Working as an accent coach, people constantly ask me about the “t” sound in English. The question often goes something like this: “Am I crazy, or is the ‘t’ sound in button different from the ‘t’ sound in butter? What’s going on here?”
Maybe this is something you’ve wondered about too. Let me set your mind at ease and help you get your ‘t’s straight.
It would be nice if the letter “t” were always pronounced as in the word “tea”. Alas, there are actually 5 main “t” sounds in English.
This blog post at Slate does a fabulous and humorous job of summing up these differences, so it makes a good background before we start. In this article, we’ll delve a little deeper into these types of “t” sounds by looking at how and when to use each one.
#1: Alveolar Flap (sometimes known as “tap”)
How do you make the alveolar flap sound?
Touch the tip of your tongue lightly and quickly to the roof of your mouth just behind your top front teeth, making a light /d/ sound.
When is the letter “t” pronounced like an alveolar flap?
The alveolar flap appears:
- Between two vowel sounds.
Examples: batter, bitter, butter, caterpillar, city, hotter, latter, letter, matter, meeting, meter, relative, sitter, sweater, water, whatever
- After a “vowel + r” sound (sometimes called “r-colored vowel’).
Examples: barter, charter, comforting, dirty, quarter, thirty
- Before syllabic /l/; in other words, before the unstressed “ul” sound (International Phonetic Alphabet: /əl/).
Examples: battle, bottle, capital, fatal, hospital, rattle, metal, turtle
- In a phrase or sentence, before the stressed vowel at the start of the next word.
Examples: know it all, meet Alice, not on, What are you doing?
FUN FACT: The letter “t” is often pronounced with this alveolar flap (a quick “d” sound). That means that we have a lot of word pairs in English that sound exactly the same, even though one is spelled with “t” and one with “d”. For example, the following word pairs are pronounced the same even though they’re spelled differently:
atom = Adam
betting = bedding
bitter = bidder
coating = coding
futile = feudal
greater = grader
hearty = hardy
latter = ladder
matter = madder
metal = medal
petal = peddle
rated = raided
seating = seeding
title = tidal
traitor = trader
wetting = wedding
writing = riding
#2: Glottal Stop /ʔ/
How do you make the glottal stop sound?
You suddenly cut off your voice in the back of your throat, like in the sound in the middle of “uh-oh”.
When is the letter “t” pronounced like a glottal stop?
The glottal stop appears:
- Before a syllabic nasal, spelled t + vowel + n. In other words, the glottal stop occurs before an unstressed “un” sound (International Phonetic Alphabet: /ən/).
Examples: beaten, bitten, Britain, button, certain, cotton, curtain, eaten, forgotten, fountain, gluten, gotten, important, kitten, Latin, Manhattan, mitten, rotten, satin, written
- When a word or syllable ends with a “t” just before a consonant sound. This could be at the end of a syllable within a word (e.g. “football”) or at the end of a word within a sentence/phrase (e.g. “I can’t go”).
Examples: atlas, curtly, flightless, football, hate mail, greatness, right now, seat belt, settler, treatment, “What can you say?”, witless
#3: Aspirated “t”
How do you make the aspirated “t” sound?
Touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth just behind your top front teeth, make the /t/ sound, then immediately pull your tongue back and downward to release a puff of air.
Practice Tip: Say the “tuh” sound with your hand in front of your mouth. If you feel a burst of air on your hand the instant after you say it, you’re doing it right.
When is the letter “t” pronounced with the aspirated “t” sound?
The aspirated “t” sound appears:
- When the word starts with “t”.
Examples: table, take, talk, tango, tap, tea, teach, tear, teeth, tell, ten, tie, time, tongue, too, took, top, touch, toy, traffic, train, tree, trend, triangle, trip, trouble, true, try, turn
- At the beginning of a stressed syllable.
Examples: attack, attend, between, eighteen, eternal, Italian, mistake, particular, participant, photography, retire, return
- After a consonant (except “n”, see #5).
Examples: actor, after, doctor, empty, lunchtime
#4: Held “t” (sometimes called Unreleased “t” or Unaspirated “t”)
How do you make the held “t” sound?
Touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth just behind your top front teeth, make the /t/ sound, then hold the tongue for an extra moment so that the puff of air is held in and not released.
When is the letter “t” pronounced with the held “t” sound?
It appears at the end of a word.
Examples: amount, ancient, bat, boat, bet, bit, blunt, bought, but, can’t, cat, coat, dent, don’t, elite, faint, font, goat, hat, hot, it, lint, lot, mint, not, paint, pat, patient, pint, pot, rat, rent, rote, sent, slant, sweet, tint, vent, won’t
#5: Regular /t/
How do you make the /t/ sound?
Touch your tongue firmly to the roof of your mouth just behind your top front teeth, then pull it back, making a /t/ sound. There is neither a big nor a small release of air, and it does not resemble the “d” sound.
When is the letter “t” pronounced with the /t/ sound?
The /t/ sound appears:
- Before and after /s/.
Examples: bats, boats, cats, coats, fruits, meets, starts, steep, sting, stop, store
- After /n/ (unless “t” is the last letter of the word, see #4).
Examples: central, enter, internet, international, magenta, painting, printer, sentence
So these are the ways we pronounce the letter “t” in American English. These examples are just a small sample of each type, to get you starting to think about it.
Any other ideas, questions, or examples? Leave them in the comments!