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The 3 A’s : cap-cup-cop

Today I’m not going to teach you how to pronounce one word or another,
but rather give you tools that’ll help you solve clarity issues
and help you get a better and stronger grasp of American pronunciation.

It’s especially useful for those moments where you say a word
and feel that it’s a little different than how it should sound,
but you can’t put your finger on what it is exactly…


Get yourself into an empty room and spend the next 5 minutes learning about what I call the 3 ‘A’ sounds in English: cap-cup-cop (go ahead and say it!)


Hey guys. It’s Hadar, and this is the Accent’s Way, your way to finding clarity, confidence, and freedom in English.
I got a lot of questions on how to pronounce the pair ‘cap’ and ‘cup’, and also ‘cup’ and ‘cop’. So, today we’re going to talk about my favorite triplet ‘cap’, ‘cup’ and ‘cop’, also known as the three ‘A’ sounds in American English: the front [æ], central [ʌ], and back [ɑ].

What defines the sound is the tongue position. For the front [æ] sound the tongue pushes forward, and the sound resonates in the front part of the mouth. [æ]: cat, hat, cap. So to make this sound, drop your jaw, push the tongue forward, and pull the lips to the sides a bit.

The tongue is flat in the front and high in the back. You can also think of it as a sound that is right in the middle between [e] and [ɑ]. ‘hat’, ‘last’, ‘cap’. All right? So it’s not ‘cup’ or ‘lust’. These are different words. It’s ‘cap’ and ‘last’.

For the central [ʌ] the tongue is, you figured, in the center, all right? So it’s like a stressed schwa. The mouth is pretty much a neutral pose, and the jaw drops a bit. ‘cup’. You push the air out and create sound. ‘cup’, ‘love’, ‘fun’, ‘month’. [ʌ].

And then you have the back [ɑ]. For that, you drop your jaw, relax your lips, and pull the tongue back a bit. [ɑ]: ‘father’, ‘cop’, ‘lost’, and ‘hot’. So although it’s spelled with an O, it’s not ‘h[o]t’ or ‘l[o]st’, it’s [ɑ] – ‘l[ɑ]st’. It’s also not ‘lust’ cause then it’s going to sound like the central [ʌ] sound – ‘lust’. ‘Lost’.

All right. So again, ‘cap’ – [æ], front [æ]: usually associated with a letter A – [æ]. Then we have the central [ʌ]- ‘cup’, usually associated with O, OU or U: ‘cup’, ‘love’, ‘ country’. And then we have the back [ɑ], usually spelled with O, AW, AU, or OU: [ɑ] – ‘cop’. All right? Good.

Now let’s try it in a few sentences. So first let’s practice the three words – ‘last’, ‘lust’, ‘lost’. “Last night I lost my lust for chocolate”. I hope this never happens to you, but just for the sake of practice, let’s try it. “Last night”, ‘l[æ]’, okay? It’s not ‘l[ʌ]st night’, then it’s going to sound like the central [ʌ]. “Last night I lost my lust” – central [ʌ] – “for chocolate”.

‘cap-cup-cop’: “The cop took off his cap and drank from the cup”. “The cop” – open [ɑ] – “took off his cap” – not his ‘cup’, right? – “his cap and drank from the cup” – central [ʌ]. ‘hat’ – ‘hut’ – ‘hot’. ‘stack’ – ‘stuck’ – ‘stock’. ‘backs’ – ‘bucks’ – ‘box’.

All right. So remember: what defines the sound is the tongue position and the jaw drops. So to make the distinction between these words, make sure that you use your entire face – the tongue and the jaw to make these sounds. All right?

And that’s it for today.

The InFluency Podcast
The InFluency Podcast
185. How to pronounce CAP, COP, and CUP


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