Let’s learn how to pronounce the T and D consonants in American English.
How to pronounce T /t/ and D /d/ in American English
The T and D consonants are very similar. They can be pronounced a few different ways in American English, and dictionaries won’t always show you the different pronunciations that native speakers actually use. For this reason, learning how to pronounce the T and D consonants, and their many variations, can be frustrating.
Let’s start with what is the same between the true pronunciations of the T and D consonants.
The true pronunciations share the same lip, tongue, and jaw placements, which means they are made in the same place in the mouth. Watch as I say the two sounds, and you’ll notice that my mouth is in the same position for both sounds.
T, D, T, D
They also share the same type of air release or manner. These consonants are called stop consonants, which means the airflow is stopped somewhere along the vocal tract as you pronounce them. For the T and D consonants, the airflow is stopped where the tongue tip touches the alveolar ridge, the bumpy part of the roof of the mouth, just behind the front teeth. The airflow is also stopped in the throat as the vocal cords come together. The air is released as you open the vocal cords and bring the tongue tip down..
But where they differ is voicing. The T consonant is a voiceless consonant, which means it is made with just air passing through the vocal cords and out of the mouth. The vocal cords are turned off as you say this sound.
The D consonant is a voiced consonant. This means the vocal cords are turned on as you say this sound, and you should feel a vibration in the throat when you say it.
To pronounce the true T and D consonants, the tongue is in a wide, flat shape, and the sides of the tongue push against the inside of the upper molars. The tongue tip comes up to the alveolar ridge to stop the airflow. The jaw may close slightly, but the teeth don’t touch. The vocal cords also come together to stop the airflow. A small amount of air pressure builds up behind the tongue and in the throat. Then the air is released as you drop the tongue and open the vocal cords. This release of air is called aspiration.
There is more aspiration, or air release, for the T consonant than the D consonant.
The lips do not participate in these sounds, so the lips can be relaxed or in a neutral position.
Watch an animation of the true T and D consonant sounds. This animation was created from actual videos of a real person pronouncing the true T and D sounds. The animation shows the side view of the person's face, and I slowed it down to half speed. First you’ll see the true T consonant sound. Watch how the front of the tongue comes up and the tip touches the alveolar ridge, just behind the front teeth.
Now the true D consonant. Notice the same tongue and mouth placement, but you’ll hear voicing or vocal cord vibration.
When making the D consonant, you should feel vibration in two places: in the throat and at the point where the articulators touch, which is where the tongue tip touches the alveolar ridge. This is the vibration of the air as it exits the mouth.
The T consonant does not have vibration because it is a voiceless sound, so the vocal cords are turned off as you say it.
Let’s take a closer look at the pronunciations of the true T and true D consonants.
True T /t/ and True D /d/ pronunciations: Close up and slow motion
First, the true T consonant sound. Notice how the lips are open and neutral. The tongue is up, wide, and flat, and the sides push against the inside of the upper molars. The tip comes up to the alveolar ridge to stop the airflow and the vocal cords come together. The teeth come together but they don’t touch. Then the tip drops down and the vocal cords open to release the air and the sound.
Now the word take. Again, you’ll see the lips are open and neutral. The tongue is up, wide, flat, sides pushing against the inside of the molars. Tip comes up to stop the airflow, vocal cords close, pressure builds behind the tongue tip and in the throat. Then everything is released.
Now the word do. Again, you’ll see the lips are open and neutral. The tongue is up, wide, flat, sides pushing against the inside of the molars. Tip comes up to stop the airflow, vocal cords close, pressure builds behind the tongue tip and in the throat. Then everything is released. You can’t see the vibration, but the vocal cords are also vibrating as you say the D consonant sound.
You just learned the pronunciation of the true T and true D consonant sounds. They’re called the true T and true D because this is how these consonants are pronounced when they are in their pure, typical state.
But now let’s discuss the variations in how the T and D consonant sounds are pronounced.
How to pronounce the unreleased T and unreleased D consonants
When the T and D consonants come at the end of a word or syllable and the next word or syllable begins with a consonant, it’s very common for native speakers to hold the release of the T or D consonant. This means the tongue tip comes up to the alveolar ridge and the air is stopped there and in the throat, but you don’t release the air or the sound. Instead, the tongue tip stays up, and you stop the sound right there.
This type of pronunciation is called an unreleased stop consonant. It sounds like this:
Notice that my tongue tip came up for the T consonant, but it didn’t release. It wasn’t cat, with a fully released T consonant. It was cat. The tongue tip came up and the sound stopped right there.
An unreleased D consonant sounds like this:
D, D, D - that’s the unreleased D sound. You still make the sound here with your vocal cords - you still want voicing and vibration. The tongue tip comes up, the vocal cords vibrate and you feel vibration here in the throat and at the alveolar ridge, the air builds up, and then that’s it.
D, D, D
The unreleased T consonant has two different pronunciations. I use both pronunciations depending on the other sounds that surround the unreleased T.
Sometimes, native speakers will lift the tongue tip to the alveolar ridge when pronouncing the unreleased T consonant. I demonstrated this when I pronounced the word cat.
Cat, cat, cat
My tongue tip came up, and I stopped the airflow there and in my throat.
Native speakers may use this type of pronunciation when the T consonant comes at the end of a thought group or sentence, or when you are linking to a word or syllable that begins with a sound that has a similar tongue position, like an L, N, or D consonant.
This happens in the phrase cat nap. Notice how my tongue tip comes up for the unreleased T, then it stays up for the next sound, the N in nap.
The unreleased T can be pronounced another way using just the vocal cords, not the tongue. This type of T sound is sometimes called a stop T, glottal T, or glottal stop; these all refer to the same sound.
The stop T is made with the vocal cords. It sounds like this:
It’s the part when the vocal cords come together, and the air and sound are completely stopped.
The tongue does not participate in the stop T. It’s only the vocal cords. If you’re making it correctly, you should not be able to breathe at the same time because the vocal cords are closed completely.
The stop T also has a crisp, abrupt ending to it. You need to feel that the vocal cords actually come together and close. If they don’t close, you’re not pronouncing the stop T correctly.
Here’s the stop T in the word KitKat. I typically use two stop Ts in this word.
Can you hear the crisp, abrupt ending to the stop T?
Here it is with a true T and then a stop T. Listen to the difference.
Let’s take a closer look at the unreleased T and D consonant sounds.
Stop T and unreleased D: Up close and in slow motion
Here is the stop T in the word cotton. It has a stop T in the middle of the word. You can’t see it very clearly, but the back of the tongue makes the K sound, then the tongue drops as the vocal cords close for the stop T.
Now the unreleased D in the phrase had to. I use an unreleased D consonant here because the next word, to, begins with a consonant. The tongue tip comes up for the unreleased D and the vocal cords vibrate. Then the tongue tip remains in contact with the alveolar ridge as I transition into the next sound, the T in to.
You just learned the pronunciation of the unreleased T and D consonants. But there’s a third way that these consonants can be pronounced.
How to pronounce the flap T and flap D
When the T or D consonants come between vowels and the second vowel is unstressed, the T or D pronunciations change to a flap. A flap is a sound made with the tip of the tongue as it quickly flaps against the alveolar ridge. The tongue is flat and wide, and the sides of the tongue push against the inside of the upper molars. You don’t stop the airflow; instead, think of a flap as shaping the airflow as it exits the mouth. The airflow and the sound continue as you say the flap; there is no stop or build up of air.
D, D, D, D
The flap occurs in words like whiter and wider and petal and pedal. I’ll say these words again. Listen carefully to their pronunciation. They are pronounced exactly the same.
Both the T and the D become the flap in these words. This often results in homophones, which is when two words have the same pronunciation, but they are spelled differently, like whiter/wider and petal/pedal. The flap T and the flap D sound exactly the same.
The flap is used in many words in American English and when linking a word or syllable that ends in the T or D consonants to a vowel.
Watch an animation of the flap consonant sound. This animation was created from an actual video of a real person pronouncing the flap sound. The animation shows the side view of the person's face, and I slowed it down to half speed. Watch how the tongue tip quickly makes contact with the alveolar ridge.
Let’s take a closer look at the flap sound.
Flap T and flap D: Up close and in slow motion
First the flap T in the word better. See the lips retract slightly for the EH as in red vowel, then the tongue lifts and the sides push against the inside of the upper molars. The tip quickly flaps against the roof of the mouth at the alveolar ridge. The flap is a very quick sound. Then the tongue retracts for the ER vowel.
Now the flap D in the word ladder. The flap D is pronounced exactly the same as the flap T. The tongue is down for the AA as in apple vowel. Then the tongue moves up, becomes wide and flat, the sides push against the inside of the upper molars, and the tip quickly flaps against the alveolar ridge.
If you’re having a difficult time pronouncing the flap, here’s a practice tip:
Hold out the vowels that come before and after the flap. This will give your tongue enough time to prepare to move into the flap position. Then feel how quickly the tongue tip flaps against the roof of the mouth.
Let’s try that in a word like getting. Here, the T turns into the flap because the T comes between vowels and the second vowel is unstressed.
Feel how quickly the tongue tip flaps against the roof of the mouth.
Some dictionaries won’t show you the IPA symbol for the flap, even though native speakers use it in the pronunciation. Instead, the dictionary may show you the true T or D symbols. So remember the rule:
When the T or D consonant sounds come between vowels and the second vowel is unstressed, the T or D usually become the flap.
T /t/ and D /d/ pronunciation practice
Let’s practice a few words together. Say the words with me. We’ll start with the true T and true D consonant sounds.
Take, /t/, Take
Street /t/, street
Dance, /d/, dance
Adult /d/, adult
Now the unreleased T and D consonants.
Unreleased T with tongue tip up
Stop T without the tongue tip
Now the flap T and flap D:
Thanks so much for practicing the T and D consonants with me. I hope this video was helpful! But we don’t have to end the practice here - let’s keep working together! Check out the additional practice videos of the T and D consonant sounds in English Pro, my comprehensive online accent training community. The details on how to enroll in English Pro are in the description below. Thanks, and have a great day!