As an intermediate English learner, when I talk to my American friends, sometimes they will misunderstand my [ɛ] and [e] sounds. For example, measure mistaken for major, pepper for paper, and for end ... etc.

What can I do to ensure that [ɛ] and [e] are easily differentiable?

  • 3
    As Ross notes, this question would be much easier to answer if we know your language background. With knowledge of your mother tongue, we could potentially give specific examples that relate between it and English. Commented May 9, 2014 at 14:55
  • 3
    The right way is fix this is to imitate the way your friends pronounce them. A quick fix I can think of at the moment is to make the length of duration clear. Most dictionaries would make it clear that it's /eɪ/ not just /e/ in paper, while it's only /ɛ/ in pepper. So making the /eɪ/ sound longer than /ɛ/ should help. A more complicated fix is to get to know tense & lax vowels and diphthongs. They can help your pronunciation! Commented May 9, 2014 at 15:28

4 Answers 4


The first thing to note is that the words major, paper, hate, mate have what is called a 'diphthong' in standard varieties of English. A vowel can be either a monopthong or a diphthong. A monopthong is a vowel sound in which the speech organs (hereafter articulators) remain more or less in the same position throughout the articulation of the vowel. That is, the vowel quality remains constant.

A 'diphthong', however, involves a change in the position of the tongue, thereby changing the vowel quality. The articulators glide from one vowel position to another.

Paper, major, mate have the diphthong /eɪ/ whereas pepper, measure, met have the monopthong /ɛ/ (sometimes transcribed /e/ for convenience). The [e] in some of the words you mentioned is a part of the diphthong /eɪ/.

Also note that /phonemes/ can be [realised in more than one way].

So when pronouncing measure, bed, pepper etc., make sure your tongue remains in the same position throughout the vowel sound. In some American accents, major, mate, paper have the long monopthong [e]. The main difference between [ɛ] and [e] is vowel openness; [ɛ] is more open than [e].

If you understand IPA, here are the transcriptions of 'day' (/eɪ/) in different American accents:

  • Standard US: [dɛ̝ˑɪ]
  • Ohio: [de̞ˑɪ]
  • Chicago: [de̞ˑɪ]
  • Boston: [deˑɪ]
  • New York: [de̞ˑi]
  • Alabama: [dɛ̝ˑɪ]

[All these transcriptions are from Sound Comparisons]


I think this is a good audio example:

Paper: http://www.howjsay.com/index.php?word=paper


Pepper: http://www.howjsay.com/index.php?word=pepper&submit=Submit

A tip would probably be easier to provide if we knew what your mother tongue is.


Like Damkerng T. says, the American English [e] is actually more-or-less a [ei] or [ɛi] diphthong. So, for practice sake, try wedging in an explicit [i] (as in the word "bee") after the [e] and smooshing it into it. That is, try pronouncing "paper" as [pɛi-pɛr] and major as [mɛi-jɛr]. You might start by making it three syllables [pɛ-i-pɛr], and then try running them together.

  • @snailplane Wait, is the American "a" in paper [ei] or [eɪ]? I thought it was [ei]. (I'm from Boston, if it matters.) (Thanks for the rest of the IPA!) Commented May 10, 2014 at 18:36
  • Every online dictionary I've seen has it as [eɪ], even though it sounds more like [ei] to my Houstonian ears.
    – dan04
    Commented May 10, 2014 at 19:01
  • @Codeswitcher what's the difference between [ei] and [eɪ]? Is [eɪ] the same as [ej]?
    – Anixx
    Commented Dec 27, 2014 at 11:11
  • @Anixx I think all three are supposed to be different, but I'd be hard pressed to differentiate [ei] and [ej]. As an aside, amusingly, I just discovered that on the wikipedia page for IPA, "IPA" is written in IPA, the the last is written as [eɪ], so I'm willing to concede the point! Commented Dec 29, 2014 at 2:23

My mother language is Chinese.

According to the Chinese vowel diagram on Wikipedia, Mandarin Chinese includes the vowels:

  • ㄝ (IPA [ɛ]), as in ㄧㄝˋ (夜, night). This is the same as the first e [ɛ] in English pepper.
  • ㄟ (IPA [ei̯]), as in ㄌㄟˋ (累, tired). This is similar to the a [eɪ] in English paper.

(Disclaimer: I don't speak Chinese, and can't vouch for the accuracy of the above.)

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