Double-click any word on this page to check its definition and pronunciation in a dictionary.

Flap t FAQ

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

What is the flap t?

In American English, the /t/ phoneme can be pronounced in several ways, depending on its position within a word or phrase. In some positions, it can be pronounced as the so-called flap t, which sounds like a short d or, more precisely, like the quick, hard r sound heard in some languages, e.g. in Spanish pero or Polish teraz.

Here are some audio examples of words which are usually pronounced with the flap t in American English. Variants with the regular t are given for comparison.

with flap t with normal t
letter letter
get in get in
beetle beetle
wanted wanted

While the name flap t is widely used in literature, the proper phonetic name for the flap t sound is alveolar tap. It is also called the flapped t, tapped t or tap t.

What is the phonetic symbol for the flap t?

The proper (narrow) phonetic symbol for the alveolar tap is ɾ. In phonemic transcriptions (such as are found in dictionaries), the flap t is represented with the same symbol as the regular t, since it belongs to the /t/ phoneme. Nevertheless, some dictionaries use the symbol (t with a small v underneath) in American transcriptions to indicate the places where a flap t is normally pronounced.

When is the flap t used?

The chart below shows the positions in which speakers of General American typically pronounce /t/ as a flap t:

the chart described above
  1. * When /n/ is followed by a flap t, the /n/ merges with the flap t or the /t/ is silent and only /n/ is heard (see below for details).
  2. ** After /l/, the flap t is pronounced only by less careful speakers. If you want to speak “proper” American English, you should pronounce a normal t.

Examples

(Stressed vowels are marked with the acute accent (´). The flap t is represented by the t symbol.)

  before unstressed vowel before syllabic /l/ before stressed vowel at start of word
after stressed vowel ter, debáting, píck it úp, whó to bláme tal méet Álex, t óver, béat áll (but not: bé táll)
after unstressed vowel rélative, metabólic, pláy it agáin, háppy togéther hóspital ríot áct, knów it áll (but not: knów a táll)
after /r/ dírty, artifícial, cómforting, éxpert advíce, éager to hélp túrtle sórt óut, désert éagle
after /n/
pronounced as merged [nt] or [n] alone (more)
cénter, wárranted, the póint of, séen togéther incidéntal went óff, fréquent íssue
after /l/
careless ― not recommended
insúlted, fáculty, dífficult idéa gúiltily spóilt ápples, ásphalt índustry

Note that it is always acceptable to pronounce a regular [t] sound instead of a flap t. However, Americans only do so when they are really trying to speak clearly. In typical usage, including TV broadcasts and university lectures, the flap t is the norm in all the positions shown above except after /l/ and /n/. (After /n/, there is often a silent t instead of a flap t.)

When is the flap t not used?

  • Anywhere other than the positions listed in the above table, for example:
    • before a consonant: central, Atkins, pit bull
    • before a stressed vowel inside a word: a táble, photógraphy, seventéen
    • before a stressed vowel at end of word: intó
    • after a consonant other than /n/, /r/ or /l/: listing, after, helicopter
    • at the beginning of a phrase: Today I’ll show them!
    • at the end of a phrase: Who is it?
    • before the syllabic n: button
  • In careful speech, i.e. when the speaker is trying to speak clearly.

Are there any exceptions to the above rules?

Yes. There are words and phrases where the flap t is not used, even though the above rules are satisfied. For example:

  • after stressed vowel, before unstressed vowel: détail, íTunes, frée Tibét
  • after unstressed vowel, before unstressed vowel: dógmatism, sólitude, mílitary, nícotine, hád a Toyóta, Mórley Tobácco
  • after /r/, before unstressed vowel: súrtax, áirtight, róugher terráin, néwer technólogy
  • after /n/, before unstressed vowel: cóntact, sýntax, Ántony, Árgentine, Mácintosh, béen terrífic
  • after /l/, before unstressed vowel (even in careless speech): difficulty, alter, guilty, shelter

There are also words and phrases where flap t is used in spite of the above rules. One example is whatéver, in which a flap t is heard before a stressed vowel which is not at the start of a word.

What’s the deal with the flap t after /n/?

When a word or phrase contains the /n/ phoneme followed by the /t/ phoneme, followed by an unstressed vowel, syllabic l or a stressed vowel at the beginning of a word, there are three things that can happen in American English:

  1. The /nt/ can be pronounced as simply [nt] (with a normal [t]). This pronunciation is always correct, but sometimes may sound too careful.
  2. The /nt/ can merge into a single sound — a nasalized flap t (nasalized alveolar tap), which sounds like this in the word wanted. The /n/ gets assimilated and all that is left of it is the air coming out of your nose when you pronounce a flap t. This pronunciation is usually correct, except for some words like cóntact (for more examples, see previous question), in which you have to pronounce a normal [t].
  3. The /t/ may be silent, which means that /nt/ turns into [n] — for example, dentist sounds like dennist and painting sounds like paining. There is a fair number of words where this cannot happen (they must be pronounced the first or second way), for example: ninety, carpenter, patented. However, in many words like hunter, incidental or twenty, this is the most frequently heard pronunciation.

To put it differently, there are three types of words which contain the /nt/ cluster:

  1. Words in which only the normal t is correct. These are words in which /nt/ is followed by a consonant (central), the syllabic n (wanton) or a stressed vowel (untie), as well as exceptions listed in the previous question.
  2. Words in which you can pronounce a normal t or a nasalized flap t, but not a silent t: ninety, carpenter, warranted, patented
  3. Words in which you can pronounce a normal t, a nasalized flap t, or a silent t: dentist, twenty, winter, painting, pointed, bounty

Do writer and rider sound the same in American English?

Well, they can sometimes sound the same. The t in writer /ˈraɪtər/ is typically a flap t, and the /d/ in rider /ˈraɪdər/ is often pronounced as a flap t (alveolar tap) as well.

However, in most cases, there is a difference between the vowel sounds which come before the /t/ and /d/ in writer and rider, respectively. Both vowels are represented by the /aɪ/ phoneme, but the vowel is typically longer and more open in rider than it is in writer.

Do I have to learn to use the flap t?

No. You can have good, level 3 pronunciation even if you never use the flap t and always pronounce the normal t. However, if you want to have a native-like American accent, the flap t is essential.

How can I learn to use the flap t correctly?

As you can see, the flap t occurs in many different positions in American English. While it is possible to memorize the rules, there are a substantial number of exceptions, and — more importantly — you cannot really apply the rules while speaking. There is just no time to think about stressed syllables and word-initial vowels.

Therefore, the best way to master the flap t is to listen to lots of words which contain the flap t and regular t. That should give you a pretty good intuitive grasp of when it is natural to use the flap t. If you want to accelerate the process, you can take all the examples from this page and add them as pronunciation items to your spaced-repetition software.

How do I add information about the flap t to my SRS collection?

Normal phonemic transcriptions do not distinguish between the normal t and the flap t, so you would have to use additional symbols. For example, if you use Antimoon’s ASCII system, you can extend it with a symbol like /D/, which is supposed to stand for “flap t or normal t in American English, but only normal t in British English”.

Q pron: "letter"
A /'leD..r/
Q pron: "expert advice"
A /'eksp..(r)D..d'vais/

What about words in which the t follows n? You can do the following:

Q pron: "ninety"
A /'nainDi(:)/


Note: In AmE, /nD/ is pronounced as a nasalized flap t.

Finally, here is an example item for words in which t can be silent, such as dentist and bounty:

Q pron: "bounty"
A /'baunDi(:) | AmE also 'bauni(:)/


Note: In AmE, /nD/ is pronounced as a nasalized flap t.