How do you pronounce the letter “s”? This might seem like a simple question, but many things about the English language are not as simple as they seem to be. When “s” is added to the end of a word, it can be pronounced in three slightly different ways. Fortunately, there are rules that can help you choose the correct way to say “s”, making your English sound more native-like.
In English, the letter “s” is added to the end of a word for one of three reasons:
- To form a regular plural noun
lips, rugs, beaches
- To form a third person singular verb
walks, learns, passes
- To form a possessive noun
Pat’s, Sara’s, Alex’s
However, the correct pronunciation of the “s” in each example above is not related to the kind of word. Instead, it’s related to the final sound of the base word.
Voiceless consonants + /s/
Look at the base words in the red words from the examples. Read these three words out loud, and listen carefully to the final sound in each word.
The sounds /p/, /k/, and /t/ are called voiceless consonants. These sounds do not make the vocal cords inside your neck vibrate when you say them. If you touch your throat while you pronounce /p/, /t/, /k/, or /f/, you can’t feel your vocal cords humming. Instead, these sounds are made by air moving through your mouth.
When an “s” follows a voiceless consonant, it is pronounced /s/ (like the beginning of the words “so” and “sit”).
Voiced sounds + /z/
Now say the green base words from above, listening to the final sounds.
These words end with voiced sounds. These are sounds that make your vocal cords vibrate. Put your fingertips on your throat and pronounce /g/, /n/, and /Ə/. Can you feel the “hum” of your vocal cords?
All vowel sounds are voiced. So are many consonants, such as /b/, /d/, /g/, and /z/.
When you see an “s” after one of these voiced sounds, pronounce it /z/ (like the first sound in “zero”.
Sibilants + /ɪz/
Finally, let’s look at the blue base words. Say each one and think about the final sound.
These words end with consonant sounds called sibilants. They make a hissing sort of sound. Sibilants include /s/, /z/, /ʃ/ (the first sound in “ship), /ʒ/ (the “s” in “vision”), /tʃ/ (the first sound in “check”), and /dʒ/ (the first sound in “job”).
An “s” after a sibilant is pronounced as /ɪz/ (like the word “is”). The extra vowel sound helps to separate the sound of the final “s” from the sibilant sound so that both sounds can be heard clearly. This actually adds a syllable to the word, and that syllable is unstressed.
If you’d like to hear the differences in these sounds, here’s a great video that demonstrates them clearly.
Now that you know the different ways the final “s” is pronounced, listen for them when you here Americans speak. With practice, you’ll be able to use them in your own speech, and it will be easier for others to understand you.