(ə) before /l/, /m/, or /n/

There is an instruction in the English Oxford living Dictionaries in the "Key to pronunciations (British and World English dictionary)" which says:

(ə) before /l/, /m/, or /n/ indicates that the syllable may be realized with a syllabic l, m, or n, rather than with a vowel and consonant, e.g. /ˈbʌt(ə)n/ rather than /ˈbʌtən/.

I am not sure I understood it. Could someone be so kind to tell me for the word "baton" do I pronounce (ə) please?


  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭

    There are four ways of pronouncing baton — leaving aside the different ways of pronouncing the T-sound.

    1. Many British speakers pronounce -ton as reduced-stress tɒn (or tɔn if you prefer) with a LOT vowel
    2. Other British speakers pronounce it as tən with a commA vowel.
    3. Others pronounce it without a separate vowel sound. Keeping the tongue in place they allow 'voiced' air to escape through the nose — so that the second syllable consists of the buzzing N-sound. This is what the dictionary means by 'syllabic n'.

    However they pronounce -ton, British speakers pronounce ba- as fully stressed (or ba) with a TRAP vowel.

    When the dictionary prints (ə) it's trying to represent two different pronunciations — as in [2] and [3] above. I have another dictionary which uses raised small to show (possibly syllabic possibly not) ᵊn, ᵊm, ᵊl.

    The three pronunciations are not necessarily exclusive. We tend to use ˈbætɒn where the word is prominent e.g. pass the baton, but to use one of the other pronunciations in a police baton-charge.

    1. American speakers pronounce the second syllable with full stress — as they generally do with words taken from French. The American English LOT vowel is ɑ — very different from the sound in British accents.
  • A syllabic constant is a constant which can stand alone as a syllable.

    The great majority of syllables in all languages have a vowel at their center, and may have one or more constants preceding and following the vowel. However in a few cases we find syllables which contain nothing that could conventionally be classed as a vowel. In English, syllabic constants appear to arise as a consequence of a weak vowel (usually ə) becoming lost.

    Source: Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary, 18th Edition; page 576

    Percy Henry, Read Clearly Dictionaries

  • Thank you both. I am going to read up on it.

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭

    @LuckyStar8*, the combination of symbols (ə) and the combination ᵊn are two ways of represent ing the same thing — namely that two pronunciations are possible.

    The two different pronunciations are symbolised by (1) ən and (2) . So the British pronunciations are symbolised (1) ˈbætən and (2) ˈbætn̩. This is how to pronounce them


    • Say bat — You should end up with the your tongue against the hard ridge behind your front teeth, blocking air from getting out.
    • Let some air out the front of your mouth by pulling the tip of your tongue down from the tooth ridge
    • At the same time make a little grunting noise — the noise we make at the end of words like china.
    • Then move your tongue back so that no air excepts through the front of your mouth.
    • At the name time allow the air to escape up into your nose.

    (2) — so-called syllabic n

    • Say bat
    • Don't let any air out through the front of your mouth.
    • Then make a little humming noise.
    • At the same time allow the air to escape up into your nose.

    Hold a piece of paper at the bottom and place it in front of your lips. When you use the (1) pronunciation, the paper should bend with the air coming from your mouth. But when you use the (2) pronunciation, the paper should stay still.

    Practice both ways of pronouncing baton, then choose the one which is easier for you — or the one that you hear from English-speaking friends.

  • Luck Star, before you get your paper out and start practicing, please listen to following pronunciation of baton using a strong vowel and the second using a syllabic constant:


    Macmillan Dictionary also has British pronunciation which does not use the syllabic constant form but pronounces baton with the weak vowel (ə). You can find the British pronunciation here:


    Percy Henry, Read Clearly Dictionaries

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭

    @Lucky Star8
    Percy's first link gives a very good idea of syllabic n — the ˈbætn̩ pronunciation. But I don't like the second one much — the second vowel is, I think, too much like the LOT vowel.

    I think you can get a better idea of the ˈbætən pronunciation from this pages's recoding of a British speaker saying pattern.


    Of course, American speakers and many British speakers (including all Scottish speakers) pronounce pattern with an R-sound But for many of us pattern and baton are perfect rhymes.

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