Tuesday 25 October 2011

incomplete plosion?

What, if anything, do you understand by the term ‘incomplete plosion’?

It is a term not to be found, as far as I can see, in any work by Gimson, O’Connor, Cruttenden, Roach, Ladefoged, Collins/Mees or in fact any British phonetician later than Daniel Jones (but see below). It’s not in SID. I haven’t checked American sources, but I don’t think they use it either. So I was a little surprised when I found it in the draft of a textbook of English phonetics by a Chinese author that I was asked to read.
When a plosive sound is immediately followed by another plosive sound, only the second plosive is fully exploded, but the closure of the first plosive sound (the 2nd stage of the first plosive) is held for double the usual time. This is known as incomplete plosion.
Examples given include such cases as the k acting ˈæktɪŋ or the ɡ in begged beɡd.

This is what I call ‘no audible release’ or ‘masking’ of a plosive. We also sometimes speak of ‘overlapping plosives’. Because of the supervening second plosive, the release of the first plosive in such sequences cannot be heard, being masked by the hold of the second plosive. Acoustically, what you get in ˈæktɪŋ is the formant transitions of a velar approach, a long silence (the double hold) and the formant transitions of an alveolar release. (The assertion that the first plosive is held for double the usual time is simply wrong.)

I do remember Gordon Arnold, one of my teachers at UCL, when I was studying phonetics as a postgraduate, telling me that the expression ‘incomplete plosion’ was strongly deprecated. The term ‘incomplete plosive’ was not quite so absurd, he said, but I should still prefer ‘plosive with no audible release’. I had the general impression that these were unfortunate Jonesian terms which his successors were trying to eradicate.

Accordingly, in my Practical Phonetics (with Greta Colson, Pitman, 1971, p, 73) I wrote
Another term sometimes encountered, INCOMPLETE PLOSION, is misleading and best avoided.

In a quick search of Jones’s major works, however, I can find no instance of ‘incomplete plosion’, only ‘incomplete plosive (consonants)’, e.g. at §§578-585 in the 1957 edition of An Outline of English Phonetics. Under that heading Jones deals not only with masked release but also with what we might now call gemination, zero release or unreleased plosives, in homorganic plosive sequences such as red deer and eggcup.

A Google search for ‘incomplete plosion’ brings up an old lecture handout on Rachael-Anne Knight’s website, which wrongly defines the IPA diacritic [˺] as denoting ‘incomplete plosion’. (In the current IPA Chart it is defined as ‘no audible release’.) She includes not only acting but also cases such as take five, where ‘narrow release may also apply’ (???).

Apart from this one document from a NS phonetician, Google directs us to a Powerpoint presentation from Xi'an Jiaotong University and some Chinese instructional material on English phonetics.
When a plosive consonant is immediately followed by another plosive, only the second plosive is fully exploded, the first plosive is incomplete. This is known as incomplete plosion, which often takes place at the junction of words.
For example:
actor doctor football black tea sit down a good teacher
1. They collected pennies. 2. She slept badly.

It would appear then that this terminology, obsolete or at least disfavoured among NS phoneticians, lives on in the local tradition of English phonetics in the People’s Republic.


  1. Very useful post! I'd never heard of "incomplete plosion," and I must say I would have found it puzzling.

    With my clients I usually refer to a plosive with no audible release as "the stop without the plosion," or, with tongue visibly in cheek, as an "unploded stop."

    I do generally call plosives stop-plosives (thanks to the influence of Dudley Knight), to help reinforce the client's understanding of what's involved in producing these sounds. And, having established that one can have a stop without the plosion, I ask whether one can have a plosion without the stop. When this elicits a negative answer, I know some real understanding has been achieved.

    I really should remember to spend some time explaining that "no audible release" is the correct terminology!

  2. John, the expression 'incomplete plosion' also features in Patricia Ashby's new book "Understanding Phonetics" (2011; Hodder Education). On page 137 the author says:

    "... The first plosive in the sequence effectively lacks a release phase and the second lacks an approach phase. [...] The first in each sequence would be said to be unreleased or to have incomplete plosion."

  3. incomplete plosion occurs at word boundary. It could be plosive + plosive, or plosive + affricate: That teacher, that church, where the first sound of the following word is really plosive.

  4. Haha, I don't know who created the term incomplete plosive exactly. But among Chinese students, this term is used a lot because it is easy understood and simple. Maybe in some day, the real and traditional English phonetic system would be imported by someone. However, I am not sure whether it could be easily accepted and useful for a non-native English speaker, especially for the beginners.


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