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I'm really confused about the pronunciation of the letter "a". Why is there a difference when it is used in a sentence and when "a" is single? When it is single, we read it like dwelling on it, like /eɪ/. On the contrary, in a sentence, it sounds interruptedly. What's the reason?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 12 down vote accepted

If you mean ‘a’ the indefinite article, Ebenin, you’re quite right. In normal speech it is pronounced as a schwa, /ə/. Only when it is emphasised for some reason is it pronounced as /eɪ/. Explaining the reason fully would take more time and space than is available here, assuming any of us is qualified to do so.

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Somewhat quirkily, we normally say /eɪ/ when we definitely want our audience to know we're using the indefinite article. As opposed to the schwa /ə/ when it's not semantically significant. –  FumbleFingers Dec 31 '11 at 15:36
    
@FumbleFingers: As I said, 'when it is emphasised for some reason'. –  Barrie England Dec 31 '11 at 15:48
    
I agree completely with everything in your answer, and don't understand why someone downvoted it. My comment was just by way of restating what we mean by "emphasised". Offhand I can't think of even a ridiculously contrived construction where we'd use /eɪ/ if no emphasis was intended, but it's not totally unknown for the schwa to be stressed in the opposite case. –  FumbleFingers Dec 31 '11 at 16:01
    
@FumbleFingers: I have the impression there's a demon down-voter around. –  Barrie England Dec 31 '11 at 16:13

Letters have "names". When we say each letter separately, for example when we want to spell a word, we use the "name" of each letter, like /eɪ/ for a, /bɪ:/ for b, /sɪ:/ for c, etc. But when we use the letter a in a sentence as a word, i.e. as the indefinite article, its pronunciation is /ə/ since the "name" isn't used any more. When we want to emphasize the article, then we pronounce it /eɪ/. The reason why a word (or a separate letter used as a single word) has a certain way of pronouncing it is not something I have come to understand.

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The letter a has several different pronunciations, which can make it difficult for learners if their language only has one, like for example, Spanish:

car -/ɑː/, cat - /æ /, what - /ɒ/, play -/eɪ/, and of course the schwa - /ə/ as in a book

I don't think there's much relationship between how letters are said in the alphabet, which is I think what you mean by a when it is single, and their use in language. But perhaps you mean a when it is the indirect article?

There is also the question of weak or strong stress: normal stress - "a book" (/ə/), but strong stress - "I said a book, not two books!" (//).

And whether it is a stressed or unstressed syllable in a word, eg: marginal - first a stressed - (/ɑː/), the second unstressed - (/ə/)

Mastering English pronunciation is just one of those little joys of learning this specific language!

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Just an afterthought, I live in Poland, and in Polish the names of the letters are much as they are pronounced. It's wrong I know, but sometimes it's quicker to explain English pronunciation to my students by using the Polish letter names. –  RandomIdeaEnglish Dec 31 '11 at 13:06

protected by RegDwigнt May 27 at 10:49

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