Tuesday 4 September 2012

follow the rules!

Some EFL learners don’t seem to quite believe the rules the textbooks give, or hesitate to follow the logic implicit in them.

Minfeng writes as follows, I assume from China. He or she (I can never tell with Chinese personal names) is clearly oriented towards BrE rather than AmE; I have adjusted the phonetic symbols to those I customarily use.

1) In the strong form, the pronunciation of "to him" is /tuː hɪm/; but when it's in the weak form, is it /tu ɪm/, or /tə ɪm/? I think it's /tu ɪm/, since /tu/ is used instead of // before vowels (/ɪ/ here). I would like to know whether I am right here?
2) If I'm correct with 1), I assume that the weak form of "to her" is /tu ə/ instead of /tə ə/.
3) Should I pronounce the weak form of "for him" as /fər ɪm/ since "for" is followed by a vowel (/ɪ/, but not /h/ here)?
4) Same as 3), should I pronounce the weak form of "for her" as /fər ə/ (but not /fə ə/)?

My answer, perhaps too laconic, was

1 Yes
2 Yes
3 Yes
4 Yes
Just follow the rules.

Of course, it’s a little bit more complicated than that.

First, a phrase such as to him or to her does not as such have a strong form or a weak form. Rather, it is the individual words making up the phrase (i.e. to, him, her) that have strong and weak forms. It is perfectly possible for the preposition to be pronounced strong and the pronoun weak, or vice versa (for some discussion of this issue, see my blog, 1 October 2009).

Secondly, in real life the weak forms of him and her do not necessarily involve dropping the h; and the weak form of her does not necessarily involve weakening the vowel from ɜː to ə. That’s why in LPD I give the weak forms (sic, plural) of him as hɪm, ɪm, and the weak forms (sic again) of her as hə, ɜː, ə. (Let's ignore the question of whether the strong-vowel variants can truly be called weak forms, and overlook the fact that ɪ is sometimes a strong vowel, sometimes a weak one. I'm talking about the forms used in positions where on other grounds we expect a weak form.)

Thirdly, in real life it is not unknown for speakers to weaken to to even before a following vowel and/or to fail to use a linking r with for. So in real life you do sometimes get pronunciations such as tə ɪm, tə ə, fə ɪm, fə ɜː. Nevertheless, EFL learners are recommended to follow the rules as given which will always generate an acceptable pronunciation.


  1. There is also the frightening question of "counterpresuppositionals/insists", where the nucleus falls on the preposition. I remember the following conversation in a film by Woody Allen (the wording might not be very accurate):
    - Diane Keaton (I think it was her): Remember when you were in the Philarmonic?
    - Woody Allen: I was never \IN the Philarmonic!

  2. OK, yes, I made a mistake -it's PhilHarmonic.
    Oh my God, now the whole world will know that Emilio Márquez is a failure, and all because of the new identity policy of this blessed blog!

  3. I (an American) don't use the weak form /ɪm/ after the vowels ə,ɔ,ɑ . It's either /hɪm/ or a syllabic /m/ (or maybe it's /əm/ — this feels a lot like /m/ to me).

    1. As far as I can tell, [əm] and [m̩] are not in contrastive distribution, whereas [əm] and non-syllabic [m] are, so personally between slashes I would only use /əm/. I can live with /m̩/, but I hate plain /m/ for syllabic consonants, as this convention gives you no way to tell how many syllables /ˈiːvnɪŋ/ or /ˈlaɪtnɪŋ/ are supposed to be. (I know about varisyllabic words, but the solution IMO is marking the /ə/ as optional, via italics or whatever.)

  4. First, a phrase such as to him or to her does not as such have a strong form or a weak form. Rather, it is the individual words making up the phrase (i.e. to, him, her) that have strong and weak forms.

    That confused me for a moment, too, because I can't think of a not-very-uncommon situation where one would use the strong forms of both words.

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