How to Use This Text

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In the upper lefthand corner, there is a CONTENTS button (white text on black) that can help to navigate by Chapters. Please note the + buttons in the Contents to expand the various Parts of the book.

At the bottom of each page are “←Previous” and “Next →” buttons (gold text on navy) that allow you to easily move from one chapter to the next.

Within the CONTENTS block is the Quick Index, which allows you to jump to specific sections of each chapter quickly.

Each chapter deals with a Lexical Set, and is laid out with a specific framework.

  1. We begin with a general Introduction to the Lexical Set, and its most common pronunciations. We explore the phonetic realization, the specific vowel quality or qualities of the lexical set in this section and in sections 2 and 3 where we get ever more detailed about it. Occasionally this section may touch on the phonotactic distribution of the set, that is the context where the rules of English allow for the lexical set to occur. Some vowels can only be made following certain consonants, while others can only be pronounced before certain consonants.
  2. Then, we explore how Spellings can help you identify the lexical set, and how some sets are broken down into subgroupings, especially when the subgroupings may help you to anticipate an allophonic variation, where there may be an alternate pronunciation of the set’s vowel depending on its context.
  3. We explore the learner’s Personal Pronunciation, and try to discern how best to transcribe the lexical set in their accent.
  4. We then explore Alternate Pronunciations that the learner can experiment with by applying a range of vowels/diphthongs to the lexical set word lists, phrases and sentences in the next sections.
  5. Word Lists: examples of the top 16 words, sorted by the lexical set vowel in stressed and unstressed settings, and grouped by the consonant that follows the vowel. As many of the allophonic changes to a lexical set’s vowel are triggered by the environment of a specific kind of consonant that follows, this seemed to be the most effective way to present these words. The lexical incidence of the words listed here (whether they belong to this set or not) is quite broad in these lists—I’ve attempted to include many words that might not be part of one accent or another, and marked ones that have alternate pronunciations with an asterisk. For example, the word advertisement* appears in the nurse lexical set word list because in some accents, the “vert” part of this word is stressed. However, I’ve put an asterisk beside this word because, in some other accents, that syllable of the word is unstressed, and so may or may not be part of the nurse lexical set. If you don’t happen to pronounce a word in the way that it’s offered, please don’t feel any pressure to change your accent to match this pronunciation. You could experiment with it as a way of tasting the word’s possible flavour, to prepare you for the chance that you might, someday, need that pronunciation in an accent that is not your own.
    ⚠︎ Note that these are not intended to be exhaustive lists of every word within each lexical set grouping—for some, there would be literally hundreds of examples. However, for some sets with very few words (such as palm, or cure), I have gathered most of the lexical items in the set.
  6. Phrases: I’ve attempted to write short phrases featuring 2-3 words from the set. Some sets I’ve done better at this than others, and I expect I’ll continue to edit this portion of the book for some time.
  7. Sentences: inspired by Jeffrey Hahner, Martin Sokoloff, and Sandra Salisch’s Speaking Clearly, I’ve offered up a quintet of easy sentences with only 2-3 underlined examples of the lexical set, followed by 5 medium sentences with 4-5 underlined examples. Next, I provide 5 sentences with 2-3 examples that aren’t underlined, and finally a “hard” grouping of 5 sentences with 4-6 words.
  8. Mergers and Splits: The final two sections feature some of the most common Mergers and Splits for the lexical set with other lexical sets. For example, if a speaker pronounces the trap and bath lexical sets with the same vowel, we say that those two sets are merged. In some cases, a lexical set will have split into two at some time in its history, and so some accents may have the combined pronunciation from the time prior to the split, and other accents will have the split pronunciations from the time after.

The Lexical Set Chapters are grouped into 4 Parts:

  1. Checked Vowels: These are so-called “short vowels” that must have a following consonant when in a stressed syllable. There are 8 checked vowels in Wells’ lexical sets, though it is exceedingly rare for an accent to have all 8.
  2. Free Vowels and Diphthongs: This group of 5 monophthongs, with steady-state vowels or “phthongs”, and 5 diphthongs, with moving-state vowels/ “phthongs”, can be in checked syllables, with a following consonant, but more importantly, they can be in “free” syllables, without a final consonant when in a stressed syllable. While the [ i ] vowel of the fleece lexical set can exist at the end of a free syllable or word, as in free, the [ ɪ ] checked vowel of the kit set cannot. Though these are often classified as “long” vowels, as some accents don’t rely on vowel length to distinguish between checked and free, I’ve opted to not use length marks as part of my descriptions of the vowels in this book. This perhaps shows my personal bias towards North American accents, as vowel length is much less consistent here than in other parts of the world.
  3. Centring Diphthongs: I’ve grouped the 6 diphthongs and/or vowels that are associated with an offglide towards /r/ (or a historical /r/ that no longer exists in non-rhotic accents) together. Though the sets start, north and force are often thought of as steady-state vowels or monophthongs, I find it helpful for learners to think about the possibility that, especially in rhotic accents, these sets have the potential to be spoken with an offglide in some accents.
  4. “Weak” Vowels: The lexical sets that Wells identified as “Weak” are those in the final syllable of happy, letter, and comma. Their special treatment deserves extra attention, and so they get their own section.

Wells’ lexical sets focused on the vowels in stressed syllables. It is important to recognize that the vowels of all the lexical sets also occur in unstressed syllables, too, and so I’ve provided examples of stressed and unstressed, wherever possible. For many sets, the unstressed versions are often in compound words, where the combination of the words together changes the stress.


When working on an accent, it helps to experiment with the way that accent interprets the various lexical sets. By isolating the sound of a specific lexical set, and repeating it in many different contexts, you can begin to feel how the articulation of that vowel quality can affect all the sounds of a word, its “oral posture” or “articulatory setting.” If a particular environment, such as when a lexical set is followed by a specific consonant, is troubling you, you can explore plenty of examples of that kind of setting.

However it is important that “drill” for drill’s sake is not the goal here. If you have no issues with a specific sound or context, move on! Try the lexical set with a different, new quality, one that you’ve never tried before. Practicing saying words in the way you already know to say them is merely a waste of time; it is lifeless and boring.

Some of the pronunciations on offer are ones that are spoken by specific, under-represented or marginalized groups, and I’ve included them to offer opportunities to actors from a wide range of cultural and racialized identities. While experimenting with a vowel quality in a random word does no specific harm, when speaking sentences and phrases in order to explore an accent that is not associated with your personal background and/or identity, particularly if your identity/cultural background is part of the mainstream, dominant culture, be sure to ask whether this accent is your story to tell. If you’re experimenting in a group setting, sensitivity around who gets opportunities to perform in what manner needs to be discussed and negotiated with the group. Don’t assume that doing an accent is a harmless activity!


This is not a beginner text! As will become clear almost immediately, this book expects a lot of the reader, especially with regards to phonetic knowledge, and in particular, knowledge of the International Phonetic Alphabet. If you are unfamiliar with the IPA, you will need to look elsewhere; I would recommend participating in workshops offered through Knight-Thompson Speechwork, or reading and working your way through Dudley Knight’s Speaking with Skill, or Experiencing Speech: A Skills-Based, Panlingual Approach to Actor Training by Caban, Foh & Parker.

This text may be about the phonetic realization of the phonological system of sounds that underpin the accents of English, but it is just scratching the surface. There would need to be a lot more work done to make this text a fuller examination of the Phonology of English:

  • a similar exploration of all the consonant sounds in English,
  • stress, prominence and emphasis,
  • syllable structure
  • prosody, including Rhythm and Intonation.

In the meantime, I would recommend you explore one of the excellent introductory linguistics texts on the subject, especially Collins and Mees Practical Phonetics and Phonology, or Peter Roach’s English Phonetics and Phonology.



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