IPA phoneme /e/

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dress /drɛs/



dress /drɛs/



dress /dres/

In English, both in Received Pronunciation and in General American the IPA phoneme /e/ corresponds to the vowel sound in words like "dress", "net" and "head".

In a narrow notation the correct IPA phonetic symbol for /e/ is [ɛ] in many accents. However the very influential Oxford dictionaries selected /e/ for this phoneme. Most American dictionaries (when using IPA) prefer /ɛ/. At the advice of Clive Upton the Concise Oxford Dictionary altered the British tradition and now uses /ɛ/; later Oxford Dictionaries Online followed the same convention.[1] This has been referred to as "a perfectly acceptable relatively narrow transcription of the mainstream GB phoneme", and also "an alteration [...] from /e/ to /ɛ/ is probably on balance better not adopted".[2]

There is no risk of confusion if /e/ is used instead of /ɛ/. The only care that must be taken is realizing that in many accents /eɪ/ as in "face" is not the combination of /e/ as in "dress" and /ɪ/ as in "kit". However, in Southern England FACE is pronounced with [ɛj], beginning like the monophthong of DRESS [ɛ].[3]

Informally this phoneme is the so-called “short e”.

Common words[edit]

Some common words which practice the pronunciation of /e/ include the following:

  • with "e": accept, bell, bend, best, bet, correct, desk, egg, end, expect, forget, get, hell, help, hotel, jet, leg, lend, let, met, neck, next, pen, protect, rent, request, sell, send, set, spend, suggest, tell, theft, well, went, wet, when, yell, yes
  • with ""ea"": ahead - already - bread - breakfast - breast - breath - cleanse - dead - deaf - dealt - death - dread - dreadful - feather - head - header - health - heather - heavy - instead - jealous - lead (metal) - leapt - leather - meadow - meant - measure - pheasant - pleasant - pleasure - read (past tense and past participle) - ready - spread - steady - sweat - thread - threat - threaten - treachery - tread - treadmill - treasure - wealth - weapon - weather

  • homophones: bred - bread; led - lead (metal); lent - leant; red - read (past tense); sent - cent - scent; whether - weather;


/e/ is always followed by one or more consonants. In derived words a single consonant is usually doubled (get, getting; wet, wetter).

"e" followed by a single consonant "e" followed by a double consonant "e" followed by two or more different consonants
/e/ general, level, special guess, letter, wedding help, question, send
/iː/ appreciate, even, recent  
/ɪ/ between, election, remember effect, pretty enjoy, expect, reply

Spelling anomalies[edit]

  • with "a": any - ateBrE - marshmallowAmE - many
  • other: again - friend - leisureBrE - leopard - said - says

Variant pronunciations[edit]

  • catch /ˈkætʃ, ˈketʃAmE/[4]
  • marshmallow /ˈmɑːrʃmeləʊ,AmE mɑːrʃˈmæləʊBrE/

These words don't rhyme[edit]

  • Betty - pretty; eleven - even; header - leader; never - fever; said - paid; says - pays;


  • lead /liːd/ (guide) /led/ (metal)
  • read /riːd/ (present) /red/ (past)


Both in Received Pronunciation and in General American when /e/ is followed by /r/ in the same syllable, a diphthong is pronounced: IPA phoneme /eə/. Square is [skwɛər].

In Received Pronunciation but not in General American there is a difference between /eərV/ and /erV/, i.e. when the /r/ is followed by a vowel: Mary is [ˈmɛəriː]BrE and merry is [ˈmɛriː].BrE In General American there is no difference: some people pronounce [ˈmɛəriː] in both cases and others [ˈmɛriː]. Since the difference between [ɛər]AmE and [ɛr]AmE is predictable, phoneticians say that in American English there is no phoneme /eə/, only phoneme /e/. See also Mary-marry-merry merger.

With "e"[edit]

See also: Decoding exercises: "erV" and "errV"

The sequence "erV" (where V is any vowel) can be pronounced /er/ or /ɪər/. The sequence "errV" is reliably pronounced /er/ in most words and /ɜːr/ in derived words (from "prefer" we get "preferring").

"erV" "errV"
/e/ American, atmospheric, ceremony, experiment, heroism, very berry, cherry, errand, error, ferry, interrogate, merry
/ɪə/ experience, material, period, series, serious  
/ɜː/ preferring, referral, referring

Spelling anomalies[edit]

  • bury

Anticipated pronunciation difficulties depending on L1[edit]

Preconceived ideas and other interferences from L1 obviously interfere in many cases with how students perceive - and pronounce - sounds/words in English. The following sections aims to point out some of the most typical difficulties teachers and students may encounter regarding pronunciation.


While /e/ as in "dress" (more precisely [ɛ]) is very similar to the Spanish letter "e", many Spanish speakers have difficulty remembering that many other words with different spellings may also have the same pronunciation in English. This is particularly true of "said" /sed/ and "says" /sez/ which are often heard as */seɪd/ and */seɪz/.

Practically all Spanish speakers know that "head" is pronounced /hed/. However many of them pronounce "header" as */ˈhiːdər/, rhyming it with "reader" and "leader".


  1. Oxford Dictionaries Online, Key to pronunciations (British and World English dictionary). See ɛ as in bed.
  2. IPA vowel symbols for British English in dictionaries, Section 5. /ɛ/ versus /e/.
  3. Geoff Lindsey, The British English vowel system, 8 March 2012.
  4. Merriam-Webster's learner's Dictionary, catch.

See also[edit]