Reduction and Assimilation

02 February 2024

Hi there! This week on Ask a Teacher, we answer a question about reduced syllables and assimilation.



I would like you to explain to me in detail, if that is possible...

In spoken English, why do native speakers change or omit these letters, for example:

  1. I want to go. (I wanna go)
  2. Handbag (hambag)
  3. A and B (A n B)

What's the rule behind this?




Thanks, Adam, for your question.

You have found that people do not always say words the same way all the time. They sometimes change sounds to make them easier to say.

One example is syllable dropping, which we discussed in an earlier Ask a Teacher. Assimilation and reduction are other ways sounds can change when people are speaking quickly.

Two different sounds can start to sound the same when they are said quickly. This is called "assimilation."

This is what is happening in the word "handbag."

The /n/ sound is a nasal sound, which is made by air moving through our nose. The sound/b/ is produced by pressing the lips together. So, the /n/ sound is affected by the /b/ sound in "bag." The sound becomes /m/, a combination of a nasal sound and the labial sound.

The /d/ sound is then dropped.



Sometimes it is not just one sound within a word that is reduced, but a whole word, like in the examples of "wanna" or "A n' B."

Function words, like "to" and "and" are often reduced in everyday speech. This helps us to pay more attention to the more important words that carry meaning.

Most unstressed syllables and function words become shorter, softer and less clear. The vowel sound in "to," /oo/, gets reduced to another vowel sound "schwa," /ə/.

"Want to" becomes "wanta," /ə/. The two /t/ sounds drop off in fast speech. So, "want ta" becomes "wanna."

In "A and B," the "and" gets reduced to /ən/. So, phrases like "A and B" or "cream and sugar" become "A ‘n B" and "cream ‘n sugar."

Please let us know if these explanations and examples have helped you, Adam.

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And that's Ask a Teacher.

I'm Faith Pirlo.

Faith Pirlo wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

syllable – n. a unit of spoken language that consists of one or more vowel sounds alone or with one or more consonant sounds preceding or following

assimilationn. a sound changes in which some sounds (typically consonants or vowels) change to become more similar to other nearby sounds

labial –adj. involving one or both lips

phrase – n. a word or group of words forming a syntactic constituent with a single grammatical function

creamn. a thick white liquid taken from milk used in cooking, baking and coffee