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STRONG VS WEAK FORMS
Grammatical words are words that help us construct the sentence but they don’t mean anything: articles, prepositions, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs, etc.
These words have no stress, and so they are weakened. That weakened form is called “weak form” as opposed to a “strong form”, which is the full form of the word pronounced with stress. The strong form only happens when we pronounce the words alone, or when we emphasize them. Weak forms are very often pronounced with a schwa, and so are very weak and sometimes a bit difficult to hear properly.
Sometimes weak forms are easy to spot, because we use contractions in the spelling to show it:
I am French (strong form) I’m French (weak form)
But usually there is no change of spelling, only the pronunciation is different:
But strong form: /bʌt/ weak form: /bət/
Tell him to go strong forms /hɪm/ /tu:/ weak form: /tel əm tə gəʊ/
As you can see, the grammatical words “him” and “to” are unstressed and have a weak form when pronounced inside a sentence.
another example: I would like some fish and chips
strong forms /aɪ wʊd laɪk sʌm fɪʃ ænd tʃɪps/ This version sounds unnatural and, believe it or not, more difficult to understand for a native speaker.
weak forms /ɑ wəd laɪk səm fɪʃ ən tʃɪps/ and we can use weaker forms sometimes: /ɑd laɪk səm fɪʃ ən tʃɪps/ so we can see that the auxiliary verb “would” has two weak forms /wəd/ and /d/
Students who are learning English usually use only strong forms, and they sound very unnatural. English speakers use weak forms all the time, every single sentence is full of them, and students find it difficult to understand because they are not used to them, and very often they don’t even know they exist.
Why do grammatical words weaken the way they do. It’s all about rhythm. The way English is pronounced makes it necessary to weaken function words so you can keep the rhythm. You can find
more about rhythm here or simply watch this introduction video:
If you want to learn and practise weak forms follow these links:
A video explaining more about
Pronunciar las formas débiles una web con explicaciones en español.
Phonetics in British songs we analyse the pronunciation of the British group One Direction and Ed Sheeran to see the weak forms in action as they sing.
auxiliar verbs am, are, be, been, can, could, do, does, has, had, shall, should, was, were, would,
prepositions at, for, from, of, to,
pronouns he, her, him, his, me, she, them, us, we, you,
conjunctions for, and, but, or, than, that,
articles a, the, an,
It is worth noting that there are some function words that don’t have weak forms, such as a stranded preposition, as in the example where are you going TO? , where the word to cannot be in its weak form. Function words are closed class items, that is that this limited group of words is exhaustive, and that we can’t make up new ones, whereas open class words (as most content word types are) are invented all the time! See Wikipedia on this for more detail.
These function words have strong forms which are pronounced with their dictionary form—this is the pronunciation we use when we talk about the word. This involves a stressed, full form of its vowel. In their weak form, many of these vowels are reduced all the way to the center of the mouth, the schwa vowel. The indefinite article “A”, is only pronounced with its strong form [eɪ] when we are emphasizing it. Normally it’s just pronounced with a schwa, [ə] . In some cases, weak forms can be reduced by dropping certain sounds from their pronunciation, such as him, her pronounced as ‘im, ‘er. In other cases, vowels are dropped and final continuant consonants like l, n, or m, become syllabic, so words like shall become sh’ll [ʃɫ̩]. Can you work out the strong form of these words?
[ ðə, əm, bɪn, ɪm, ənd, ðəm, ɪz, ðət, ʃɫ, ðn]
So what does this have to do with intelligibility? The basic idea is that we need to find a balance between strong forms and weak forms. Stressed forms are a way of emphasizing words, particularly for function words, so if we need to stress a function word we use its strong dictionary form. But otherwise we don’t use its strong dictionary form and we need to reduce those words appropriately so they don’t stand out. Unfortunately some people are mistaken, and believe that they need to stress these weak form words in order to be clear. Adding emphasis to unimportant function words is a way of making your text less clear, and more confusing. Frequently you can hear journalists or news readers reading their way through a newscast, choosing to emphasize unimportant function words as a way to keep their reading “interesting sounding”. It’s so common that I think most of us have become immune to this strange way of reading aloud! I also tend to hear people who were taught to read aloud as children. Forensics programs teach kids to make presentations, and when they read aloud they frequently are told to elevate articles like the word “the” to their stressed form, “thee”. Unless we mean to say “that particular one”, we should always make this word by using the pronunciation with schwa. It is worth noting that when we hesitate, we do elevate indefinite and definite articles, a and the, to their strong form just before a pause. So though we might say “I bought a dog,” if we hesitated before saying dog, we would say “I bought A… dog” and use the [eɪ] pronunciation.
More formal registers, like those that come with speaking classical text or verse, demand that we avoid these forms. However, they do not require that we avoid weak forms altogether! I recall coaching the voice work on a production of Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller, and the director was insisting that the word “to” in all instances must be pronounced in its strong form, as [tu] always, never [tə] or even [tʊ]. The actors that she hired were very adept at giving her what she wanted (which was no mean feat), but their language sounded stilted, and confusing, as they continued to draw attention to words that weren’t important to their message. What had been adopted as Good Speech was merely an obstacle to the audience’s deeper involvement and engagement with the ideas of the play.
Where’s My Exercise?
OK, I get it. I’ve trained you to want an exercise you can apply this concept with! Here you go:
Start with a text you are familiar with. Let’s use the start of the most famous Shakespearean soliloquy of all time:
To be, or not to be, that is the question, Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them.
Try these steps with the text:
Speak the text, making all the words their strong, dictionary form, even going so far as to dial “the” up to “thee”, and “a” up to “eh”.
Explore the text being very emphatic with your point, and emphasize as many words as possible, but not the function words.
Try to emphasize only one or two words per line, and reduce all the function words as much as you can.
Try eliding words together, like “That’s the question.”
Could you get away with a fully reduced weak form (à la informal register) in some of these words? “An’ by opposin’ end ’em.” How comfortable are you with that?
Now speak the text again, but this time try to find a balance—how far feels appropriate for you in reducing these words from their strong form?
In my experience, many people report that their tolerance to reducing words to their weak form in a classical text is very limited. Part of this comes from the tradition of Classical theatre—that people expect a certain level of elocution associated with these texts, an “extra-daily” approach that goes beyond the way we speak naturally. Overdoing this will also affect the meter, and those of us who feel a responsibility to uphold the structure of the meter will chafe against this idea. But I think it’s a great way of taking note of our expectations of a certain level of diction, and pushing our buttons.
Angle Heart, a Facebook Page fan, requested more information about strong and weak forms. This is so easy to teach in person, and so hard to write about, because strong and weak forms are about sounds, not written words.
You’ll find lots of lessons on the internet describing when to use a strong form and when to use a weak form. I think they’re usually written by English speakers who hope to describe all the forms and generalize them into “rules”.
Perhaps the problem lies, in part, in the terms we use: “strong” and “weak” They really aren’t forms. To my mind, they might be better described as dynamics or strategies, because in English they’re adjustable.
The sound of English relies on contrasts in sound. We create contrasts in our speaking that act like sign-posts, I call them “soundposts” ©™, which signal to the listener what they should pay close attention to and remember, versus what they should hear and understand but not remember as notable. There are at least 5 ways we make adjustments to create clear contrasts of strong and weak sounds:
The vowels in beat, bit, bet, but, boot, bat, bite, bait, bought, and boat all require careful articulation, because the vowels are the only thing that makes these words different. Each word has a different meaning, and each is only different from the other because of its vowel sound. For the sake of your listener, you must make each of these vowels clear enough to be recognized.
But the role of vowels in a multi-syllable word e.g. “accident” is to help create contrast between syllables. This word has a particular soundprint©™ (like a footprint in wet sand, its shape is obvious to our ear); it has a strongly stressed first syllable [aek] in which the vowel must be clear, followed by the second, less-stressed syllable [s?], in which the vowel /i/ is weakened to a schwa; and in the third syllable, the vowel /e/ seems to disappear completely from the sound [dnt]. This creates acoustic contrast: Clear First Syllable vs. Fuzzy Second and Third. Strong First Syllable vs. Weak Second and Third.Stressed First Syllable vs. Unstressed Second and Third.
Remember-this is spoken English, not written English. Native English speakers learn to adjust the contrast of syllables long before they learn to read and write. They learn the tools to signal changes in their messages, that signal importance. These sound signals, or sound-posts©™ as I call them, , are the way we organize our messages for our listeners, when there is no printed word to be read and referenced.
We usually stretch the vowel out longer in a stressed syllable. Look at the word accident again: although the first syllable only has two sounds, [ae, k], it is given a longer duration than either of the following syllables. By stretching it out, and shortening the unstressed syllables, we hear the word’s soundprint©™-it’s characteristic sound shape. When we shorten the unstressed syllables, we often swallow some of the sounds.
We pitch a word or syllable higher if we want to stress it, and we pitch it lower if we want to downplay or weaken it. In the word accident, the first syllable is on a higher pitch than the others. There is a wave to the sound that starts higher and ends lower. This frequent, specific pitch adjustment is difficult for Spanish speakers.
The same is true for volume. We increase the volume or energy of our voice on the first syllable of accident, and lower the volume or energy on the following syllables.
This contrast-building happens at every level of sound in English:
we have strong vowels and weak vowels: we even change strong vowels to make them weaker, if they occur in unstressed syllables of words. This is why you have to study about the schwa. We change vowels that are too strong to schwa or short I if they occur in an unstressed syllable of a word.
we have strong consonants that we keep strong in stressed syllables of words, but we downplay those same consonants when they occur in unstressed syllables of words
we create strong and weak syllables: we stress one or two syllables but downplay the others, depending on the word
we create strong and weak words: we stress new or critical information in a sentence, and downplay the known information or the grammatical markers
we create strong and weak sentences: we stress ideas that introduce and develop our topic, and downplay those statements that merely carry the topic forward without anything new or remarkable.
I’ve spent most of this post talking about vowels, consonants, and syllables because few teachers try to explain strong vs. weak at the pronunciation level, but keep in mind these ideas about “soundprints” and “soundposts” as you look at other material on the internet. We make contrasts using pitch, duration, clarity, volume, and energy.
I hope I haven’t made this harder to understand. It’s not as complex or complicated as you might think. If you have questions, or I can clarify in some way, please ask. I would appreciate your thoughts and feedback, because I’ll be publishing all of this in the near future. Any suggestions or requests would be welcome!
Finally, I came across this question on a forum asking whether to use strong and weak forms when reading a text; quite a few people responded.
Show, Don’t Tell
Every writer knows this mantra, but sometimes it’s hard to figure out exactly what that means. The verb “to be” and all its iterations often takes a writer down the “telling” path. Here’s a blatant example:
“The mountain was big.”-How big? Bigger than a car? A house?
I’m telling you something here about a mountain, but not showing you anything at all. Here’s how a couple of strong verbs can show how big that mountain really is:
“Mt. Rainier thrusts its stony, snow-capped peak more than 14,000 feet into the brilliant blue skies of western Washington, where it reigns as the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states.”
“The movie was great.”-Really? You wouldn’t know it from that sentence. How about:
“The new indie film struck a chord with the audience, who gasped in horror over the grisly murder, but laughed uproariously when the murderer slipped on a bloody banana peel.”
“The new indie film struck a chord with the audience, who gasped in horror over the grisly murder, but …
… guffawed when the murderer slipped on a bloody banana peel.”
… snickered when the murderer slipped on a bloody banana peel.”
… tittered when the murderer slipped on a bloody banana peel.”
In each of these examples, I found the replacement verb distracting, so I stuck with my original verb: “to laugh”. The problem was that just “laughing” didn’t seem to provide enough of a contrast to gasping in horror, so I added “uproariously” to heighten the difference.
Adverbs and adjectives are not bad in and of themselves. Words are a writer’s palette and they come in all colors, but writers should choose carefully, not rely on the default settings.
“To write” is a verb-an action word-so act with intention when you write.
Finding the right word is often dependent on context. A flabby verb will work almost anywhere, but a strong verb fits best within a particular context. For example, let’s look at two sentences using the common (flabby) verb “went”:
The racehorse went around the track three times.
The airplane went slowly across the tarmac.
While the word “went” works just as well (or poorly) in each of these sentences, stronger, more precise verbs will bring them to life and paint completely different pictures.
The racehorse trotted around the track three times.
The racehorse galloped around the track three times.
The racehorse limped around the track three times.
“Trotted”, “galloped”, and “limped” are all fine synonyms for “went” in this sentence, and each one delivers a different image of our horse. None of these verbs, however, can replace “went” in our second sentence, but a more precise verb choice, such as “inched” or “rolled”, will give us a better picture of how that plane moved on the tarmac.
I recently gave this same exercise to some students, asking them to replace the word “went” in the following 10 sentences. In parentheses, I have shown their suggestions. We then voted on the best changes.
Which verb would you have chosen, or do you have an even better suggestion?
The jockey nearly flew off his saddle as the horse went (raced, ran, bolted, galloped) for the finish line.
The ghost faded before their eyes as he went (floated, disappeared, evaporated, glided) through the closed door.
The old jalopy went (zigzagged, lumbered, hiccoughed, bumbled) down the street, belching little clouds of black smoke in its wake.
Even with a fever of 104°, the dedicated nurse went (dragged herself, made it, schlepped, trudged) to the hospital.
“You’re going to miss my exit!” shouted the passenger, as the taxi driver made a hard right and went (careened, rolled, skidded, screeched) onto the ramp.
The passengers heaved a collective sigh of relief as the airplane went (lifted, rose, glided, elevated) silently up into the sky.
After months of suffering, the cancer patient went (passed away, perished, died, expired) quietly in his sleep.
While the grownups around him carefully avoided the puddles, the little boy went (jumped, skipped, splashed, pranced) right through them.
“I’m not tired and I don’t want to go to bed!” Tommy protested as he went (stomped, scrambled, trudged, stumbled) up the stairs.
Batman went (dove, stormed, swung, soared) into action, taking the bad guys by surprise.
One of my favorite classroom exercises is to bring in a poster board titled “Bad Words”, with the list of offending words draped in a piece of black tissue paper. I tell the class to think (not say) the worst word they can think of. This always elicits lots of giggling and then surprise when I reveal my list of “bad words”:
But, as George Carlin once noted, there aren’t really any bad words. There are only poor choices. In any given context, a word can be imprecise, flabby, flowery, boring, or perfect. It’s up to you, the writer, to choose the right ones.
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