Phonetic Spelling: Guide to What It Is and How It's Used

Phonetic spelling is a tool for pronunciation. It involves writing out words according to how the letters and syllables are spoken. It doesn't represent an alternate way that words can be spelled in written communication, but rather simply provides a guide for correct pronunciation.

phonetic spelling example of ap-uhl phonetic spelling example of ap-uhl
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Uses for Phonetic Spelling

Phonetic spelling is invaluable for those who are learning to speak a new language or who find themselves needing to pronounce hard-to-say names or other words in their own language.

  • Phonetic spelling is used in many situations that involve public speaking, such as the phonetic spelling of names for a graduation ceremony, announcing sports events, giving speeches, or reading the news.
  • Phonetic spelling can help speakers or presenters know how to properly pronounce people's names or unfamiliar words, such as unfamiliar jargon. For example, medical terminology includes many complex words that can be hard to pronounce. Phonetic spelling is a sound-based pronunciation guide for such terms.
  • The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is particularly helpful for people who are learning how to speak a language other than their native tongue. It provides symbols for various sounds that are consistent across all languages.

Phonetic Spelling Guide

In order to write out words based on how they are pronounced, you'll need to use a phonetic spelling guide that provides ways to write the various sounds that different letters make. You can use a phonetic symbol for each sound, or opt to utilize IPA symbols.

Phonetic Consonant Sounds Chart

The phonetic spelling chart below illustrates standard phonetic spellings for consonant sounds commonly used in English for the highlighted letter(s) in the "sounds like" column. The third column features the IPA symbol for the consonant sound.

Phonetic Symbol for Consonant SoundSounds LikeIPA Symbol

b

boy, club

/b/

ch

children, nature

/tʃ/

d

dog, bid

/d/

dh

author, them/ð/

f

father, rough, ruff/f/

g

girl, leg, egg/ɡ/

h

him, redhead/h/

j

jazz, gender, ledge/dʒ/

k

corn, kitten, skunk, pick/h/

kh

loch, Hanukah, Chanukah/x/

l

like, fell/l/

m

mad, dam/m/

n

not, been/n/

ng

bring, sting/ŋ/

nk

drink, think/ŋk/

p

pink, lip/p/

r

ring, merry/r/

s

sit, cents, class/s/

sh

she, motion, surely, clash/ʃ/

t

stink, two, let/t/

th

this, beneath/θ/

v

vex, love/v/

w

water, awe/w/

wh

why, what/hw/

y

you, yesterday/j/

z

zip, buzz, froze, rosy/z/

zh

leisure, collision, beige
/ʒ/
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Phonetic Vowel Sounds Chart

The symbols below are used to indicate common vowel sounds in the English language. Each symbol is used to represent the type of sound marked in bold in the "sounds like" column. The IPA symbol for that vowel sound is given in the third (right) column.

Phonetic Symbol for Vowel Sound
Sounds Like
IPA Symbol

a

bad, clap/æ/

ah or aa

bother, father

/ɑː/

air

square, lair

/ɛər/

ar

starter, barter

/ɑːr/

arr

carry, married

/ær/

aw

thought, fraught, saw

/ɔː/

ay or ai

cape, wait

/eɪ/

e or eh

pest, bless

/ɛ/

ee

flee, plea

/i/

eer

fear, deer

/ɪər/

err

berry, cherry

/ɛr/

ew

few, feud

/juː/
ewr
lure, sewer
/jʊər/

eye

hike, icon

/aɪ/

i or ih

skit, historic

/ɪ/
ire
fire, liar
/aɪər/

irr

mirror, nearer

/ɪr/

o

plot, flock

/ɒ/

oh

float, lo

/oʊ/

oo

mood, boo, glue, shoe

/uː/

oor

cure tour, poor

/ʊər/

or

forth, warn

/ɔːr/

orr

lore, orange

/ɒr/

ou or ow

out, rout, south

/aʊ/
owr
flour, flower
/aʊər/

oy

voice, soy

/ɔɪ/

u or uh

glut, nut, mustard

/ʌ/

ur

purse, verse, hearse

/ɜːr/

urr

scurry, furry

/ʌr/
uu
soot, put
/ʊ/
uurr
courier, worrier
/ʊr/

y

lye, hide

/aɪ/
ə
about, drama
/ə/
ər
better, letter
/ər/

Phonetic Spelling Examples

When words are transcribed into their phonetic spelling, dashes are used to separate syllables. Sounds that are stressed can either be bolded or written in capital letters, which is the option used below. Review the list of words below for a few examples of phonetic spellings and IPA transcriptions.

Word
Phonetic Spelling
IPA Transcription
apple

Ap-uhl

/ˈæp.əl/
bottle
bOt-l
/ˈbɒ.təl/
diner
dIn-uhr
/ˈdɪnɚ/
eaten
EEt-n
/ˈitn̩/
fence
fEnts
/ˈfɛnts/
Hannah
HAN-uh
/hˈanə/
John
Jon
/d‍ʒˈɒn/
puppy
PUH·pee
/ˈpʌpi/
Sarah
sehr-uh
/sˈɑːɹə/
travel
trAv-l
/'tɹævə/
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Phonetic Spelling Dictionary and Transcription

When you look up a word in the dictionary, it will show you one or more common phonetic spellings for the term. There are also some free online phonetic spelling converter tools you can use.

  • If you're specifically interested in IPA transcription, this automatic phonemic transcriber site is a good option. You can enter any Danish, English or German word and it will be transcribed into IPA symbols.
  • If you want to get both phonetic spelling and IPA symbols, the site EasyPronunciation.com is a better option. You can select American or British English and get results transcribed either way or both ways.

If you are learning to speak English as a second language (ESL) or if you frequently do public speaking that involves pronouncing unfamiliar words, a print guide to the IPA can be a useful tool. The IPA for Language Learning: An Introduction to the International Phonetic Alphabet is a good option to consider.

Strengthen Your Pronunciation Skills

Now that you are familiar with phonetic spelling and IPA symbols, use what you have learned to improve your pronunciation skills. From there, explore the difference between pronunciation and enunciation so you'll be prepared to clearly articulate your words in addition to pronouncing them correctly.