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If I say two words consecutively, with the first ending in a vowel sound and the second starting with one, when is it correct to include a non-existing r between those two words?

Examples from phrases I’ve heard:

  • I saw (r)a movie
  • They saw (r)us
  • Law (r)and order
  • That's the idea, (r)anyway.

I heard the last one in the movie Edge of Tomorrow yesterday.

Is this grammatically correct? If so, is the omission of the r grammatically incorrect? Are there any rules regarding this?

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26  
I believe the phantom 'r' you're hearing is entirely an artifact of regional accent. I live in New Hampshire, and tend to hear a lot of the older folks here include it. In the younger generation, the accent has shifted more towards General American, and the 'r' isn't included. (We've been known to make fun of people who say "sawr" and "lawr" instead of "saw" and "law"). –  KChaloux Jun 12 at 12:42
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The funny thing is that speakers with this accent don't just insert 'r's, they elide them elsewhere! For example, "I saw a car" might be pronounced "I sawr a cah". –  Gabe Jun 12 at 13:42
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This has nothing to do with grammar. –  tchrist Jun 12 at 14:02
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FWIW, it (almost?) never shows up in Canadian English. –  BenB Jun 12 at 16:56
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@Gabe as we say in Boston - "Where we never pronounce the letter 'r' unless we have a good idear." –  mikeTheLiar Jun 12 at 18:02

6 Answers 6

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I support Dan Rumney's answer and I would like to explain a bit more.

In non-rhotic English accents —ones in which an 'R' sound is not pronounced if it occurs before a consonant or "prosodic break"— an R at the end of a word would not normally be pronounced, unless it was followed by a word starting with a vowel, for example in the expression "tuner amp". This is a linking R. Most English accents in England (including Received Pronunciation), Wales and the Southern Hemisphere are non-rhotic.

These accents also tend to insert an R in the same cases as above, for words ending with a vowel sound, even if an R is not written there, in order to avoid hiatus between the two vowel sounds. For example, in the phrase "bacteria in it", an unwritten R might be pronounced between "bacteria" and "in". This is an intrusive R. In your examples this happens even though "saw" ends in a 'W', because when spoken it ends with a /ɔː/ vowel sound, and is then followed by another vowel sound.

For a rhotic accent, there is no "Linking R" —the 'R' in those cases is already pronounced anyway— and a hiatus is preferred between two vowel sounds, instead of an intrusive R. Most English accents spoken in North America (including General American), Scotland and Ireland are rhotic.

To summarise when you may pronounce an Intrusive R:

If you are speaking in a non-rhotic accent and there are two subsequent vowel sounds with no "prosodic break" then you may wish to use the Intrusive R between them, to avoid hiatus.

The Wikipedia article about Linking & Intrusive R provides more examples and details about where and when these tend to be used. You might also be interested in the article about rhotic and non-rhotic accents.

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+1. An answer to this question is simply not complete without discussing rhotic and non-rhotic accents. Some of the other answers make it sound like non-rhotic accents are rare, regional things, but in most English-speaking countries non-rhotic accent are more common than rhotic ones. –  mcv Jun 13 at 13:40
    
Thanks for summing up the differences between rhotic and non-rhotic accents. The links you provided were helpful for follow-up. –  Tushar Jun 16 at 7:29

Never!

It's called "the lazy 'R'", and to my Scottish ear it sounds terrible. However, some would say it's a matter of accent or dialect.

If you are learning English as second language, then you shouldn't use it at all.

It's not grammar, though, it's pronunciation.

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Thanks. It's a relief to know I never have to use it :) –  Tushar Jun 12 at 11:04
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Seriously... never. It sounds ridiculous. –  FreeAsInBeer Jun 12 at 12:47
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There are a number of accents of English where this is standard, and if you speak one of these already, I don't think there's any reason to try to eliminate the linking 'R'. But if you're learning English as a second language, then unless you want to sound like a native speaker from Southern England, a native New Yorker, or any of the other accents that do this, there is no reason to try to do this. (And why on Earth would one want to speak like a native New Yorker or Bostonian unless one were an actor?) –  Peter Shor Jun 12 at 13:44
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@PeterShor: Thanks for specifying the accents this is common to. It was useful. I'm from India, and I've never heard anyone use the lazy R except at the movies. But I do remember an English teacher in the sixth-grade telling me that this was the correct way to speak. Hence, the curiosity. Good thing I didn't listen to him. –  Tushar Jun 12 at 14:04
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Having lived in New Zealand for a time, I can attest that it is incredibly common in the New Zealand accent and Australian accent. –  Magus Jun 12 at 15:06

Martin (and commenters) are over-stating their position a bit.

It's true that you never have to insert the R, but the idea that it's incorrect pronunciation stems from the idea that some English speaking accents are more correct than others. This is, of course, ridiculous.

It may be worth noting that John C Wells considered the intrusive R to be part of Received Pronunciation. However, since the minority of native English speakers speak with an RP accent, it doesn't really matter.

So, is it necessary to use the intrusive R? Only if you're learning English in an accent that uses it. If you're learning a rhotic dialect, then the intrusive R would definitely be out of place.

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Thanks for answering. I agree with you that dialect snobbery is ridiculous. Especially on a site like this. The takeaway for me here is that this is a dialect issue, not a grammar/pronunciation one, and hence I'm doing nothing wrong in not uttering the 'r'. –  Tushar Jun 12 at 16:39
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I didn't actually say it was wrong; just that it grates on me. –  Martin McCallion Jun 12 at 19:00

Some people drop the "r" sound, then feel the need to make up for it by inserting a phantom "r" where none exists, a form of hypercorrection. Bostonians can famously pahk their cahs at Hahvahd Yahd, then have the lawng ahm of the lawr reach out and write them tickets.

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Although I think this answer is somewhat relevant, it's not applicable in this case; intrusive R is not a hypercorrection, but rather a feature of non-rhotic accents, used to avoid hiatus between subsequent vowels. However, a related hypercorrection exists: H-adding. This is when superfluous 'H's are prepended to words in contrast with accents where H-dropping occurs. –  sinisterstuf Jun 13 at 16:00

British English developed a number of regional accents, in part from the history of who lived there originally, and what invaders conquered that area. You have the original Celtic influences in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Cornwall; Norse in much of eastern England; traces of Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) in the southeast, etc.

In the US, New England (Boston, Maine/DownEast accents in particular) was originally settled by people from Anglica, in eastern England. They tend to strongly exhibit the "R" behaviors discussed in this thread. In the Mid-Atlantic region, most of the early settlers were from Cornwall, Devon, and other southern areas, and they speak differently (not exhibiting the discussed "R" behaviors). This is the accent which has spread throughout much of the US as the "standard American" accent or pronunciation.

There are, of course, many other immigrant influences on US regional pronunciations (Dutch, Italian and Yiddish in the New York City area; French in northern New England and Louisiana; Swedish and Norwegian in the upper Midwest; German in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania; Spanish in the southwest). With widespread use of TV, radio, and sound recordings, the regional differences are dying out, replaced with a more uniform sound.

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Speaking purely from experience and not really having much technical knowledge on the subject, I'd say it's necessary in some accents. I'm Australian, but I don't have a very strong Aussie accent, closer to British. When I say something like "I saw a train", I pronounce it as "I saw ra train". Likewise, when I say "sawing", I pronounce it "sawring". If I try saying it without the 'R' sound, I sound like I have a speech impediment (like Barry Kripke from Big Bang or Jonathan Ross).

There is no one correct answer for this question. In this case, I would say the joining 'R' sound is necessary. However, it probably sounds awful in some American accents, for example, or in the Scottish accent, as Martin says.

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