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Most times we hear that the word a is pronounced as [ə], but sometimes I hear that the word is pronounced as [ei] in American English. Such as the following sentence:

From VOA Special English:

She says governments must make that goal of a continental free trade area a reality.

The first a is pronounced as [ei], the sencond a is pronounced as [ə]. Why? Does it have some regularity in it?

  • They are weak [ə] and strong [ei] forms, quite similar to the that sometimes will be pronounced [thi] or sometimes even dragged out to [thi:] to emphasize something. – Damkerng T. Dec 11 '13 at 9:54
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    @DamkerngT. It's also worth noting that the has a different form before vowels than before consonants for many speakers. – snailcar Dec 12 '13 at 17:36
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The two are fairly interchangable, in my opinion as a native [British] speaker. When emphasizing, we tend to use use [ei] more often than when not emphasizing. [ə] is more common in general, but really there's not much in it. [ə] can be dragged out more than [ei] when hesitating.

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The way I see it is, when you stress, you use ei instead of schwa.
A quote note from Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary

ei is the strong form, while ə is the weak form.
Weak form word. The strong form /ei/ is used mainly for contrast (e.g. "This is a solution, but not the only one."). The weak form only occurs before consonants, and is usually pronounced /ə/. In rapid speech, when /ə/ is preceded by a consonant, it may combine with the following /l/, /n/ or /r/ to produce a syllabic consonant (e.g. 'got a light' ...; 'get another' ...).

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The word is pronounced "uh" as shown in a dictionary with a Schwa mark. Please bring me a (uh) book. If the person brings you two books you say"I want a (ei) book, not two!" When you are stressing the word you pronounce it "ei". Many teachers teach this wrong, always teaching little children to make the "ei" sound. No one who is speaking pronounces it that way...unless the word is being stressed. Then, and only then, is the word pronounced "ei" .

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