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(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?


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

  • @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.

  • @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.

  • Thank you both for your invaluable advice.

  • Re the piece of paper: I honestly never expected to see Bernoulli's principle used in quite this way. Is this a standard technique when teaching pronunciations or did someone just get very creative?

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭
    edited May 2018

    The paper test is more spectacular when comparing, for example, pin and spin. Nevertheless, there is a mouth-exhaled-air effect with ˈbætən and none with ˈbætn̩.

    So yes Amos, the paper test is perfectly standard in teaching aspirated vs non-aspirated consonants. I've never used it with syllabic nasals, but then I've never been asked to teach them to someone experiencing difficulty.

    Percy, I don't understand a word of your comment.

    Phonetics is no less a descriptive study than it always was. It's not a matter of theory that air escapes though the mouth before ən and escapes through the nose when a syllabic is substituted.

    [The same holds for syllabic . Syllabic is different in that the exhaled air escapes laterally.]

    I didn't know whether or not this test would help LuckyStar. Some people are better than others in feeling what their mouths are doing. This was an objective test which didn't call for introspection. Some learners like this sort of thing.

  • Percy, when questions of speech production become a mater of theory, I call that Phonology. When teaching pronunciation, there is some space for Phonology in conveying what sounds the same and what sounds different to native speakers of various dialects. But when it come to simple questions like how to pronounce syllabic , I see no role for phonological or any other theory — apart from pedagogic theory.

    Quantitive studies have a place in determining norms and frequencies in versus ən — but you still need to describe what you're measuring and comparing.

  • Percy, while I am quite interested in Phonological Theory, I've no idea what part theory might play in pronunciation. Phonetics is practically theory-free.

    When you say tən rather than tn̩ air comes through your mouth. I can't think of anything more empirical than that. You can observe it. That little piece of paper may well help direct your attention.

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭
    edited May 2018

    Percy, there are no assumptions behind the descriptions of articulation. Every gesture is open to close observation and filming — even the within the mouth and pharynx.

    From various things you've said, I gather that you're more interested in how machines recognise and produce speech sounds than you are in human activity. Indeed, this is a field where a quantificational approach comes into its own.

    As someone who has taught pronunciation to human students, my perspective is different. If someone asks me as LuckyStarr did

    Could someone be so kind to tell me for the word "baton" do I pronounce (ə) please?

    then I try to tell them what to do with their speech organs.

    A computer asks something quite different. It asks how to recognise, for instance, the word baton when spoken. A vital thing to teach the computer is to ignore the difference between tən and tn̩. Some speakers will produce one, other speakers the other, but they are all saying the same word.

    (There's also the complication of bæʔ rather than bæt — another difference that the computer must be taught to ignore.)

    Speech production is less of a problem since we're all capable of ignoring differences. Programmers presumably aim for something that doesn't sound too obviously idiosyncratic.

    There may well be a language where ən is distinctively different from — so that ˈbætn̩ and ˈbætən would be different words. (We're talking Phonology here, not Phonetics.) If such a language exists, then computers must be programmed to recognise the difference.

    We had something like this in the earlier version of this forum. The distinction between palatalised 'soft' consonants and unpalatalised 'hard' consonants is crucial in Russian speech, but of no account in English. So Russian has, for example, two phonemes /tʲ/ an /t/ corresponding to English one phoneme /t/. A computer recognising or producing Russian words must be programmed to distinguish the sounds, while a computer recognising or producing English words must be programmed to ignore the differences.

  • SimoneSimone admin
    edited May 2018

    Hi all, @LuckyStar8 @phenry1026 @DavidCrosbie
    I'm joining this discussion a bit late, but I hope you find this useful:
    Our free English dictionary site (which is the dictionary of current English, no the OED), also brings sound bites with pronunciation:

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭
    edited May 2018

    Thanks Simone. Your link and a subsequent internal link lead to

    (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/.

    ... which is the very starting point quoted by LuckyStar in his/her question.

    My answer to the question is based on my reading of this and similar descriptions of dictionary practice. If anyone can persuade that my reading is in error, I'm open to revision.

    For me, the crucial words are

    may be

  • Hi @DavidCrosbie
    Oh, my post was not a comment your replies, I just wanted to point out the fact that we also have sound bites for pronunciation on the free English dictionary, as not everyone has got access to the OED :)
    By the way, many thanks for your input to this discussion, I'm finding it very interesting.

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭
    edited May 2018

    @Simone, I glad you're interested.

    The representation of syllabic consonants presents particular problems to dictionary-makers.

    1. The first is whether they are to be considered uniquely acceptable, or in alternation with əl, əm, ən, ər.

    2. If both are considered acceptable, the editors must consider whether it's justifiable to represent both of them every time.

    It's my impression that all the dictionaries I've looked at have decided to represent both pronunciations — but to do so without using up space and potentially confusing the reader. I've seen three ways of conveying that a syllable may be pronounced in two ways

    • My old edition of Daniel Jones's English Pronouncing Dictionary uses schwa in italics: thus ˈbætən
    • John Wells's Longman Pronunciation Dictionary uses ˢᵘᵖᵉʳˢ‘ʳⁱᵖᵗ schwa: thus ˈbætᵊn
    • Oxford Dictionaries Online and Collins use schwa in parentheses: thus **ˈbat(ə)n

    None of these are standard IPA. The current alphabet uses a subscript mark for syllabic l̩, m̩, n̩, r̩. An earlier version used little subscript circles — which I thought was easier to read. But UNICODE provides for only the current IPA symbols so that's all I can type here.**

    I wrote 'It's my impression that' here and in a previous posting 'my reading of this and similar descriptions'. An alternative reading is that only syllabic consonants are considered standard and that tən, tᵊn and t(ə)n are three ways of representing a syllable in preference to the stranger-looking tn̩.

    In support of my reading:
    Jones EPD

    When a letter is printed in italics in a phonetic transition. it means that the sound is sometimes pronounced and sometimes omitted

    Wells LPD

    ʳᵃⁱˢᵉᵈ (may be inserted)

    Oxford Dictionaries Online

    (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/.

    In the Oxford note, I take the phrasing 'may be realized' to imply that this is an option. It doesn't say 'must be realized'.
    Cambridge EPD
    Although Percy has found a paragraph that suggests otherwise, this dictionary has an exclusive representation for syllabic n. That is to say whatever (ə)n represents, it doesn't necessarily and exclusively represent the syllabic consonant. Alone among the dictionaries I've seen, they use the IPA . I don't own a copy, but I've managed to get on-screen:

    Nasal release can also result in a SYLLABIC CONSONANT
    button /ˈbʌtn̩/


    Elision also occurs when a weak vowel occurs between a PLOSIVE or FRICATIVE consonant and a consonant such as a NASAL or a LATERAL: this process leads to SYLLABIC CONSONANTS,
    sudden /ˈsʌd.ən/ → /ˈsʌd.n̩/
    awful /ˈɔːfʊl/ → /ˈɔːfl̩/

    As I say, I don't own a copy so I can't look up the entry for button (or sudden or awful) in the main body of the dictionary. So I can't be sure whether or not they recognise both ˈbʌtn̩ and ˈbʌtən as acceptable within their understanding of Received Pronunciation.

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭
    edited May 2018

    David Crystal can always make things linguistic painlessly and entertainingly clear. His latest book Sound Appealing: The Passionate Story of English Pronunciation turns the Crystal magic to Phonetics. I quote from Chapter19 The nasal family
    Having compared nasal
    to plosive
    p and b
    t and d
    k and g
    he observes

    The only difference from plosives is that the soft palate is lowered, so that the air comes out through the nose — hence the name nasal. We don't easily feel the raising and lowering, but if you say a word like button quickly, so that n becomes an entire syllable — as /ˈbʌtn/ rather than pronouncing the /t/ clearly as in /ˈbʌtən/ — it's possible to feel the soft palate move.

    Crystal follows Daniel Jones in the EPD in not marking syllabic consonants when they're not distinctive. Jones writes:

    The fact that a consonant is syllabic is marked (by placing the mark ̩ under the letter) only when there might be ambiguity. Thus the syllabic «l» is specially marked in «ˈflæn̩li» (flannelly), because «ˈflænli» would indicate a pronunciation rhyming with Hanley. It is not needful to mark the syllabicity of the «l» in such a word as bottle «ˈbɔtl», since the sound cannot be other than syllabic in this situation.

    His entry for bottle allows for only one pronunciation: ˈbɔtl
    His entry for baton allows for two pronunciations: ˈbæt ə n

    Wells devised the LPD much later and formed a different judgement as to the state of RP.
    His entry for bottle allows for two pronunciations: ˈbɒtᵊl — as does his ˈbætᵊn for baton.

    Similarly, Oxford Dictionaries Online gives /ˈbɒt(ə)l/ and /ˈbat(ə)n/ — although the sound files give only the syllabic-consonant variants.

    Collins displays two options with ˈbɒtᵊl but only one with ˈbætən (along with ˈbætɒn). The sound files give ˈbɒtəl and ˈbætɒn.

    I can't help feeling that when two pronunciations are conveyed in print, it would help the consumer — often a learner — if the sound files gave both.

  • SimoneSimone admin
    edited May 2018

    Note from the moderator: some comment's were deleted from this discussion at the comment author's request.

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