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How can we distinguish, for example, these two sentences just by listening to the pronunciation?

  1. They first kill the trees.

  2. They first killed the trees.

When pronouncing kill the trees, we have one [d] that is for the. When pronouncing killed the trees, we have two [d] that is for killed and the.

Native speakers pronounce both sentences so that we just hear one [d], so we don't know the tense by pronunciation in these cases. Am I right?

Is there any special stress or extension of a sound that signals the difference between them?

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While killed ends in /d/, the starts with /θ/ so there is no difficulty. If the sentence were "They killed dying trees", then there are two /d/ sounds. In that case, the first would be reduced and there's a slight but noticeable pause before the second one. –  Andrew Leach Jun 12 '13 at 16:12
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Yes, but the question is about the spelling system and how it differs from the pronunciation. And how do native English speakers differentiate, anyway, between spoken They kill the trees and They killed the trees, given that /d/ in /dð/ clusters is virtually always inaudible? –  John Lawler Jun 12 '13 at 16:45
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I think we distinguish between them the same way that we distinguish between "They first cut the trees down" (past) and "They first cut the trees down" (present). Namely, context. (Although note the consonant is not /d/ but /ð/.) –  Peter Shor Jun 12 '13 at 18:48
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@KitFox Comments noted. I know I can edit - and indeed have edited - questions. In this particular case, personally, I couldn't 'see the wood for the trees'. Also, I wasn't sure where the borderline lies between a question that 'we' could/should salvage and one that is so poorly formatted that the OP should be asked to do so - particularly as the OP clearly understands enough English to write the question, but apparently could not be bothered to use standard capitalisation, punctuation, and separation into sentences, and also bearing in mind that this is not ELL. –  TrevorD Jun 12 '13 at 19:14
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@superdemongob Unfortunately, it's possible that both your pronunciation and your perception are different while you're focused on the activity of producing this sequence. –  snailboat Jun 13 '13 at 14:27

1 Answer 1

We can distinguish them because they are pronounced differently, and "-ed" is past tense. I don't see what is confusing about this.

Edited to add: I see that I may not have addressed part of your question. You wrote:

Native speakers pronounce both sentences so that we just hear one [d], so we don't know the tense by pronunciation in these cases. Am I right?

The answer is: No, you are not right. I am a native speaker and would never say "killed the" and not pronouce the "-ed". To be sure, "killed" is not prounounced with two syllables, like "kill-ed", but neither is the "d" silent. The "e" is silent, however. The pronunciation goes like this: "killd".

When I reflect upon it, I don't know why the "ed" is silent. With many verbs ending in "-ed" the "e" IS pronounced. Some examples:

  • hated
  • waited
  • extended
  • painted
  • tooted

Examples where the "e" is silent and the final "d" is not:

  • killed
  • tooled
  • pained
  • warred
  • tried

I am sure a linguist could come up with a general rule, but I'm not one of those, so I must defer to an expert. It does seem like verbs whose base ends in "d" or "t" will have pronounced "e" in their "-ed"s.

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