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Voiced and Voiceless Consonants

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Voiced and Voiceless Consonants

One problem that many students face in pronunciation is whether a consonant is voiced or voiceless. This guide should help you understand the differences and give you some simple rules. To help you I've recorded this voiced and voiceless consonant page so you can listen to the examples. (Suggestion: open the sound file in another page or tab so you can read along while you listen)

What is Voiced?

A simple explanation of voiced consonants is that they use the voice. This is easy to test by putting your finger on your throat. If you feel a vibration the consonant is voiced. Here is a list of some voiced consonants. Pronounce each consonant sound (not the letter) and feel the vibration of your vocal chords.

b
d
th (as in then)
v
l
r
z
j (as in Jane)

What is Voiceless?

Voiceless consonants do not use the voice. They are percussive and use hard sounds. Once again, you can test if a consonant is voiceless by putting your finger on your throat. You will feel no vibration in your throat, just a short explosion of air as you pronounce. Pronounce each of these consonant sounds and feel NO vibration in your throat.

p
t
k
s
sh
ch
th (as in thing)

Careful! Some Consonants Voiced, but are Voiceless

When consonants are put in groups they can change the voiced or voiceless quality of the consonant that follows. A great example of this is the past simple form of regular verbs. As you know, regular verbs add -ed to the end of the verb in the past simple.

play - played
wash - washed
live - lived etc.

These past simple verbs all end in '-ed'. However, some of the verbs are pronounced with a voiceless 't' sound and some are pronounced with the voiced 'd' sound. Why? Here are the rules:

  • If -ed is preceded by a voiceless consonant sound (p, k, sh, etc.) -ed sounds as a voiceless 't'. Remember that the 'e' is silent.
  • If -ed is preceded by a voiced consonant sound (d, b, v, etc.) -ed sounds as a voiced 'd'. Remember that the 'e' is silent.
  • If -ed is preceded by a vowel sound (often 'ay') -ed sounds as a voiced 'd' because vowels are always voiced. Remember that the 'e' is silent.
  • Exception: If -ed is preceded by 't' pronounce a voiced -id. In this case, the 'e' is pronounced.

This pattern can also be found with plural forms. If the consonant preceding the 's' is voiced, 's' will sound as voiced 'z':

chairs
machines
bags

If the consonant preceding the 's' is voiceless, 's' will sound as voiceless 's':

bats
parks
pipes

Connected Speech

Finally, when speaking in sentences the ending consonant sounds can change based on the following words. This is often referred to as 'connected speech'. Here is an example of a change from a voiced 'b' in the word 'club' to a voiceless 'p' because of the voiced 't' of 'to' of the following word:

We went to the club to meet some friends.

Here is an example of a change from a voiced 'd' past simple verb changed to voiceless 't':

We played tennis yesterday afternoon.

Exercise:

Take this list of words and decide if the final consonants are voiced or voiceless. Once you have made your decision, click on the link to check the answers (or, if you are listening, I will provide the answers in the audio):

washed
traveled
coats
gloves
shells
watched
started
changed
books
wheels
lived
dreams
seats
dropped
exchanged
globes
phones
carts
listened
organized

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