With phonetic transcriptions, dictionaries tell you about the pronunciation of words. In English dictionaries, phonetic transcriptions are necessary, because the spelling of an English word does not tell you how you should pronounce it.
Phonetic transcriptions are usually written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), in which each English sound has its own symbol. (You can take a look at a chart with all the English sounds and their IPA symbols.)
For example, the IPA-based phonetic transcription of no is
noʊ, and the transcription of do is
du:. Note that in spelling, these words are similar. They both end in the letter o. But their phonetic transcriptions are different, because they are pronounced differently.
Phonetic transcription is usually given in brackets, like this:
/du:/. In a dictionary, it looks like this:
(By the way, not all dictionaries give the pronunciations of words. If you are serious about learning English, you should buy a dictionary which has this information.)
When a word has many syllables, one of them is always pronounced more strongly. This is called word stress, and we say that the syllable is stressed. For example, in the word become, the stressed syllable is come. If the stressed syllable was be, become would be pronounced like this.
Dictionaries tell you which syllable is stressed. The most popular system is to put a vertical line (
ˈ) before the stressed syllable in the phonetic transcription of the word. For example, the transcription for become is
If a word has only one syllable (for example: pen, house), the syllable is always stressed. Dictionaries usually do not put the
ˈstress mark before the only syllable. So they don’t write
/ˈpen/— they simply write
Some dictionaries use other systems for showing word stress. For example, they may put
ˈafter the stressed syllable, or they may underline the stressed syllable.
Have a look at our demonstration of the phonetic transcription system. You can read the transcriptions of some English words and listen to their pronunciations at the same time.
Representing differences between British and American English
Many words are pronounced differently in British and American English. Of course, these differences must be reflected in phonetic transcriptions. There are two basic ways to do this:
- Separate transcriptions for British and American English, for example:
- One “compromise” transcription for both British and American English. This is done by using mostly British phoneme symbols plus the
r. This system is used e.g. in the Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary and on Antimoon.