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What is the Schwa Sound?

The schwa sound pictureThe schwa sound is the smallest and least important sound in the English language yet the most common of all sounds. Generally, the schwa sound is never stressed (There are some exceptions when it is) otherwise, it will affect the rhythm of the students' speech dramatically. If you, as a learner, understand the schwa sound and how to use it, it will improve your English rhythm and intonation drastically and make it sound more native-like. Many vowels are shortened and transformed into  schwa sounds to help English speakers spend more time on the sounds that are more important to the central idea of the sentence. For that reason, the schwa sound is mostly found in FUNCTIONAL words or GRAMMAR words such as pronouns, auxiliaries, verb [be], conjunctions, articles etc. Look at the following example:

I would have been DEAD if he didn't HELP me.

The words in capital letters are CONTENT words, which means they are crucial for us to understand the content of the sentence. These words are fully stressed ([didn't] is also stressed but receives weaker stress than [help]). So in order for us to produce the sentence with proper rhythm and at natural speed, we will change this from

aɪ wʊd hæv bɪn ded ɪf hi dɪdᵊnt help mi

to that

aɪ wədəv bən ded əfi dɪdᵊnt help mi

Where can the schwa sound be found?

The schwa sound can be found:

  1. in the beginning of a word as in [about]
  2. in the middle of a word as in [elephant]
  3. in the end of a word as in [idea]

How can the schwa sound be found?

Although it would almost be impossible for English learners to find the schwa sound in every word, there are some known guidelines on how to find them as follows:

In function words articles, pronouns, modals, conjunctions and prepositions.In prefixes and suffixes.
a-an-thea chair – an apple – the table inInfluence – inappropriate
am-are-is-wasam i? – how are you? – who is he? - I was singing sucSucceed – succinct (verbs)
and-butChicken and chips – it’s hard but I like it toTogether – towards – today – tomorrow
than-orI like it more than you do – coffee or tea adAdvance – adversary – adapt
that-toI told you that he was good – I’d like to see you beBecome – before – belong - betray
can-couldI can do it – I could do it ibleTerrible – horrible – possible – incredible
will-wouldWill it rain? – would you mind? ableUnderstandable – available – adorable – lovable
your-his-her-theirI like your shirt/his hair/her pen/their sons? ishHellish – snobbish – sheepish – English
him-her-it-themI hate him – I love her – I love it – one of them mentMoment – entertainment – government
In-on-ofIt’s in the closet – it’s on the table – get out of here ousPrecious – generous – vicious
for-withI’m looking for a room – Come with me tionSolution – repetition – adoption
youWhat are you doing? antImportant – arrogant – dormant – militant – pleasant
have-has-hadI have a question – He has a problem – she had a pet  
shouldShould I go  
As-ifAs soon as possible – I’ll go if you do