The most common sound in English speech /ə/


various alphabet letters isolated on

Written by Celine

There is one English sound that all learners must be aware of – the neutral vowel used in unstressed syllables and weak forms – the “schwa” vowel. In the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), it is symbolized by this symbol (/ə/), which looks like an inverted “e”.

What does the “schwa” sound like? Say the word “a’bout” out loud and stress on the second syllable, the unstressed “a” is the schwa sound and will be denoted by /ə/.  The following examples illustrate this:

opportunity                  circus

     /ə/                                /ə/

There is no single letter that only represents “schwa” in the alphabet. This is because every vowel in the English Language can be represented by the ‘schwa’ sound. Say the words in the table below, out loud and consciously note how the schwa sound has replaced the original sound of the vowels in bold and underlined.

Vowels a (/ə/) e (/ə/) i (/ə/) o (/ə/) u (/ə/)
Words about market easily contain Supply


If you make “schwa” /ə/ your friend, your pronunciation will improve. You will begin to speak English with the correct stress and rhythm so as to be easily understood by native English speakers. Knowing the “schwa” is the single most important factor for effective oral English skills.

Can you identify which of these vowels are represented by the schwa’ sound /ə/?

  1. particular
  2. economy
  3. economical
  4. economics
  5. politics
  6. politician
  7. political

Note: Look up the dictionary to find the answer.

The Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary, 8th Edition facilitates such a search as the IPA is repeated at the bottom of each page for easy reference.