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Flap t FAQ

In all my years as an English learner, I thought using the flap t (the d-like sound found e.g. in letter) in American English was simple. When some dictionary publishers started using a special t with a small V sign underneath symbol in phonetic transcriptions to represent the flap t, I thought it was a useless gimmick.

That was what I had believed until last week, when I decided to write a FAQ about the flap t. It turns out I hadn’t realized a flap t is pronounced not just between a stressed vowel and an unstressed vowel (e.g. water, betting). There are a lot of other cases where /t/ is flapped. In fact, there are 12 to 15 different positions where that happens. And even this complicated system of rules has exceptions.

Now, when I say I hadn’t realized the flap t was pronounced in so many different positions, I don’t mean I had been pronouncing words incorrectly all those years. Quite the opposite — as I examined the different examples that I found in phonetic sources, I kept finding that my intuition matched the correct pronunciation almost perfectly. For example, I hadn’t known the rule that you pronounce a flap t before a stressed vowel if that vowel begins a word, as in not over. Yet, if you had asked me to say not over, I would have pronounced it with a flap t.

Once again, I realized that input had made me almost a native speaker of English. I can look at a word or phrase and tell you whether it has the flap t or not, without checking any rules. Heck, I could write pretty good rules for using the flap t just by thinking up some examples and checking my own pronunciation. All this is not because I can fly, stop accidents and eat planets. It’s because I’ve listened to thousands of hours of spoken English. Folks, Tom Cruise is not the answer — input is the answer.

So, if you’re going to read my Flap t FAQ, don’t pay too much attention to the rules. Focus on the examples (it has a lot of really good ones). Try to pronounce them. Add them to your collection in SuperMemo, Anki, Mnemosyne, etc. Good luck!


One Comment so far ↓

  • Shane

    I suggest you also write something about the usage of the glottal stop in AmEng. If you closely listen to songs, YouTube videos, or many native speakers, you’ll notice words like ca’ (cat), bu’n (button), can’ (can’t, this one can be complicated, but it’s distinguishable by the vowel), and nigh’ (night).

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