A frequent complaint of language learners of English is that the pronunciation of a word is often quite unpredictable. For example, we have the words “might,” “right,” and “freight” with Gs and Hs with no apparent sound; “score,” “school,” and “skip,” but also “scissors”; and, of course, “bow” (and arrow) and “bow” (and show respect), and “row” (a boat) and “row” (with an enemy). Because the same letter can represent different sounds (“lead” and “lead”), dictionaries provide a transcription of the word using pronunciation diacritical marks to represent the sounds.
Typically, a dictionary provides this pronunciation below the word inside back slashes (like this: \pəp\). Online/electronic dictionaries will generally have an audio link so you can hear the word and see how to transcribe the pronunciation. Dictionaries also provide information about where syllables break (syl-la-ble). Take a look at an example from Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary.
If you are unfamiliar with the symbols used in pronunciation, Merriam-Webster offers this guide: (Clicking the link will let you hear audio files.)
Be aware that the symbols used in dictionaries are not the same as those used in linguistics. The latter is called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and contains many sounds you will not find in English. So, the symbols for sounds are not the same as those you would see in an English dictionary. Here’s a chart showing the IPA.
Typing Diacritical Marks
A frequent concern when the need for diacritics arises is how to produce them with your keyboard. On a Mac, press and hold the base letter you want with diacritical marks and a box will appear with choices; select from there. Here’s what that looks like:
On a PC, it’s a little more complicated. Microsoft has a table of keyboard shortcuts that includes many letters with diacritics. Example: To type ã, press CTRL+SHIFT+~ (tilde) and then A. For diacritics that are missing from this table, you might need to check out this comprehensive resource that provides ALT codes for many, many special characters. To use ALT codes, you need to make sure that your computer has a numeric keypad and that NumLk is on. To choose a letter, find its code, press and hold the ALT key and enter the code, and the letter will appear. This resource also gives the codes for many emojis and mathematical symbols. Example: To type ř, enter ALT 0345 on the numeric keypad.
In Word, whether on a PC or a Mac, you can also select the Insert menu and then choose “symbol” or “special characters” (in Google Docs), where you will find any symbol you may need, though it may take a little searching to find exactly what you are looking for. A good place to start is with subsets containing the word Latin (as in Latin alphabet; see below). Insert symbols feature is especially useful for a symbol you don’t associate with a particular letter, like the schwa (ə).
If you find the above suggestions too cumbersome, especially those for PCs—I mean, come on, those codes! Here’s my handy hint. Find the word you want somewhere online, copy it, and paste it without formatting (to make it match your document formatting). The diacritical mark will appear. This is especially useful when you just have a single accent you are trying to use and don’t want to go searching for the code or method to get your computer to make it.
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