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I have learned that the t between vowels in American English is usually an alveolar flap, represented by /ɾ/, which is the voiced counterpart of the usual /t/.

Cambridge Online Dictionary gives /ˈbet̬.ɚ/ for the word "better". Here the voiced /t/ is represented by /t̬/*. I couldn't find anything online about the difference between /t̬/ and /ɾ/. If I am to transcribe a word in American English, which one is more accurate to use?

For example the word "water": /ˈwɑː.t̬ɚ/ or /ˈwɑː.ɾɚ/. Is there any difference between the two versions? If yes, what is the difference please?

(*it is not /t/).

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Both sounds are denti-alveolar, made by the tongue contacting somewhere between the top of the teeth and the alveolar ridge. The difference is in the manner of articulation. /t/ and /d/ are plosive, which means that the vocal tract is blocked for a moment by the tip or blade of the tongue. In contrast, /ɾ/ is a tap or a flap, with the tongue making much briefer contact and not fully blocking the vocal tract. (The respective Wikipedia entries on /t/ and /ɾ/ give more detail.)

Some dictionaries simplify /ɾ/ as /d/ to represent it's a different sound in a way casual readers will recognize. However, to use your own transcription of water, there's a definite difference in sound between

  • /ˈwɑː.t̬ɚ/ or /ˈwɑː.dɚ/
  • /ˈwɑː.ɾɚ/

Compared to /ɾ/, /t/ or /d/ put more stress on the middle of the word. As an American, I can say that just fine, but it sounds like I'm really emphasizing the word. Within the many dialects that do this, /ɾ/ may feel like a more neutral stress, suitable for a consonant that appears in the middle of a word as my tongue is moving from one phoneme to the next (often from a vowel to what is commonly spelled [-er]). I can do that with many words: totter, bitter, lottery, fetter, patter.

/ɾ/ tends to appear in the middle of the word. /ɾ/ with the first or last sound of a word (ten; kit) would sound odd:

  • /ɾɛn/
  • /kɪɾ/
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  • One question please: does English allow /ɾ/ (alveolar flap) in the end of a syllable? – Sphinx Mar 5 at 10:10

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