“CAN” or “CAN’T”?

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“CAN” or “CAN’T”?

A reader named Alex asked the following question:

“Hello Lisa, I find one of the biggest differences between the British and the American accents is how “can’t” is pronounced which I also find the trickest for us trying to learn the American accent. I just can’t really tell the American “can’t” from the American “can”. So I have to say the British “can’t” instead so as to avoid confusion even though I know it sounds awkward when I am trying to imitate the American accent. Could you please give me some tips on how to cope with it? Thanks so much!”

Here is my answer:
This is a common problem. I discuss this issue in my book “Mastering the American Accent” on page 35. You need to know that negative auxiliaries (such as can’t, won’t, wouldn’t, isn’t, etc) are stressed, but affirmative ones are not. Therefore, because “can’t” is stressed, the vowel “a” is longer than in the word “can.” “Can” is reduced and sounds kind of like “kn.” This reduced vowel is short and neutral (schwa sound).

Practice this:

I kn go. (can)
I caaan’t go. (the phonetic symbol is /ae/ so it’s not actually the British sounding /a/.)

If you only listen for the “t” at the end of the “can’t” you might still be confused since that final “t” is usually held. It’s kind of like a silent, half T.

This is why it’s important for you to know the rules of English word stress and rhythm. Also, following these rules will create a native sounding melody in your speech.

Good luck!

By | 2009-04-15T05:31:00+00:00 April 15th, 2009|Uncategorized|2 Comments

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2 Comments

  1. Alex April 19, 2009 at 4:49 am

    Hi Lisa,

    Can I ask you two questions:

    1. I understand that the letter "t'" is always held at the end of words, however when the final "t" follows a consonant as in "first" and "addict" should it still be silent? If not, does "past" sound the same as "passed"?

    2. You mention in the book that many of the final stops are not realeased. Are they "p", "b", "t", "d" and "g" only? Also are they still not released in the plural form of words that ends in "s" e.g. "stops"?

    Thanks so much! :>

  2. Lisa Mojsin April 19, 2009 at 4:57 am

    Hi Alex,

    Yes, “past” and “passed” sound exactly the same. T is held.

    Regarding plurals after stops: it’s very important that you hold the stop before an S. Otherwise, when you say the word “stops” it will sound like “stop us” – something like that.
    You had mentioned that you are Chinese. Take a look at page 134 of my book. It mentions how Chinese speakers, in an effort to speak clearly, sometimes “over-pronounce” the stops. It does not matter if the stop is within a word or at the end of the word.

    When you say “apartment” make sure that you don’t release the middle T, before the M.

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