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Pronounce the Past Tense Like a Native Speaker!


(Video Transcript)

How many of you have been thinking about the pronunciation of the -ed ending in English, as in the -ed ending that marks the past tense of English verbs, like, “I traveled to Spain last year.” 


If you haven’t been thinking about it lately, here’s a reason why you should. Sometimes, native speakers don’t pronounce it. And most of them have no idea that they’re doing this.


Listen to this:

Did you hear it? Watched the? Or was it watch the? 


I heard watch the, but based on the context of his conversation and the other verbs that he used, he wasn’t talking in the present tense. The correct verb in this case was watched.


So what happened here? 


It’s strange, it violates the rules of grammar, but he did not make a mistake here. It’s completely OK to drop the -ed ending. 




Let’s take a closer look together at the rules of the -ed ending, and when it can be dropped from the pronunciation of a phrase.


How to pronounce past tense verbs in English

Let’s first talk about the rules of the -ed ending because even my advanced students still sometimes struggle with knowing which -ed ending to use, because there are three different pronunciations that are possible. 


Here are the rules:


Rule number one: If the last sound of a verb is voiceless, like the /k/ K consonant in the word “look”, then the -ed ending makes a /t/ sound. This rule is based on voicing - a voiceless final consonant means you’ll have a voiceless -ed ending.


You don’t add another syllable here; it’s just another consonant added to the end of the verb, and it creates a consonant cluster. 




Kt, kt, kt, 

The /kt/ cluster.




Pt, pt, pt

The /pt/ cluster




St, st, st

The /st/ cluster


This rule is true for all voiceless consonants except for two consonants: The /h/ H consonant, because there are no words in English that end with the /h/ consonant sound, and the /t/ T consonant. The /t/ consonant has its own rule, which you’ll learn about in rule number three.


Here’s rule number two: If the last sound of a verb is voiced, like the /l/ Dark L consonant in the word “travel”, then the -ed ending makes a /d/ sound. This rule is again based on voicing - a voiced final consonant means you’ll have a voiced -ed ending.


You also don’t add another syllable here; it’s just another consonant added to the end of the verb, and it can create a consonant cluster.




Ld, ld, ld

The /ld/ cluster.




Gd, gd, gd

The /gd/ cluster

Since every vowel and diphthong of English are voiced, this means rule number two also applies to verbs that end in a vowel or diphthong. You simply add the /d/ consonant to the end of the word.




/d, /d, /d/

The /d/ ending.


This rule is true for all vowels and diphthongs, and all voiced consonants except for three, the /w/ consonant and the /j/ consonant, since no words in English end with those sounds, and the  /d/ consonant, which has its own pronunciation rule. You’ll learn that next.


Here’s the last rule, rule number three: If the last sound of a verb is /t/ or /d/, like the verbs “vote” and “divide”, the -ed ending creates its own syllable, the short /ɪ/ vowel and the /d/ consonant. This sounds like “id”. 




Id, id, id




Id, id, id


It’s important to know that this id syllable is always unstressed. 




Id, id, id


Since it’s unstressed, there are many words in which the /t/ or /d/ consonants turn into a flap, because you’ll have a /t/ or /d/ consonant between two vowels and the second vowel, id, is unstressed.





Both the T and the D in these words turn into the flap, and this is very common in many -ed words that fall under rule number three.

How to pronounce wanted with the nasal flap

It’s also important to know that in some words, like wanted, planted, and counted, the /t/ consonant might be dropped from the pronunciation, and in fact it’s very common to drop the /t/ consonant in a word like wanted.


I wanted to go.

I wanted to eat spaghetti.


Wanted, wanted. I dropped the T from that pronunciation. Why?


This word follows the rules of what’s called the nasal flap, sometimes called the vanishing T. When N and T are next to each other, between vowels, and the second vowel is unstressed, the T can be dropped from the pronunciation.






This is optional; you could always choose to pronounce wanted with the true T sound. But in some words, it’s very common for native speakers to drop the T.


So let’s sum up what we’ve just learned. There are three rules to pronouncing the -ed ending. If a verb ends in a voiced consonant, the -ed ending is pronounced like a /d/. If the verb ends in a voiceless consonant, the -ed ending is pronounced like a /t/. And if the verb ends in a /t/ or /d/ consonant, the -ed ending creates its own syllable, id. It’s common for the /t/ or /d/ to turn into a flap, and it’s also common to drop the /t/ from the pronunciation if it comes after N.

These rules are great to know, as they will guide you on how to pronounce the -ed ending most of the time. However, when you start linking the -ed ending to other words, like in phrases and sentences and in conversation, the rules can change. 


Linking with the past tense: The Rule of Three

Let’s briefly go back to the video I showed at the beginning. The man said “watch the” instead of “watched the.” Listen again here:


This was not a grammar error on his part. There’s an actual rule that describes what’s happening here. Not all native speakers use this rule in this case, when it comes to the -ed ending, but you will hear them do it. Here’s why.


In past videos I’ve talked about something called the Rule of Three, and if this is new to you, I’ll put the link below to the videos. Watch those videos - the Rule of Three will explain so many things that you’re hearing in the speech of native speakers, but you’re not quite sure if you’re hearing it right. 


The Rule of Three states that when three or more consonants are next to each other, either within a word or across word boundaries when linking words together, the middle consonant can be dropped from the pronunciation. You’re probably already using this in words like:


Christmas - there’s no T in Christmas

Attempts - there’s no T in attempts

And asked - you can drop the K in asked. 


The Rule of Three simplifies pronunciation of complex consonant combinations. Sometimes it’s followed one hundred percent of the time, like the word Christmas. I’ve never heard anyone pronounce it like Christ-mas.


And sometimes it’s optional, like the word asked. This can be pronounced like asked or “asst.” Either one is fine.


Now let’s see how the Rule of Three applies to the phrase that the man said in the video that you watched.


Here’s what he said: “I have imagined the pub where I would be in Indianapolis where I watched the games with other Liverpool fans.”


The phrase I want to focus on is: “watched the.” Let’s look at the IPA of this phrase.


If I transcribe it completely, you’ll see three consonants in a row: the CH, t, and TH consonants.


So, if we apply the Rule of Three to this phrase, the /t/ consonant can be dropped. This results in the pronunciation of “watch the,” just like the present tense.


When to use the Rule of Three with past tense verbs

You may be wondering, “Really? The past tense will sound exactly like the present tense?” Yes, sometimes it can, but you can’t just go around dropping the -ed ending from all verbs. The Rule of Three only applies when:


Number one: You’re linking the -ed verb to another word. You can’t drop the -ed ending when saying a word by itself, or when the word ends a phrase or sentence, or if you choose not to link it to anything. It only happens within the context of linking, and you must be speaking at a normal rate. Not too slow. 


Number two: You’re linking the -ed verb to a word that begins with a consonant. You must be linking to a consonant, not a vowel.


And number three: This linking results in at least three consonants in a row. 


But like I mentioned earlier, this particular application of the Rule of Three is optional, not everyone will do it, especially if they are trying to speak slowly or they want to make sure people understand them as clearly as possible. But in fast speech, when native speakers aren’t thinking about what they’re saying, it does happen, but most native speakers have no idea they’re doing it.


So today as you interact with native speakers, maybe at work, at a conference, or while watching TV, I want to challenge you to listen for the Rule of Three within the context of the -ed ending. And if it's a past tense verb, this will mean the past tense will sound exactly like the present tense. I bet you’ll hear it at least once. 


If you’re ready to practice the -ed ending even more, then check out my online accent training community called English Pro. Enrollment opens in September 2023, but if you pre-enroll now, you’ll get your first month for free. Details on how to pre-enroll in English Pro are below. Thanks so much for watching, and I hope you have a great day!

Julie Cunningham | San Diego Voice and Accent Julie Cunningham | San Diego Voice and Accent Julie Cunningham | San Diego Voice and Accent

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