An easy way to work out how to pronounce new words

A woman pointing at a word on a computer screen and looking confused

If you see a word for the first time, how can you work out its pronunciation? Here is a simple five-step method.

Imagine you're in a speaking exam. You have a text to read, and it's all about pharmaceuticals. You already know that this means drugs used in medicine, but you aren't sure how to pronounce this word. You will need to talk about it soon with the examiner. What do you do?

Or imagine that you work as a hotel receptionist. A guest arrives and gives you his passport. You open it and see his name: Marek Lewandowski. You need to say 'Good morning, Mr …', but you're not sure how to pronounce his name. What do you do?

In situations like these, you probably can't avoid saying those unfamiliar words. You may not be able to check them online either. So you need to have some way to work out the pronunciation.

Here is a simple five-step method. It can't guarantee that you will get the pronunciation fully accurate every time, but it will help you to get very close.

Step 1: Find the vowels.

Start by looking for vowels in the new words. Vowels are represented by the letters a, e, i, o, u and y

  • pharmaceuticals
  • Marek
  • Lewandowski

Step 2: Divide the word into syllables.

A syllable is a group of letters making a sound together. For example, the word universe has three syllables: u-ni-verse

Every syllable contains one vowel sound. So divide the word into syllables, with one vowel in each. As well as vowels, each syllable can have one or more consonants before and/or after the vowel.

We can divide the hotel guest's name like this:

  • Ma-rek (two syllables)
  • Le-wan-dow-ski (four syllables)

If you're not sure how to divide the word, for example whether it should be Ma-rek or Mar-ek, just make your best guess.

Sometimes, two vowels combine to make a sound together, such as 'ai' in rain and 'ie' in believe. Don't divide these. So in the speaking exam, we can say:

  • phar-ma-ceu-ti-cals (five syllables; the two vowels in 'eu' make one sound together)

If you're not sure whether two vowels should be separated or divided, look to other words that you know for clues. If you know that the vowels 'eu' in Europe make one sound together, you can suppose the same thing in the third syllable of pharmaceuticals.

Also, be aware that many English words such as universe and believe have a silent 'e' at the end. Since this 'e' is silent, don't count it as a syllable.

Step 3: Pronounce each syllable.

Say the syllables one by one.

  • phar
  • ma
  • ceu
  • ti
  • cals

Even if you don't know how to say the whole word, you probably have some general knowledge of pronunciation that you can use. In the word pharmaceuticals, you may already know that 'ph' in English has a /f/ sound, and that the letter 'c' can have a /s/ sound (often before the letter 'i' or 'e') or a /k/ sound. Also, if you know the word pharmacy, you already know how to say the first half of pharmaceuticals.

Step 4: Work out where to put the stress.

For words with more than one syllable, think about which syllable to stress. 

It's useful to consider any similar words that you know. If you already know how to say practical, historical, economical or optical (the stress is marked in bold), you may realise that for words ending in -ical, the stress normally falls on the syllable before -ical, i.e. the third-to-last syllable in the word.

This helps us to work out the stress position in pharmaceuticals too:

  • phar-ma-ceu-ti-cals (stress on the third-to-last syllable).

If you don't know any similar words, take your best guess based on what sounds good.

  • Ma-rek
  • Le-wan-dow-ski

Step 5: Say the whole word smoothly, with stress.

  • phar-ma-ceu-ti-cals
  • Ma-rek Le-wan-dow-ski

If you've followed all five steps, you have made a pretty good attempt at pronouncing these new words!

Spelling doesn't represent pronunciation perfectly, so we still can't know the pronunciation for sure. However, these five steps will help you to make a very good guess.

Discussion

Language level

Average: 4.7 (16 votes)

Submitted by chaoticmess on Fri, 03/05/2024 - 18:47

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I have ambivert thought towards that as, the difficulty of  pronounciation depends on the word. Sometimes it can be really challenging and a lot more times easy enough to deal with.

Profile picture for user Shweta Sameer

Submitted by Shweta Sameer on Tue, 23/04/2024 - 09:39

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Pro_nun_ci_a_tion   

Submitted by Lucirley on Sun, 07/04/2024 - 17:15

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I have making my test from level 1 I don't now where's the resoult.I lobe lerning english

Submitted by Ray_pwn on Fri, 05/04/2024 - 17:46

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English pronunciation is very challenging and it's always fun.