Bad or bat? Sad or sat? Bag or back?

Bad or bat? Sad or sat? Bag or back?

Posted by Grant Richardson, 25th May, 2015

‘d’ and ‘t’ often sound the same because they are normally not fully pronounced at the end of a syllable or word, such as in

  • bad
  • bat

However, native speakers will pronounce these words differently.

What makes them distinguishable (different) is the length of the ‘a’ vowel sound in each — it is significantly longer in bad than in bat.

A vowel often sounds longer when followed by a voiced consonant (such as d), and shorter when followed by an unvoiced consonant (such as t).

Like ‘d’ and ‘t’, the ‘g’ and ‘ck’ sound practically the same when they are not fully pronounced, such as in

  • bag
  • back

However, the length of a in bag sounds longer than in back, because g is voiced whereas ck is unvoiced.

The lengths of other vowels (e, i, o, u) also sound longer when followed by a voiced consonant compared to when followed by an unvoiced one. However, e, i, o, and u are not quite as long as the a sound.

Can you guess which word has the longer vowel sound in each of the following pairs?

  1. dock (where ships park) OR  dog (an animal)
  2. love (a nice feeling)  OR  luff (what ship’s sails do in the wind)
  3. mend (fix)  OR  meant (past tense of the verb to mean)
  4. pod (a type of container) OR  pot (another type of container)
  5. meat (flesh of an animal) OR  mead (alcoholic drink made from honey)
  6. dribs (negligible amounts)  OR  drips (small drops of liquid)
  7. cop (slang word for police officer) OR  cob (British word for a round loaf of bread)
  8. peg (used to attach clothes to a hanging line)  OR  peck (what birds do with their beaks to attack)
  9. bag  OR  beg
    food  OR  foot

Special case

The word “can” has three possible lengths for the ‘a’ sound:

1. very short a, almost no sound:   can (modal verb before a main verb, to mean able to)

(almost no “a” sound) You can have a drink if you like.

2. short-medium length a sound:   can (modal verb on its own)

(medium a) I can?

(medium a) Yes, you can.

3. long a sound:                             can (of Coca Cola)

(long a) Ok, I’ll have a can of Coke, please? (long)