Thursday 29 April 2010


Dear Professsor Wells,
I’m confused about the pronunciation of the prefix re-. When does it have the DRESS vowel? LPD says “if stressed through the operation of a stressing rule”, but I don’t understand what that means.

Let’s try to set out the facts about this prefix using a different approach.

1. When re- means ‘again’, it is pronounced ri: and stressed. So we have for example reapply, renegotiate, reconsider, all with ˌriː-. In words such as refit, rethink, rerun we get the familiar stress difference between verb and noun, but the first part is always riː. A ˈrefit, but to ˌreˈfit. So far, the rule is easy.

2. When re- has a vaguer meaning, it usually gets weakened and is unstressed. We have ri- or rə- (it doesn’t matter which) in words like remember, retain, remarkable, repeat. This rule is easy, too. However, if the sound immediately after the re- is a vowel, then we always have ri- (= riː- or rɪ or something intermediate). The only important example is react riˈækt and its derivatives.

3. Now we come to the tricky bit. If re- has the vague meaning AND IS STRESSED, AND IS FOLLOWED BY A CONSONANT SOUND, then it is pronounced re-. This type includes several well-known words: relative ˈrelətɪv, recognize, reference, relevance, and also for example recompense, replicate, resonate. (Compare relate, refer, where the re- is unstressed and weak.)

4. If the main stress is on the syllable after the syllable after the re- (= two syllables later), we normally get secondary stress on the re-, which therefore has a strong vowel, which again is e. So we have for example reclamation ˌrekləˈmeɪʃən (compare the verb reclaim with weak re-), recognition, recommend ˌrekəˈmend, recreation, reformation, relativity, reparation, repetition, replication, reprehensible, represent, reservation, resignation, restoration.
Types 3 and 4 are therefore the words I mean when I say “if stressed…”. They are the ones that present the greatest problem for learners of EFL.

5. This being English, some words are irregular and exceptional. For example, many people pronounce one or all of relaxation, resistivity, retardation in a way that violates the above rules.

6. These principles also apply to de- and pre-. Examples: 1. deconstruct, predetermine; preprint; 2. decide, prepare; 3. deference, preference; 4. dereliction, preparation; 5. AmE treats premature as having the explicit meaning ‘before’ (ˌpriː-); BrE treats it as having the vague meaning (ˌpre-).

Sorry, it’s still pretty complicated.


  1. My EFL intuition suggests /rᵻˌlæksˈeɪʃən/, /ˌresᵻˈstɪvᵻti/ and /ˌretəˈdeɪʃən/, where by "/ᵻ/" I mean "/ɪ/ or /ə/ (it doesn’t matter which)". How weird would they be for NSs? (Don't ask me about the difference between the first and the third...)

  2. I have /i/ in all the Group 2 words that you mention except decide, and I think this may be typical of AmE.

  3. Due to my mix of AmE and BrE influences, I accept and use both pronunciations for premature. If pushed, I would prefer the AmE /ˌpriː-/.

    I interestingly seem to prefer /pre-/ for both predecessor and predilection (though again, I use both sets of pronunciations). According to the LPD, I'm siding with AmE in the former and BrE in the latter.

  4. How 'bout be-? I've heard native speakers pronounce the first syllable of believe with FLEECE, schwa, and (almost) anything between them.

  5. Zero, in fact. But I don't remember hearing [i:] unless somebody says it very emphatically. basically syllable by syllable ("I DON'T bee-LIEVE it!!"). Even then I'm not sure -most people would still have a short i, I think.

  6. /ɪ/, I meant - this is exavtly one of those situations where it could be quite long.

  7. I'm American and "predecessor" with FLEECE in the first syllable sounds strange to me. Maybe it's more of a British pronunciation. DRESS in the first syllable is definitely the more common pronunciation here.

    Those rules are very complicated. I'm glad I don't have to memorize them.

  8. Thanks for your explanation! Do you have a reference for it, or is this something you worked out for yourself? I've been trying to work out an explanation for my students and had arrived at something like #s 1 and 2, but the others are useful, too.

    I agree with "Anonymous"-- many times I have told students and colleagues that I'm just glad I didn't have to learn English!


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