I have a small problem in schwa sound: When I used Oxford online dictionary and searched "fossil", Its pronunciation is /ˈfɒsl/, but the Cambridge Dictionaries Online gave me: /ˈfɒs. ə l/

As you can see, the schwa sound is written as a small "ə" in Cambridge dictionary, but Oxford dictionary don't write "ə". Is this a kind of abbreviation in IPA?


2 Answers 2


The schwa is written as ə in the International Phonetic Alphabet. Some linguists, however, assert that there is no schwa before the l sound in English words like fossil, possible, etc. Others are of the opposite opinion, whence the discrepancy you observed.

  • Since my book is written by English author - Joseph Hudson. Their exercise of pronunciation is about "weak ə and I". Should I use both Cambridge and Oxford to search word's pronunciation?
    – Sour Tofu
    Nov 13, 2015 at 2:17
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    @SourTofu: How about this: whenever you encounter a word, in whichever dictionary, ending on IPA -consonant-l, you assume the alternative form -consonant-ə-l is also possible, and vice versa. I wouldn't worry about it: there isn't really any disagreement about how the sound is pronounced, but only about how it is best transcribed into IPA. As your book says, a schwa in -consonant-ə-l is often considered a "weak schwa", so it is somewhere in between a schwa and nothing. Nov 13, 2015 at 6:21
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    @SourTofu The Cambridge Dictionaries' transcription includes the Oxford one. The Cambridge one actually means: /ˈfɒsl/ or /ˈfɒsəl/. The Oxford dictionary gives less detail in its transcriptions. If you are a non-native speaker, always aim for the version without the schwa. This will help you with English rhythm. Nov 14, 2015 at 13:59

The superscript schwa in the transcriptions given in good dictionaries indicates that a schwa is possible in such words. It doesn't indicate that it will always be there when spoken by a native speaker. It does not represent a small schwa either, it's a possible schwa.

Whenever there is the possibility of a syllabic consonant in English (usually /l,n,m, r/) there is always also the possibility of a preceding schwa in English.

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    Araucaria, that makes perfect sense to me. However, when I look over the virtual keyboard that someone on Stack Exchange recommended [ipa.typeit.org] I see that the small superscript r is labelled 'optional r', while the small superscript inverted e is labelled 'syllabic or schwa'. Does that make sense? Nov 13, 2015 at 14:47
  • @DavidGarner Yes, that's right. If there's a schwa then the following consonant won't be syllablic anymore (because the schwa will be the nucleus of the syllable, like in other syllables that have vowels), but if the schwa's not there then the following consonant will be syllabic. So there's a choice of schwa or, otherwise, a syllabic consonant. Th small superscript 'r' indicates just that the 'r' is optional. Have I managed to make any sense there? (It might well have been me that recommended Typeit.org, btw!) :) Nov 13, 2015 at 14:52
  • Got it, thanks, Araucaria. Until now, I'd been thinking at the little 'r' indicated an r-coloured vowel, if that's the right term. Nov 13, 2015 at 15:10
  • @DavidGarner Some people do use a superscript 'r' for an r-coloured vowel sometimes, but it'ssusally upside down! like this: ɹ . This would normally only be used in square brackets. Nov 14, 2015 at 11:44

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