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How do you actually pronounce A when it's in the middle of a 3 letter word like mac or rap?

I hear many Americans say those words with a clear AAA sound, like the AA sound of the start of the word Umbrella: 'mAAc' and 'rAAp', but some people pronounce those words with the E sound of pEncil so it sounds like 'rep' and 'mec'.

So what is the correct pronunciation of those words and what is the rule?

Also, the word gay is actually pronounced 'gey' and not like 'guy', how come? is it because it ends with a vowel?

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    Once again, you don't pronounce letters. You write and read letters; they don't make noise. And spelling does not indicate pronunciation of English words, no matter what your grammar school teacher told you. Especially short words. They can be pronounced almost any way at all, and they can be spelled almost any way at all. You ask for the rule -- there is no rule, or rather you can make up your own rule if you insist on having one. But it will have more exceptions than examples. – John Lawler Sep 12 at 16:51
  • What do you mean by "the AA sound of the start of the word Umbrella"?? – Hot Licks Sep 12 at 21:49
  • @HotLicks the schwa, I don't know the linguistic terminology but the other people got it. – shinzou Sep 12 at 22:02
  • I've never heard anyone pronounce mac or rap with a schwa. – Anton Sherwood Sep 13 at 3:12
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How do you actually pronounce A when it's in the middle of a 3 letter word like mac or rap?

So what is the correct pronunciation of those words and what is the rule?

There's no 'rule', but in standard varieties of English, the letter a is usually pronounced /æ/ (the vowel in the word trap) when it's in the middle of two consonants in a monosyllabic word.

Examples: Trap, rap, mac, bat, mat, hat etc., have /æ/.


Gay and guy have /eɪ/ and /aɪ/ respectively. They have long vowels/diphthongs probably because they're open syllables. Open syllables often have long vowels/diphthongs.


There are some accents where /æ/ and /ʌ/ (as in the word strut) are merged.

There are also some mergers that merge some vowels:

In summary, I'd say the pronunciation varies from accent to accent or region to region. But the pronunciation of the letter a between two consonants in (monosyllabic words) standard varieties of English is /æ/.


There are more exceptions to rules than there are rules.

See tchrist's comment:

If it ends in ‹‑ar› it’s not /æɹ/ but /ɑɹ/ as in bar, car, far, jar, mar, par, scar, spar, star, tar, tsar — except for war, which has /ɔ/ not /æ/ in /wɔɹ/. It’s also /ɔ/ not /æ/ if it ends in ‹‑aw› as in claw, craw, flaw, gnaw, jaw, law, maw, paw, raw, saw, slaw, straw, thaw. And it’s also /ɑ/ not /æ/ in blah, khan, swab, swan, thwap, twat, wan — as well as wand /wɑnd/ which is quite unlike sand /sænd/ which is normal. Lastly was has /ʌ/, so it’s /wʌz/ not /wæz/ or /wɑz/.


It seems to me that the letter a is /æ/ before plosives in monosyllabic words as in bad, hat, bag, rat, lad etc. (Twat also has /æ/ for me.)

Before r, it's /ɑ/ (as tchrist points out) as in bar, tar, jar, far, scar etc.
But in war, it's /ɔ/ probably because of the /w/ at the beginning.

Sand, land, band have /æ/ but wand has /ɒ/ (in BrE), probably because of the /w/.

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    If it ends in ‹‑ar› it’s not /æɹ/ but /ɑɹ/ as in bar, car, far, jar, mar, par, scar, spar, star, tar, tsar — except for war, which has /ɔ/ not /æ/ in /wɔɹ/. It’s also /ɔ/ not /æ/ if it ends in ‹‑aw› as in claw, craw, flaw, gnaw, jaw, law, maw, paw, raw, saw, slaw, straw, thaw. And it’s also /ɑ/ not /æ/ in blah, khan, swab, swan, thwap, twat, wan — as well as wand /wɑnd/ which is quite unlike sand /sænd/ which is normal. Lastly was has /ʌ/, so it’s /wʌz/ not /wæz/ or /wɑz/. – tchrist Sep 13 at 4:10
  • The "tar" that's between "straw" and "thaw" clearly doesn't belong in that group. And although there might be accents which have mergers which mean that the words group as this post indicates, this is not true of all accents. More straightforwardly, swab, swan, was have the LOT vowel /ɒ/, and twat has the TRAP vowel /æ/. – Rosie F Sep 13 at 6:04
  • @RosieF I’ve fixed tar; thanks. North American Englishes have only two low-back vowels: the unrounded low-back /ɑ/ versus the rounded low-back /ɔ/ — and vocalic length is not phonemic here. Insofar as [ɒ] ever occurs, it can exist only as a non-phonemic allophone of /ɔ/, and so cannot be distinguished phonemically because each is a rounded low-back vowel. To us, “some rounding” in phonetic [ɒ] and “more rounding” in phonetic [ɔ] are at most differences of degree not of kind: because both are rounded low-back vowels, for us they always represent the very same phoneme /ɔ/. – tchrist Sep 13 at 15:13
  • @RosieF See Fuzzy-Wuzzy. Like taco, our twat, swat, swap, swan all have the unrounded low back vowel /ɑ/ here, never the unrounded near-low front vowel /æ/ of swam, can, trap, bath. Personally, I myself have the LOT–CLOTH split, the THOUGHT–CLOTH merger, and the FATHER–BOTHER merger — but I do not have the COT–CAUGHT merger, the FATHER–FARTHER merger, the LOT–PALM merger, or the TRAP–BATH split. This is all exceedingly complicated! – tchrist Sep 13 at 15:24

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