/r/-Controlled Vowels (2024)

Introduction

In American English, /r/-controlled vowels (also called /r/-colored vowels) are vowels that are affected by the “r” sound, /r/. Whenever you see a vowel followed by the letter “r” in the same syllable, the 2 letters are pronounced together as one sound. For example, the word “bird” /bɝd/ is made of 3 sounds: b + ɝ + d. It is not pronounced as b + ɜ + r + d (although you may see it written this way in a dictionary).

/r/-controlled vowels are very common, and are a prominent feature of American English. Mispronouncing them can easily lead to miscommunication.

There are 7 /r/-controlled vowels, as seen in these words. Click on each one to jump to practice with that specific sound, or keep scrolling to see them all.

    1. first /fɝst/
    2. fever /fi:vɚ/
    3. fear /fir/
    4. fare /fer/
    5. far /fɑr/
    6. four /for/
    7. fire /fɑɪr/

Let’s take a closer look at each one.

“Er” /ɝ/ (also transcribed as /ɜr/)










To make the /ɝ/ sound

    1. First, the corners of your lips should come in so that they push your lips away from your face, thus making your lips slightly rounded.
    2. Pull your tongue back and up, so that the middle part of your tongue lifts up towards the roof of your mouth (in the middle) and the front of your tongue should either curve up (as in diagram 1) or stay flat (as in diagram 2) but not touch any part of your mouth.
    3. The middle of your raised tongue should not touch the roof of your mouth. However, the sides of your tongue will likely touch the sides of your upper teeth (but the top surface of your tongue should touch nothing). In some people, the tongue is pulled back into itself so it becomes thicker and shorter.
    4. Now, vibrate your vocal cords and let the air flow around and over your tongue: “eeeeerrrr”

You should experiment with both ways, as shown in the diagrams, to see which works better for you.

Compare your pronunciation to the words below:

her learn shirt word refer occur

In Words
The /ɝ/ sound plays an important role in the difference between the paired words below. Listen to each pair, paying attention to how the first word differs from the second.

walk/workhot/hurtlawn/learn such/search pull/pearl cost/cursed

Record yourself repeating the words, making sure to focus on the pronunciation of /ɝ/. Then, compare it to the model recording.

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Here are some common words that include /ɝ/. It’s a good idea to be comfortable with their pronunciation. Listen to how each word is pronounced, focusing on /ɝ/. Notice that this sound is represented by several different spellings.

er – were, person, nervous, concern, service, prefer
ear – early, heard, earth, search
ir – first, third, girl, birthday, confirm, sir
or – work, word, world, worry
ur – return, hurt, nurse, occur, purpose, purple, disturb
our – journey, journal

Record yourself repeating the words, making sure to focus on the pronunciation of /ɝ/. Compare your recording to the model recording. Repeat this exercise several times a day.

In Sentences
It’s important to go beyond single words when you practice sounds in English. Here are some sentences to practice. You can record yourself and compare it to the model recording.

They were at work early.
Thursday the thirteenth is the girl’s birthday.
The bird chirped when it searched for a worm in the dirt.
I’d like to confirm that you will return on the first and that our meeting is on the third.
The purpose of the journal is to publish research about the earth.

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“Er” /ɚ/ (also transcribed as /ər/)

To make the /ɚ/ sound
This sound is virtually the same as /ɝ/, but it occurs in unstressed syllables. When syllables containing /r/-controlled vowels are unstressed in words, they often reduce to this unstressed “er” sound, for example, the “or” sound in “inform” is reduced to “er” in “information.” It is weaker than the stressed /ɝ/, meaning that your tongue and lips are more relaxed, and the duration of the vowel is shorter. Compare first /fɝst/ and offer /ɑfɚ/ – can you hear the subtle difference in the “er” vowel?

In Words
Practice these words which contain /ɚ/. Notice the various spellings for this sound, and that it can occur in the beginning, middle or final syllable in words.

Compare your pronunciation to the words below:

color dollar offer Saturday permission properly opportunity
future

In Sentences
Here are some sentences to practice containing /ɚ/:
I need to get permission from my teacher to retake the midterm.
The neighborhood won’t survive if the government closes the factories.
The water was frozen and covered with snow after the blizzard.
He felt awkward when he gave her the flower.
I ordered a hamburger from the other waiter.
When she showered him with humor, his anger turned to an outburst of laughter.

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“Ear” /ir/ (also transcribed as /iɚ/)

To make the /ir/ sound
This sound, which sounds like the word “ear,” is made by merging the /i/ in “meet” and “er” /ɝ/ sounds together. Begin by making /i/, and then quickly and smoothly transition to the /ɝ/ sound, so that you are saying the word “ear” /ir/

Compare your pronunciation to the words below. Notice the different spellings for /ir/:

here year weird dear career fierce irritate appearance

In Words
fare/fear wary/weary word/weird herring/hearing a pair/appear where/we’re

Here are some common words that include /ir/. It’s a good idea to be comfortable with their pronunciation. Listen to how each word is pronounced, focusing on /ir/. Notice that this sound is represented by several different spellings.

eer – beer, peer, engineer, pioneer, volunteer, cheer, domineering, reindeer, sneer, eerie
ear – weary, dreary, beard, tear, clear
ere – here, we’re, mere
ei – weird
ir – irrational, irritate, irrelevant, irresponsible, irritable
ier – premier fierce pierce pier

In Sentences
It’s important to go beyond single words when you practice sounds in English. Here are some sentences to practice. You can record yourself and compare it to the model recording.

He has a fear that his beard looks weird.
The engineer moved here this year.
He was weary from drinking beer.
My career is clearly in high gear this year.
The mere thought of another dreary day made him irritable.
The volunteer feared his fierce peers.

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“Air” – /er/ (also transcribed as /ɛr/)

To make the /er/ sound

This sound, which sounds like the word “air,” is made by merging the /e/, as in “day” and “er” /ɝ/ sounds together. Begin by making /e/ but before completing the /e/ sound with a small /y/, make the /ɝ/ sound, so that you are saying the word “air” – /er/

Compare your pronunciation to the words below. Notice the different spellings for /er/: air, are, ear, ere

Fare hair where prayer scared hilarious library contrary

In Words
The /er/ sound plays an important role in the difference between the paired words below. Listen to each pair, paying attention to how the first word differs from the second.

day/dare stay/stare hire/hair
during/daring

Here are some common words that include /er/. It’s a good idea to be comfortable with their pronunciation. Listen to how each word is pronounced, focusing on /er/. Notice that this sound is represented by several different spellings.

air – chair, stairs, dairy, repair, airport
ear – wear, tear, bear, pear
are – compare, share, careful, prepare, square, barely, rare, aware, declare
ar – dictionary, library, precarious, contrary, vocabulary, ordinary

Record yourself repeating the words, making sure to focus on the pronunciation of /er/. Compare your recording to the model recording. Repeat this exercise several times a day.

In Sentences
It’s important to go beyond single words when you practice sounds in English. Here are some sentences to practice. You can record yourself and compare it to the model recording.

You should compare airfares.
Careful on the stairs!
Where is the library?
Don’t take more than your fair share.
Be careful what you share in daycare.
He got his rare watch repaired.
He had barely prepared for the vocabulary test.

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“Are” – /ɑr/ (also transcribed as /ɑɚ/)

To make the /ɑr/ sound

This sound, which sounds like the word “are,” is made by merging the “ah” /ɑ/ as in “father” and “er” /ɝ/ sounds together. Begin by making /ɑ/ and then quickly and smoothly transition to the /ɝ/ sound, so that you are saying the word “are”: /ɑr/

Compare your pronunciation to the words below. [Notice the different spellings for /ɑr/:]

art car farm hard scarf discard heart large regardless

In Words
The /ɑr/ sound plays an important role in the difference between the paired words below. Listen to each pair, paying attention to how the first word differs from the second.

pot/part father/farther shop/sharp jaw/jar caught/cart store/star hot/heart dock/dark

Record yourself repeating the words, making sure to focus on the pronunciation of /ɑr/. Then, compare it to the model recording.

Here are some common words that include /ɑr/. It’s a good idea to be comfortable with their pronunciation.
Listen to how each word is pronounced, focusing on /ɑr/.

park yard start sharp far harm smart market argue apartment

In Sentences
It’s important to go beyond single words when you practice sounds in English. Here are some sentences to practice. You can record yourself and compare it to the model recording.

Are you going to park the car far from the market?
We walked far from that part of the park.
It’s starting to get dark.
The sharp edge left a mark on my arm.
The dog kept barking in the yard.
There’s no harm in having a party in our apartment.

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“Or” – /or/ (also transcribed as /ɔr/)

To make the /or/ sound

This sound is made by merging the “oh” /o/ and “er” /ɝ/ sounds together. Begin by making /o/, but before completing the /o/ sound with a lip-rounded /w/ sound, make the /ɝ/ sound: “ooo-er” as in the word “or”

Compare your pronunciation to the words below. Notice the different spellings for /or/: or, oor, our, oar, ar

more door four board war sports

In Words
The /or/ sound plays an important role in the difference between the paired words below. Listen to each pair, paying attention to how the first word differs from the second.

coat/court sauce/source bone/born folk/fork explode/explored caught/court

Record yourself repeating the words, making sure to focus on the pronunciation of /or/. Then, compare it to the model recording.

Here are some common words that include /or/. It’s a good idea to be comfortable with their pronunciation.
Listen to how each word is pronounced, focusing on /or/. Notice that this sound is represented by several different spellings.

Spelling:
or – short, storm, north, explore, fork
oor – door, floor, poor
ar – war, warm
our – course, source, court, four, pour, mourn
oar – board, roar, soar

In Sentences
It’s important to go beyond single words when you practice sounds in English. Here are some sentences to practice. You can record yourself and compare it to the model recording.

There are more storms on the north shore.
There are more stores around the corner.
They explored the source of the iron ore.
The landlord can’t afford new doors.
The cord is too short to reach the door.

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“Ire” – /ɑɪr/ (also transcribed as /ɑɪɚ/)

To make the /ɑɪr/ sound

This sound, which sounds like the word “ire,” is made by merging the /ɑɪ/ as in “fly” and “er” /ɝ/ sounds together. Begin by making /ɑɪ/, and then smoothly transition to the /ɝ/ sound, so that you are saying the word “ire” /ɑɪr/.

Compare your pronunciation to the words below. Notice the different spellings for /ɑɪr/:

fire hire/higher choir inspire liar

In Words
fair/fire far/fire high/hire tied/tired wide/wired

Here are some common words that include /ɑɪr/. It’s a good idea to be comfortable with their pronunciation. Listen to how each word is pronounced, focusing on /ɑɪr/.

tired desire wire flier admire retirement acquire

In Sentences
It’s important to go beyond single words when you practice sounds in English. Here are some sentences to practice. You can record yourself and compare it to the model recording.

I’m too tired to inspire anyone.
Her frequent flyer miles grew higher after her trip to Ireland.
He conspired to fire the liar before he retired.
My entire gallon of milk expired.
I’d like to inquire about being hired.

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/r/-Controlled Vowels (2024)

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