The schwa is the mid-central vowel sound and the most common vowel sound in English. It occurs in many words, unstressed syllables or to contract auxiliary verbs and prepositions.
The schwa sounds like “uh” in umbrella or under and in phonetics, it is represented by the schwa symbol of an upside-down /ə/.
If you look up a word in an English dictionary, the sound in the word that is schwa will be shown in the pronunciation, which uses the phonetic alphabet. For the word ago, it will be əˈɡəʊ.
We use this weak neutral vowel sound in approximately fifteen per cent of all our utterances in English. That makes it one of the most common sounds we use when we speak.
An ode to the word Schwa
A curvaceous young phoneme called schwa,
Said “I never feel strong. It’s bizarre!
I’m retiring and meek,
And I always sound weak,
But in frequency counts – I’m the star!
The soft sound of the schwa
The common short reduced vowel sound of the schwa can be taken by any unstressed vowel letter. In most dialects, for example, the schwa sound is found in the following words:
The a is schwa in adept.
The e is schwa in synthesis.
The i is schwa in decimal.
The o is schwa in harmony.
The u is schwa in medium.
The y is schwa in syringe.
The schwa sounds occur in many words and can replace more than one vowel and consonant.
Depending on different accents, the sound can also be a neutral vowel or even a stressed vowel as in the examples below. It can also occur in stressed multi-syllable words such as in measure.
doctor, banana, tomorrow, difficult, summer, level, protect, survive, pupil, theatre, measure, wizard
In phrases and sentences, the schwa is used to contract not only short vowels but also untressed articles, auxiliary verbs, unaccented syllables, stressed syllables and prepositions.
It’s for you.
It takes a lot of time.
How about a cup of tea?
What are you doing tonight?
What time will you arrive at Victoria Station?
I was going to tell you.
The leisure centre is closed for a private function.
The airport is not far from the capital city.
The book is about pronunciation.
We need more financial support.
You need to pay attention all the time.
It is a very thorough report.
The pronunciation and use of the schwa can vary between British and American English. In particular, after some consonant clusters such as in the word number.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda
The schwa can replace whole function words in complex grammatical structures in spoken English.
It is this use of the schwa that can cause confusion for some people who are new to writing for publication.
Transposing spoken English into correct written English cannot be accomplished by the reliance on how a phrase sounds.
Take this short prase.
I could have been a star.
When spoken, this phrase can take two common forms using the schwa.
I could of been a star.
I coulda been a star.
In all uses of past models, the common pronunciation forms do not reflect the correct grammatical form.
Therefore, it is not unusual to see the following common writing errors occur.
I could of gone to work today. Incorrect
I coulda gone to work today. Incorrect
I could have gone to work today. Correct
I would of studied if I’d had more time. Incorrect
I woulda studied if I’d had more time. Incorrect
I would have studied if I’d had more time. Correct
Writers who should of done a grammar check. Incorrect
Writers who shoulda done a grammar check.Incorrect
Writers who should have done a grammar check. Correct
The common grammar errors in these three examples were famously used by Celine Dion in her song, Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda.
More common schwa uses
In so many common English language verb phrases, we use the schwa without thinking when we speak. For example:
I want to go. – I wanna go.
I’m going to get a haircut. – I’m gonna get a haircut.
I have to pay my phone bill. – I hafta pay my phone bill.
I have got to visit my mother. – I’ve gotta visit my mother.
Even if you speak very well, the application of spoken English words into writing can cause common grammatical mistakes.
Learning and applying basic grammar rules is always the best way to produce correct sentences in writing.
If you look closely at this short text, you will see how frequently the schwa occurs in the phonetic translation. This frequency makes it very easy to forget what the schwa is replacing and in turn, can lead to mistakes in writing.
The first time my brother and I were allowed to go shopping alone was a complete disaster.
ðə fɜːst taɪm maɪ ˈbrʌðər ænd aɪ wɜːrəˈlaʊd tuː gəʊ ˈʃɒpɪŋəˈləʊn wɒz ə kəmˈpliːt dɪˈzɑːstə.
I think I was about ten and he was seven.
aɪ θɪŋk aɪ wɒzəˈbaʊt tɛn ænd hiː wɒz ˈsɛvn.
We usually got on very well together, but he was in a bad mood that day and I suppose I was a bit nervous about having the responsibility of looking after him in town.
wiː ˈjuːʒʊəli gɒt ɒn ˈvɛri wɛl təˈgɛðə, bʌt hiː wɒz ɪn ə bæd muːd ðæt deɪ ænd aɪ səˈpəʊz aɪ wɒz ə bɪt ˈnɜːvəsəˈbaʊt ˈhævɪŋ ðə rɪsˌpɒnsəˈbɪlɪti ɒv ˈlʊkɪŋ ˈɑːftə hɪm ɪn taʊn.
Anyway, he disappeared almost as soon as we got off the bus and I spent about three-quarters of an hour looking for him.
ɛnɪweɪ, hiː ˌdɪsəˈpɪəd ˈɔːlməʊst æz suːn æz wiː gɒt ɒf ðə bʌs ænd aɪ spɛntəˈbaʊt ˈθriːˈkwɔːtəz ɒvən ˈaʊə ˈlʊkɪŋ fɔː hɪm.
When I eventually found him, I was so relieved that I didn’t remember to get angry.
wɛn aɪ ɪˈvɛnʧəli faʊnd hɪm, aɪ wɒz səʊ rɪˈliːvd ðæt aɪ dɪdnt rɪˈmɛmbə tuː gɛt ˈæŋgri.
Speak with the schwa but write with good English grammar
Lots of people make grammar mistakes when they write, including native speakers of English.
You don’t need to be an expert, but you can avoid very common grammatical errors by doing a quick check of all your writing before you post or publish.
You don’t need to dig too deep and worry about technical grammar such as coordinating conjunctions, independent clauses, a misplaced modifier or a dangling modifier.
But you should be absolutely sure that you are using correct subject-verb agreement, the right possessive pronoun and that you are not mixing past and present tenses.
Most importantly, every word or phrase you write has to be complete in its correct form and not diminished by common oral contractions and errors, such as “could of been and should of gone“.
The best way to be sure is to check with an online grammar checker.
You can use these correction tools for free, so it won’t cost you a cent to check that your writing is up to an acceptable standard.
They will highlight and refer to a specific error, one at a time, and then you can correct each one very easily.
Don’t rely on your ear and think that because it sounds right, it will be right in writing.
Always rely on good grammar for writing, and on phonetics, only for speaking
I started my working life as a lithographer and then spent over 30 years in the printing and publishing business.
Originally from Australia, I moved to Switzerland 20 years ago. My days are spent teaching English, writing and wrestling with technology while enjoying my glorious view of the Alps.
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