The Schwa Sound: Examples, Meaning, Pronunciation

The schwa sound explained.  Examples, lists of schwa words, free schwa sound resources.

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Contents:

What is the Schwa Sound?

Linguists often describe the schwa sound as an ‘unstressed’ vowel sound.  This just means the schwa vowel is said with less emphasis than other vowels. 

Unstressed words or syllables are spoken with a lower pitch and usually said a bit more quickly and quietly than stressed ones.

The short video below discusses the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables…

The idea of stress can be illustrated by looking at some homographs

For example, the word ‘desert’ can be a noun which means an area that has very little rain, or it can be a verb which means to leave the armed forces without permission. 

Each word sounds quite different because the first syllable is stressed in one form of the word and the second syllable is stressed in the other.

Similarly, the word ‘entrance’ can be somewhere you get into a building, or a very attractive person might be able to entrance someone with their looks and charm.  Again, the words are pronounced differently due to the way each syllable is stressed.

The word present is another example.  Notice the different ways it would be pronounced in the sentences below…

“I’m looking for a birthday present for my mother.” And,

 “I have to present the findings of my investigation to the group tomorrow.”

The stress in words can also change depending on whether they are used as nouns and adjectives or verbs. 

For example, compare the pronunciation of perfect in:

“It was a perfect day.”  And,

“She was determined to perfect her dance routine before the show.”

There are lots more examples in our section on ‘Teaching about Stress in Words.’

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How is the Schwa Sound Pronounced?

The schwa sound is usually pronounced like the short /u/ sound found in words like ‘up’ or ‘sun’.  However, it can also sound like a reduced ‘short i’ sound in some words depending on a person’s accent.

There’s a helpful pronunciation guide with audio in the following link from Pronunciation Studio and British phonics teacher Mr Thorne pronounces and explains the schwa sound with several examples in the short video below:

English teacher Emma gives a more detailed explanation of how to pronounce the schwa with more examples in this video:

What is the Difference Between the Schwa Sound and Short u?

The schwa sound is spoken a bit more quickly than short u, and it’s pronounced more softly with a lower tone.  For many people, short /u/ and shwa sound exactly the same.  However, trained linguists can notice the subtle differences between the sounds.

Interestingly, even though schwa is the most common vowel sound in English, most native English speakers have never heard of the term and they don’t even realise they say it in some words unless it is pointed out to them. 

English teacher Edward pronounces both sounds in the video below and explains the differences between them:

There’s a more detailed explanation about the differences between the schwa and short u in this podcast from pronuciation.com.

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What is the symbol for the Schwa sound?

The schwa symbol used in the International Phonetic Alphabet is Ə.  It looks like an upside-down letter e. 

Since most people aren’t familiar with this symbol, schwa is sometimes written as ‘uh’ in phonics programmes.  The letter h after the u is to indicate that the schwa sound is different from the ‘long u’ sound found in words like human, music unicorn and emu.

Examples of the Schwa Sound in Words

We’ve produced a comprehensive list of words with the schwa sound below.  But first we’ll look at where you can expect to find the schwa sound in words and why different sources can sometimes be inconsistent.

You might also find the video below useful as it explains the use of the schwa well and contains lots of examples:

The schwa sound is common in words with more than one syllable.  It’s pronounced in the unstressed syllables. 

For example, the second syllables in the following words are unstressed and the letters highlighted in red represent the schwa sound: sofa, bitten, pencil, carrot, circus.

The first syllables are unstressed in this next group of words, so the schwa sound appears in the first syllable for each word: again, effect, bikini, police, support, syringe.

In words with more than 2 syllables, the schwa sound can be found in the middle of a word when the syllable is unstressed.  For example, alphabet and dinosaur.

A schwa can also be found in a few short one-syllable words such as ‘to’, ‘for’ and ‘as’.  These words aren’t pronounced with a schwa sound when they are spoken in isolation, but the vowels are often unstressed when the words form part of a sentence.

For example:

“I want to go home for lunch.  Can you give me a lift?” Might be pronounced as:

“I want tuh go home fuh lunch.  Cuhn yuh give me uh lift?”

“I’m not as tall as you.” Might be pronounced as:

“I’m not uhz tall uhz you.”

“It was him!” Might be pronounced as:

“It wuhz him”

“Cup of tea.”  Might be pronounced as:

“Cup uh tea.”

The most common word with the schwa sound is ‘the’, where the letter e is often pronounced as ‘uh’. 

For example, “The dog barked.” (Thuh dog barked).  “The cat jumped” (Thuh cat jumped).  “The big bad wolf.” (Thuh big bad wolf).

However, many people don’t say the schwa sound in ‘the’ when the following word starts with a vowel sound.  Instead, they pronounce the letter e as /ee/*. 

*This is represented by the symbol (I:) in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

So, ‘The End’ is pronounced as ‘Thee end’, and ‘The alligator.’ would be pronounced as ‘Thee alligator’.

Some phrases can contain both pronunciations of the.  For example, if you listen to part of the chorus in Katy Perry’s hit record ‘Roar’, you will notice she sings “I got the eye of the tiger, …” as “I got thee eye of thuh tiger, …”.

The is also sometimes said as thee for emphasis in a sentence.

For example, if a young person said, “I saw Justin Bieber yesterday”.  Their friend might reply, “What! Thee Justin Beeber?”

Another example, someone might say, “You must go to Ibiza for holiday this year.  It’s thee place to be if you want to party.”

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Variations with regional accents.

There is considerable variation in the way people from different English-speaking regions pronounce the sounds in words.  This occurs both between different countries and in different locations within the same country.  Even people who live in the same town might pronounce some words differently.

Consequently, some sources might say certain words contain a schwa sound whereas others will say they contain different sounds.

For example, some people might pronounce the highlighted letters in the words, ‘bikini’ and ‘below’ as the ‘uh’ schwa sound, whereas others would use a reduced ‘short i’ sound.

Similarly, the ‘ai’ digraph in words like ‘captain’ and ‘mountain’ can be pronounced as a either an ‘uh’ schwa sound or a ‘short i’ sound.

And in parts of the UK and Australia, vowel digraphs ending in the letter r are often pronounced as schwa sounds.  For example, the highlighted letters in cellar, teacher, doctor and Arthur.  However, people in the USA are more likely to pronounce a reduced /ur/ sound at the end of these words.

The video below explains the different pronunciations:

We provide more examples in our article on the er digraph.

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Explaining the Schwa Sound in Some Example Words

We’ve indicated the schwa sound as ‘uh’ in the words below rather than the official IPA symbol, Ə.

The schwa sound in ‘about’ and ‘above’…

Both words contain 2 syllables and the second syllable is stressed in each word:

a / bout          a / bove

The initial unstressed syllable is pronounced with the schwa sound in each case:

uhbout           uhbuv

The schwa sound in ‘Australia’…

Australia can be pronounced in several different ways, but it’s often pronounced with 3 syllables and the middle syllable is stressed:

Aus / tral / ia

The letter i is often pronounced as /y/ and most sources agree that the final syllable is pronounced with a schwa.  Pronunciations of the first syllable vary, with some people pronouncing it as ‘os’ and others as ‘aws’.  However, some Australian dictionaries indicate that the first syllable can be pronounced with a schwa sound, so the overall pronunciation of the word can contain 2 schwa sounds:

Uhstrailyuh

The schwa sound in ‘banana’…

Banana contains 3 syllables with the second syllable being stressed:

Ba / na / na

The vowels in the unstressed first and last syllables are often pronounced as the schwa sound:

buhnarnuh

The schwa sounds in ‘circus’, ‘compass’, ‘gallop’, ‘happen’, ‘heaven’, ‘nickel’, ‘stomach’ and ‘thousand’…

All these words contain 2 syllables and the first syllable is stressed in each word.  The final unstressed syllable is pronounced with the schwa sound in each example:

cir / cus           com / pass      gal / lop           hap / pen                   

surkuhs           kumpuhs         galuhp             hapuhn     

                  

heav / en         nick / el           stom / ach      thou / sand

hevuhn            nikuhl               stumuhk          thouzuhnd

The schwa sound in ‘difficult’…

This word contains 3 syllables with the first syllable being stressed:

dif / fi / cult

The second and third syllables can be pronounced with the schwa sound although the ‘short i’ sound is said in the second syllable in some accents.

So ‘difficult’ can be pronounced as:

difikuhlt or difuhkuhlt

The schwa sound in ‘disagree’…

This word contains 3 syllables with the last syllable being stressed:

dis / a / gree

The middle syllable is often pronounced as the schwa sound:

disuhgree

The schwa sound in ‘disappear’…

This word is normally broken up into 3 syllables with the last syllable being stressed.

dis / ap / pear 

The middle syllable is often pronounced as the schwa sound:

disuhpeer

However, in some accents (including my own from a northern county in England) the ‘ear’ trigraph is pronounced as ‘eeyuh’.  This has the effect of making an extra final unstressed syllable with an extra schwa sound:

disuhpeeyuh

The schwa sounds in ‘dollar’, ‘lower’, ‘mother’, ‘paper’ and ‘summer’…

These are all 2-syllable words with a stressed first syllable: 

dol / lar            low / er            moth / er         pa / per

The final syllable in each word can be pronounced as an unstressed /ur/ sound similar to the sound in burn but a bit quicker and more relaxed.

However, in some Australian and British English accents, the /ur/ sound in the final syllable is omitted and it’s pronounced as a schwa sound:

doluh               lowuh               muthuh            paipuh

The schwa sounds in ‘exercises’…

Exercise has 3 syllables with the main stress on the first syllable:

ex / er / cise

The middle syllable in exercise can be pronounced with a schwa and the plural of the word, exercises, has an extra syllable that can also be pronounced with a schwa in some accents:

exuhsighzuhz

The schwa sounds in ‘gorilla’…

Gorilla has 3 syllables with the stress on the middle syllable:

gor / il / la

A schwa sound is often pronounced in the first and last syllables:

guhriluh

The schwa sound in ‘hospital’…

Hospital has 3 syllables with the main stress on the first syllable:

hos / pit / al

The unstressed final syllable is often pronounced with a schwa sound:

hospituhl

The schwa sound in ‘mountain’…

Mountain has 2 syllables and the first syllable is stressed:

moun / tain

The second syllable can be pronounced with a schwa sound although some people say it with a ‘short i’ sound.

mountuhn or mountin

The schwa sound in ‘mystery’…

Mystery has 3 syllables with the stress on the first syllable:

mys / ter / y

The second syllable can be pronounced with a schwa sound in some accents, although other people might say it with a relaxed /ur/ sound.

mistuhree or misturee

The schwa sound in ‘substitute’…

Substitute has 3 syllables with the stress on the first syllable:

sub / sti / tute

The second unstressed syllable can be pronounced with a schwa sound although some people say it with a ‘short i’ sound.

substuhtute or substitute

The schwa sounds in ‘tomorrow’…

Tomorrow has 3 syllables with the stress on the middle syllable. 

to / mor / row

The unstressed first syllable is usually pronounced with a schwa sound and the vowel in the last syllable can also be pronounced as a schwa in some accents:

tuhmorow or tuhmoruh

The schwa sound in ‘yesterday’…

Yesterday has 3 syllables and the stress is on the first syllable:

yes / ter / day

The second syllable can be pronounced with a schwa sound in some accents, although other people might say it with a relaxed /ur/ sound.

yestuhday or yesturday

The schwa sound in ‘chocolate’…

The spelling of chocolate suggests it should have 3 syllables, but most native English-speaking people pronounce it with 2 syllables with the stress on the first syllable.

choc / late

The vowel in the 2nd syllable is pronounced as a schwa:

chocluht

If people say chocolate with 3 syllables, then the middle syllable might also be pronounced as a schwa:

Chocuhluht

Chocolate isn’t the only common word in English where a syllable with a schwa sound is sometimes missed out by native speakers.  The short video below provides 10 common examples:

Schwa Sound List of Words

The schwa can be represented by any of the vowel letters and by a few other letter combinations.  It’s most commonly spelled with the letters a, o and e.

In the list of words below, we’ve highlighted the letters representing the schwa sound and sorted the words into categories.

See our comments about variations with regional accents in this article.

Click on the following link to our Schwa Sound Resources to download a free pdf copy of this list.

Words that Start with a Schwa Sound

The schwa sound is often pronounced at the beginning of words with an initial unstressed syllable…

about above again ago ahead alive alone amaze amount away

balloon

effect elastic electric erupt event (some of the highlighted letters in these words might be pronounced as the ‘short i’ sound in some accents).

below

bikini (might be pronounced as the ‘short i’ sound in some accents).

obtain occur offend omit

confess continue police protect today tomorrow

upon

supply support

syringe

berserk perceive percent perhaps permit (verb) perplexed (might be pronounced as /ur/ in some accents).

forget (might be pronounced as /ur/ in some accents).

survive (might be pronounced as /ur/ in some accents).

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Words that End with a Schwa Sound

The schwa sound is often pronounced at the end of words with a final unstressed syllable…

China comma extra lava panda pasta sofa umbrella zebra

animal coral dual fatal hospital oval pedal postal royal viral

atlas compass pleasant salad thousand

broken children eleven even happen heaven kitten oven taken token

anthem item problem system tandem

basket carpet cutlet fidget helmet pelmet piglet prophet quiet violet

angel bagel bowel camel level model pixel towel travel vowel

apple battle bible cattle jungle maple noble paddle turtle uncle (Pronounced as /uhl/ or sometimes just as /l/).

client decent moment parent present

April basil civil council devil evil fossil lentil pencil peril pupil

basin cousin raisin

denim

blossom boredom bottom custom fathom freedom kingdom phantom random wisdom

arson beckon button common cotton demon felon lesson ribbon wagon

abbot bigot carrot idiot ingot maggot parrot pilot pivot zealot

purpose

dandruff

asylum album medium opium possum serum talcum

bogus bonus cactus discus minus mucus rhombus Venus virus walrus

Beryl Cheryl Daryl vinyl

bargain Britain captain certain curtain fountain mountain villain (can be pronounced as the ‘short i’ sound in some accents).

calendar cellar dollar jaguar nectar pillar polar vicar vinegar wizard (People in the USA are more likely to pronounce a relaxed /ur/ sound in these words).

alerted excited bearded landed wanted (Can be pronounced as the ‘short i’ sound in some accents).

badger better butter corner flower freezer letter modern pepper teacher tower (People in the USA are more likely to pronounce a relaxed /ur/ sound in these words).

action nation potion station vision

actor alligator author comfort doctor mirror motor sailor tractor razor (People in the USA are more likely to pronounce a relaxed /ur/ sound in these words).

Arthur femur lemur murmur sulfur (People in the USA are more likely to pronounce a relaxed /ur/ sound in these words).

cupboard

armour colour flavour humour neighbour (UK spellings).  

anxious cautious contagious delicious enormous famous hideous jealous nervous serious

borough thorough

acre centre (UK spelling) mediocre ogre

capture creature denture furniture lecture leisure measure nature picture vulture (People in the USA are more likely to pronounce a relaxed /ur/ sound in these words).

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Schwa Sound in Middle Syllables

alphabet vitamin

bulletin celebrate enemy telephone

cavity difficult easily family* horrible possible (*The schwa sound is sometimes dropped altogether in some accents and family is pronounced with 2 syllables as ‘famlee’).

astronaut dinosaur

circumstance

energy poverty (people in the USA are more likely to pronounce a relaxed /ur/ sound in these words).

Schwa Sound in More Than One Position

accident* analysis banana cafeteria cinema conference delicate elephant* eleven gorilla octopus Pennsylvania principal vegetarian* (*The i in accident and the second e in elephant and vegetarian are sometimes pronounced as short i).

Remember, you can download a free pdf copy of this list of schwa words by clicking on the following link to our Schwa Sound Resources.

If you found this article helpful, you might also find the suggestions and resources in our article on how to teach the schwa sound useful.

This includes tips on how and when to introduce the schwa.  Strategies for reading and spelling schwa words, plus free schwa sound worksheets and examples.

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Teaching the Schwa