Do I Always Have to Speak Clearly?

January 5, 2022
January 5, 2022 Rochel deOliveira

“I can’t hear you!” “Stop mumbling!” We all know it’s important to speak clearly with good diction and enunciation, but do we have to pronounce each and every word perfectly, just like we are reading from the dictionary?  No! 

In fact, some people who pronounce all their words too perfectly can come off sounding affected, condescending, or simply uptight! And if you are trying to improve your American English accent, pronouncing every word well is actually counterproductive – because native speakers do not pronounce every word perfectly.

Read on or listen to the audio version instead:

Shot of a young businessman looking nervous while rehearsing a speech at a conferenceOn the other hand, speakers who slur and mumble their words, constantly drop sounds and syllables, and generally present with poor diction can run into problems of their own. Shabby articulation and communication skills can negatively impact job interviews, formal presentations, auditions, and even social status.

Or, if the person is in the public eye, they might be criticized for their poor speech tendencies and mispronunciations. Former president George W. Bush was frequently made the brunt of jokes for his pronunciation bloopers. Nu-kyu-ler???

So how do we know when it’s important to speak with clear enunciation, and when it’s fine to relax a little?

This is the first of two articles. In Part 1, we will focus on when it IS important to be clear. In Part 2, you will learn where you can break all the rules!

Before we get into the details, let’s be clear that there are always going to be exceptions, variations, and choices, depending on the situation, environment, and level of formality. Narrating a TV documentary is a very different situation than chatting with your soccer buddies. Using a speakerphone presents more problems than does a Zoom call.

And what does “speaking clearly” even mean? In this article, we are referring specifically to speech enunciation. The word should be pronounced  with proper consonants, vowels, and syllable stress – pretty much like the dictionary tells you to say it.

The 8 Clear Speech moments when precise pronunciation is important:

1.  Key words and names. There is always at least one word that is most important, or operative, in a phrase or sentence. In a longer utterance, there often are at least two operative words. An “operative word” is any word that is critical in conveying the point of the message. So it must be pronounced clearly.

For example: “Jack was a painter”.  The operative words are “Jack” and “painter”.  If either were not provided, we wouldn’t know who was being talked about or what his occupation was.

However, if Jack recently changed occupations and no longer painted at all, the operative word would be “was”. Jack, in the past, WAS a painter. Normally, it is not necessary to pronounce function words like “was” with full accuracy (more about this in Part 2), but sometimes we have to, to make our point clear.

2. Words signaling a new topic in a conversation. Pronouncing operative words clearly is especially important when a new conversational topic is initiated.

For example, you’re out with friends at dinner and everyone was talking about your new puppy, but now they’ve moved their attention to gossiping about your Uncle Jack. Let’s say you reveal to your friends that Jack in his private life used to enjoy painting.  American English speakers pronounce the word “painter” 2 ways: clearly enunciated with the exploded T (painter)  or with a more relaxed pronunciation with the T dropped (painner). 

If you want this detail about your uncle to be crystal-clear, you may want to explode the T (meaning speak the word clearly) the first couple of times you use it as you start talking about Jack. After that, you may decide to relax and go with “painner”. This also holds for other words containing NT such as dentist, representative, and internet. 

3. Long words. Multisyllabic words are generally key drivers in a sentence and often carry a heavy functional load. They can be nouns or any other part of speech. (Many short words are super-important too, of course!)

4. Noun, verbs, and adjectives. There will be a hierarchy here, depending on your message. Nouns are generally most important, but if you want to emphasize the action or description, you may also want to pronounce the verb or adjective with extra care.

5. Interesting, descriptive words. Highlight and give them some charm by pronouncing them clearly! That dress looks divine on you!! It’s so chilly out here! We sure got ourselves into a kerfuffle!

6. Numbers. So critical: prices, building addresses, phone numbers. Just think of the power a zero has when added to the end of a dollar amount.

I remember an important customer service call when the rep did not clearly speak her phone number on my voice mail.  Two or three of the numbers were not clear at all. I tried for about an hour to figure out what the number was, but could never could reach her again. So leave your phone number twice and speak it s-l-o-w-l-y.

7. The last word in a sentence that delivers important information.  Towards the end of a declarative sentence, our voices usually drop in pitch and volume. This is good American English intonation. However, if an operative word happens to fall at the end of the sentence, we might miss it if it’s not pronounced clearly.

Take a look at any bit of text and you will see that operative words often fall toward or at the end of sentences. Even in what you just read in this post, the last words of sentences included operatives like “volume”, “intonation”, and “sentences”.

8. The word “can’t”.  Always emphasize this word and pronounce it very clearly. Otherwise people might think you are saying “can”. Saying you can’t do something is very different from saying you can do it.

You may ask, well, why not just use “cannot” – the safety word!  You can. But native American English speakers typically do not use cannot.

By the way, American English speakers de-stress the positive “can” so that it sounds more like “k’n”. We’ll touch more on that in Part 2. For now, just punch out your can’t with perfect pronunciation. With this approach, you CAN’T possibly go wrong!

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