, and how to correctly pronounce them.

Once you have this skill, you will find that you will be able to spell words using their correct spellings rather than how they sound.

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