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Can vs. Can’t Pronunciation | English Pronunciation Lesson

Even native English speakers sometimes need clarification when they talk to one another. This can especially happen when we say the verbs “can” and “can’t”.

Native English speakers don’t always clearly pronounce the negative [nt] sound at the end of “can’t,” and this can make it difficult for the listener to understand if the speaker spoke in the positive “can” or the negative “can’t.”

However, to hear the difference between “can” and “can’t”, one does not need to hear those consonant sounds.

Content Words

Content words, such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, negatives, etc., carry the meaning and information in a sentence and are stressed in English, meaning they are pronounced:

  • longer
  • louder; and
  • higher in pitch.

Therefore, the content word “can’t” is pronounced with a longer, stressed vowel sound: “can’t” [KAENT]

Example

  • “I can’t go.” [aiy KAENT GOW]

 

Function Words

Function words, such as prepositions, auxiliary verbs and articles, do not carry the meaning in a sentence and are merely grammatical and functional in nature. Function words are, therefore, de-stressed and pronounced much shorter, quicker and more relaxed than content words. This causes the auxiliary verb “can” to be de-stressed and sound like “kin” [KIN].

Example

We don’t say:

  • “We can go.” [WIT KAEN GOW]

but we de-stress the “can” so that it sounds like “kin”:

  • “We can go” [WIY kInGOW]
“We can” became [WIYkIn].
  • “We can go” [WIY kInGOW]
So, if you don’t hear the different consonant sounds in “can” and “can’t” clearly, listen for the length of the vowel sound to distinguish the two words.

 

Listen and Repeat

  • “I can be there by twelve.”
  • “I can’t make it on Saturday, but I can definitely go on Sunday.”
  • “He can’t understand what I’m saying!”
  • “You can cook really well!”
  • “We can’t afford a big diamond ring.”
  • “She can wear a smaller ring on her finger.”
Did you hear the difference in the length of the vowel sound between “can” and “can’t”?

 

Note

We do not de-stress “can” when it’s at the end of a sentence.

So if you are responding to a question and say, “Yes, I can”, you would never de-stress the can and say [YES eikIn]. Just think of President Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan — “Yes we can” — where the function word “can” remained stressed.

 

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10 comments

  1. thank you very much, your pronunciation is wonderful please we want more like daily.

    • Elemental English

      Thanks!! I hope to have time to update daily in the future. Right now I have 32 students (I teach in a Grad School in America), so I’m so busy! But thank you for the kind words, and I will update more frequently :)

  2. Thank you very much. This is exactly what my English learners need! I have a hard time teaching them the difference. :)

  3. thank you for this program
    I would like to ask when can i stress can and cant in sentences
    for example:
    in positive sentences
    in negative sentences
    in wh- questions
    in short answers
    please can you clarify that to me

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