Unvoiced alveolar sibilant

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s

sense /sens/

In English, both in Received Pronunciation and in General American, the IPA phonetic symbol /s/ corresponds to the initial consonant sound in words like "sit", and "city" and the final one in "kiss" and "place".

/s/ is an unvoiced consonant; its voiced counterpart is IPA phoneme /z/. Care must be taken to the fact that in many examples the letter "s" represents /s/ and in many others it represents /z/.

Common words[edit | edit source]

Initial pronunciation:

  • with "c": celebrate - cell - cent - centerAmE - central - centreBrE - century - certainly - cigarette - circle - circumstance - citizen - city - civil - cycle
  • with "s": sad - sale - same - say - scar - school - sea - seat - second - see - sell - send - sense - service - set - several - side - sign - since - sing - sink - sit - ski - sky - sleep - small - smile - sneeze - soap - social - some - song - soon - sort - sound - speak - spend - squeeze - staff - stand - start - stay - stop - strong - study - suggest - suit - sun - swim - swing - symbol - system

Final pronunciation:

  • with "ce": experience - face - ice - nice - once - place - price - service - since - twice
  • with "se": base - case - course - horse - house - increase - loose - nurse - sense
  • with "s":
  • basis - bus - focus - gas - perhaps - politics - previous - this - various - yes
  • Morpheme “-s” of words ending in /f/, /k/, /p/, /t/, and /θ/.
  • Plurals: books - lots - months - shops
  • Third person of verbs: gets - laughs - looks - shops
  • Possessives: Denmark’s - ship’s - Robert’s - Ruth’s
  • with "ss": across - business - class - kiss - less - miss - pass - process
  • with "z": waltz - ritz
  • with "sc": scene - scythe - science
  • with "ps": psych - psalm


Mid-position:

  • with "c": accent - December - decent - decimal - receive - reception - recent
  • with "s": also - ask - best - just - past - person - question - research - task - west
  • with "ss": associate - assume - essential - lesson - necessary - message - possible
  • with "z": pretzel, ritzy
  • with "x": approximately - context - example - experience - expect - next - taxi - text

"ss" as two sounds[edit | edit source]

Normally double "s" is pronounced as a single /s/ (as in "possible" or "message"). In the following examples two /s/'s are pronounced.

  • disservice, dyssomnia, misspeak, misspell

Another example of /s.s/

  • mis-sell

/z.s/ or /s.s/

  • transsexual


Homophones[edit | edit source]

  • cent - scent - sent; it’s - its; mist - missed; past - passed; sale - sail; sea - see - C; some - sum; son -sun;

/s/ vs /z/[edit | edit source]

Main article: Pronunciation and decoding exercises: /s/ vs /z/

The following are minimal pairs:

  • close (adj.) - close (v.); face - phase; loose - lose; price - prize; race - raise; rice - rise; Sue - zoo; use (n.) - use (v.);
  • /z/ word is a plural or third person of verb: base - bays; cease - seas; ice - eyes; lice - lies; once - ones; peace - peas; place - plays; race - rays; since - sins;

Anticipated pronunciation difficulties depending on L1[edit | edit source]

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.

Spanish[edit | edit source]

One of the hardest consonant sounds in English for Spanish speakers is /z/, because it doesn't exist in Spanish, and it is heard as /s/. This means that they will pronounce /s/ when they see "s" (e.g. visit, nose), and also when they see "z". Many of them wouldn't take the time to learn the rule of plurals, because they won't be able to pronounce the /z/ sound. Emphasis should be placed in the communication problems that arise when confusing "eyes" vs "ice", "face" vs "phase", not to mention beauts like "price" vs "prize". This problem is addressed in Pronunciation and decoding exercises: /s/ vs /z/.

Another /s/-related problem is the tendency, clearly influenced by their mother tongue, to add an initial /e/ to an initial /s/, i.e. they have difficulty in distinguishing "especial" and "special", which isn't such a big deal, but when they get to "estate" and "state", confusion may arise.

Spain[edit | edit source]

Most Spaniards pronounce "ce" and "ci" as [θe] and [θi]. This is transferred into English and many of them when they see a "c", as in "city" or "face", go for /θ/. However this is changing, and the Spanish Royal Academy now recommends "pirsin" as a Spanish spelling of "piercing".[1]

Also, most Spaniards pronounce "s" as apical [s̺] instead of laminal /s/. The apical "s" is very similar to /ʃ/. This means that many Spanish speakers don't distinguish clearly between /s/ and /ʃ/, which is great for "sugar" and "sure", but not so good for "see", which comes out "she", or "sit" which comes out as…

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Diccionario panhispánico de dudas, pirsin