5

Let us consider the following two sentences:

These users of our app allowed us to find a few new uses for it.

and

These uses of our app allowed us to find a few new users for it.

Both of them are syntactically correct, but have opposite meaning.

However, as far as I understand, in Received Pronunciation both users and uses should sound the same.

How could these two sentences be distinguished between each other when spoken by a Received Pronunciation speaker?

  • 3
    "in Received Pronunciation both users and uses should sound the same" that is totally incorrect. – Fattie Apr 26 '17 at 17:54
  • 1
    Users and uses are not pronounced the same. – lux Apr 26 '17 at 19:05
  • 1
    Even if they were pronounced the same, we'd do what we do for all ambiguities: we'd reword, or explain, or spell, or it'd become the punchline of a joke. "You can't put too much water into a nuclear reactor" – Lou Franco Apr 26 '17 at 20:38
  • This Wikipedia article brings into question the whole concept of Received Pronunciation: 'Received Pronunciation (RP) is the accent of Standard English in the United Kingdom and is defined in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary as "the standard accent of English as spoken in the south of England", although it can be heard from native speakers throughout England and Wales. Peter Trudgill estimated in 1974 that 3% of people in Britain were RP speakers, but this rough estimate has been questioned by the phonetician J. Windsor Lewis.' – Edwin Ashworth Jul 1 '17 at 10:09
8

The noun user is pronounced /ju:zə/ in RP. Notice that unless it is followed by a vowel, there is no /r/ in this word.

The verb use is pronounced /ju:z/.

However, the noun use is pronounced /ju:s/. Notice that unlike the noun user the noun use has an /s/ and not a /z/.

The words users, uses (verb) and uses (noun) are all very similar in English. But none of the three are homophones with either of the other two.

The noun user has a schwa at the end and so the plural, users, ends with /əz/. Like the other two words it has no /r/, but is different from them in that it has a schwa.

The verb uses has a regular third person ending. Because the base of the verb ends in a sibilant—in this case /z/—we use an /ɪz/ suffix here. So this word is /ju:zɪz/. This is distinguished from the noun user by having a KIT vowel instead of a schwa before the final /z/.

The noun uses has a plural suffix, which follows exactly the same rule as the third person singular suffix described above. The base word ends in a sibilant, and therefore the suffix /ɪz/ is applied. However, the sibilant which triggers the use of the /ɪz/ in this case is not /z/ but /s/. So this word is distinguished from the noun uses by virtue of having a KIT vowel instead of a schwa. However, it is also easily distinguishable from both of the other two words by having an /s/ at the end of the first syllable instead of a /z/.

The transcriptions for these words are:

  • /ju:zəz/ (users)
  • /ju:zɪz/ (uses - verb)
  • /ju:sɪz/ (uses - noun)

Notice that the first two words here are distinguishable in RP because RP has not seen a merger of the KIT and schwa vowels, unlike several other world Englishes.

  • Are you sure that RP uses a KIT vowel here? In my personal idiolect (and how I hear the RP version in my head), this is an /ɨ/, not an /ɪ/. A word like lazies has the KIT vowel, but not uses. Has RP really undergone a /ɪ ~ ɨ/ merger and I just haven't noticed? (Edit: Only just read StoneyB’s answer now. What he said.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 27 '17 at 7:28
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Yep, 100%. Incidentally, Stoney also uses KIT and not FLEECE there, doesn't he? – Araucaria Apr 27 '17 at 8:00
  • No, he uses /ᵻ/, which is the more accurate way of writing what I wrote as /i̵/ above (couldn’t be bothered figuring out how to get an ᵻ on my phone). I’m not talking about the FLEECE vowel, but the reduced near-close central vowel (as opposed to KIT, which is near-close near-front). At least I have a possible four-way distinction in final, unstressed syllables here: lasers /ˈleɪzəz/; lazes /ˈleɪzᵻz/; lazies /ˈleɪzɪs/; and, for lack of an exact minimal tetrad, (analys)es /əˈnalᵻsi(ː)z/. I thought RP was the same; must listen closer to someone speaking it some time to check. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 27 '17 at 8:35
  • Hm. Looking at Wikipedia’s IPA chart for English dialects, it looks like Welsh English is the only dialect traditionally attributed with a four-way split, and I’m fairly sure I don’t speak Welsh English… – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 27 '17 at 8:39
  • @JanusBahsJacquet /ɨ/ is not generally used for RP at all, as it is generally used for vowels in accents in which there is a weak vowel merger. In RP, in contrast, there is still a clear distinction between weak KIT and schwa famously giving rise to a distinction between the minimal pair Rosa's and roses (though there is free variation between the two in some other contexts). RP exhibits a three way split for most speakers between lasers (schwa), lazies (FLEECE for most younger speakers - but KIT for some older, hence the need for the unsatisfactory 'HAPPY vowel'), and lases (KIT). – Araucaria Apr 27 '17 at 9:38
5

They are not pronounced the same, even in non-rhotic dialects like RP.

The noun use is pronounced with /s/, the verb use is pronounced with /z/:

noun: /jus/, verb: /juz/

When these words are inflected with the -s affix many dictionaries represent the affix vowel with the 'schwa', /-əz/. However, the vowel actually used is somewhat higher; it may be represented with /ɪ/ or /ᵻ/. (See my answer to this question.)

plural noun: /jusᵻz/, 3sg verb: /juzᵻz/

The noun user, derived from the verb, employs the verb's /z/; and the -er affix does employ a mid-central vowel, the schwa. In non-rhotic dialects, where the /R/ phoneme is deleted, this yields:

/juzəz/.


just for lagniappe: Very careful speakers, like classically-trained actors and singers, may pronounce the unstressed -s affix with an unreduced vowel, /ɛz/; and they may lower the schwa in the unstressed -er affix to something in the neighbourhood of /ɑ/. But nobody cares, or even notices, except other classically-trained actors and singers.

2

No, uses and users are pronounced differently in RP.

uses /juzɪz/

users /juzəz/

  • This would seem to be the only correct or full answer here. – Fattie Apr 26 '17 at 17:55
  • 1
    @Fattie: It's not correct – the noun uses, which is the word the OP is asking about, is pronounced /jusɪz/. – Peter Shor Apr 26 '17 at 23:14
  • I may misunderstand something. "uses" (noun) and "users" and "uses" (verb) have three different pronunciations. In RP, and all dialects I know of. It's a non-question, just a mistake by the OP. – Fattie Apr 27 '17 at 0:16

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