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Introduction to phonetic transcription

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

With phonetic transcriptions, dictionaries tell you about the pronunciation of words. In English dictionaries, phonetic transcriptions are necessary, because the spelling of an English word does not tell you how you should pronounce it.

Phonetic transcriptions are usually written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), in which each English sound has its own symbol. (You can take a look at a chart with all the English sounds and their IPA symbols.)

For example, the IPA-based phonetic transcription of the word home is hoʊm, and the transcription of come is kʌm. Note that in spelling, these words are similar. They both end in ome. But their phonetic transcriptions are different, because they are pronounced differently.

Phonetic transcription is usually given in brackets, like this: /hoʊm/, /kʌm/. In a dictionary, it looks like this:

dictionary definition of the word 'image'

(By the way, not all dictionaries give the pronunciations of words. If you are serious about learning English, you should buy a dictionary which has this information.)

Word stress

When a word has many syllables, one of them is always pronounced more strongly. This is called word stress, and we say that the syllable is stressed. For example, in the word become, the stressed syllable is come. If the stressed syllable was be, become would be pronounced like this.

Dictionaries tell you which syllable is stressed. The most popular system is to put a vertical line (ˈ) before the stressed syllable in the phonetic transcription of the word. For example, the transcription for become is /bɪˈkʌm/.

If a word has only one syllable (examples: pen, watch), dictionaries usually do not put the ˈ stress mark before it. So they don’t write /ˈpen/ — they simply write /pen/.

Some dictionaries use other systems for showing word stress. For example, they may put ˈ after the stressed syllable, or they may underline the stressed syllable.

A demonstration

Have a look at our demonstration of the phonetic transcription system. You can read the transcriptions of some English words and listen to their pronunciations at the same time.

Representing differences between British and American English

Many words are pronounced differently in British and American English. Of course, these differences must be reflected in phonetic transcriptions. There are two basic ways to do this:

  • Separate transcriptions for British and American English, for example:

    dot BrE /dɒt/, AmE /dɑːt/
    farm BrE /fɑːm/, AmE /fɑːrm/
    go BrE /gəʊ/, AmE /goʊ/
    mother BrE /ˈmʌðəʳ/, AmE /ˈmʌðər/ (or /ˈmʌðɚ/)

    This system is used in advanced learner’s dictionaries from Longman, Oxford and Cambridge. The problem with this system is that you have to write two transcriptions for most words, which takes up a lot of space.

  • One “compromise” transcription for both British and American English. This is done by using mostly British phoneme symbols plus the ʳ symbol.

    dot /dɒt/
    farm /fɑːʳm/
    go /goʊ/
    mother /ˈmʌðəʳ/

    In this system, transcriptions are shorter, but the reader has to know that, in American English, ɒ changes to ɑ: and ʳ changes to r. This system is used e.g. in the Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary and in many places on Antimoon.

Should you care about phonetic transcriptions?

Today, nearly all good English dictionaries have audio recordings. If you can listen to any English word as it is pronounced by a native speaker, why should you care about phonetic transcriptions? Here are a few reasons:

  • If you want to have good English pronunciation, you have to learn and practice all the English sounds anyway. If you’re going to learn each sound in the English sound chart, you might as well learn its symbol – it doesn’t take that much extra effort. It doesn’t even have to be a special project for you – all you have to do is pay attention to the phonetic transcriptions in your dictionary. That way, you will gradually learn the symbols.
    1. *) All word recordings in this section come from the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (Third Edition).

    Suppose you look up the word boot and listen to its recording*. In theory, if you are familiar with the sounds of English, you should be able to notice that boot has the “long u” sound of who and soon, and not the “short u” of good and book. But, in practice, you could miss that fact, especially if you’re a beginner or you’re not paying enough attention. If you also read the phonetic transcription /buːt/ and see the symbol (and know what it means), there’s a bigger chance that you will notice and remember the correct pronunciation.

    There are more words whose spelling can make you hear things that aren’t there. For example, many learners may “hear” that panda ends in the vowel ɑː, that hawk has a w sound, and that system has an e sound. In all such cases, phonetic transcriptions can help escape the illusion. (Unfortu­nately, they can create their own illusions.)

    Transcriptions can also stop you from hallucinating. Let me explain what I mean. Here’s an English word: colonel. And here is its audio pronunciation. Did you notice anything unusual about this word and its pronunci­ation? If you didn’t notice anything, here’s a hint: how many l’s does it have when you say it? That’s right – only one l. However, it is very easy to miss that because the spelling colonel makes you expect two l’s. This expectation can affect your perception – when you listen to the recording, it’s very easy to hear two l’s even though there is only one! Seeing the phonetic transcription /ˈkɜːnəl/ can help you notice that the first l in colonel is silent.

  • Dictionaries have more transcriptions than recordings. For example, the transcriptions may show two ways to pronounce a word, but the recording will show only one. If you can read phonetic transcriptions, you can get more information out of a dictionary.
  • On the Internet, people use phonetic transcription to discuss pronunciation problems. If you want to join the discussion, or ask questions, you have to know the transcription system.
  • There are situations when you cannot listen to sound – for example, the computer you’re using has no speakers, you don’t want to disturb other people, you are in a noisy environment and can’t hear the sound, you only have access to a paper dictionary, etc. Even if you can use audio, a glance at the transcription can be faster than clicking a button and listening to a recording.
  • If you’re making your own SRS items, you can add phonetic transcriptions more easily (and more quickly) than audio recordings. See also: pronunciation items.

In short, you can learn good English pronunciation without knowing the IPA symbols for English sounds, but learning those symbols is not that hard and you get a few nice benefits in return.

If you’re going to use phonetic transcriptions, you should know a few things about them.