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In Oxford Dictionary, it says it is correct to pronounce "to" as /tə/ only before words starting with a consonant. It seems fair to me too because /tə/ sounds off and unsmooth before vowels; but I wonder about your opinion because I am guessing native English speakers can pronounce "to" as /tə/ (or /t̬ə/ using the flap d) before vowels pausing for a very bare moment between /tə/ and the vowel. Do you think it would be okay to do that? I can make up some example sentences in which there is "to" before a vowel. I specifically wonder about American English.

  • I don't know how to aim in this game.

  • They don't want to aid the poor.

  • I gave cookies to each of them.

    Note: I know that it would most likely be wrong to pronounce "to" as /tə/ at the beginning of a sentence (Edit: or also at the end of a sentence).

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    There are lots of different English dialects; some people pronounce to as /tə/ before vowels; others use /tuw/, where a /w/ connects to to the following word. Why do you want to know? Jul 28 at 16:05
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For American English at least, your guess is correct. Colloquially it's completely normal to reduce it to /tə/ before a consonant or a vowel — including at the beginning of a sentence.

Pronouncing it /tu/ in something like "to aim," in normal conversation, actually sounds stilted.*

The one place I'm less likely to reduce it is at the end of a phrase, like both of the instances in this sentence: "I'd like to, but I don't know if I'll have time to." I would almost always pronounce those as /tu/.

Also - when you have two vowels in a row (like in "to aid") it may be pronounced with a glottal stop or more likely just a bit of glottal constriction (it's variable). I wouldn't call it a pause, but maybe that's what you meant.


*Edit - actually it's more complicated than this. If the following word begins with an unstressed vowel — particularly another /ə/ — then /tu/ does not sound stilted. In fact I find I’m pretty likely to pronounce it that way, though either pronunciation is still ok.

  • to assume: /tu əˈsum/ seems slightly better. /tə əˈsum/ is almost as good.
  • to imply: /tə ɪmˈplaɪ / is best. /tu ɪmˈplaɪ/ is almost as good.

If the word begins with an unstressed diphthong, /tə/ sounds more normal to me, but /tu/ is somewhat acceptable:

  • to obey: /tə oʊˈbeɪ/
  • to outlast: /tə aʊtˈlæst/

The worst-sounding case is /tu/ before a stressed vowel, as in the examples you gave, which are the kind I was originally thinking of:

  • to aim: /tə ˈeɪm/. /tu/ sounds stilted.
  • to implicate /tə ˈɪmplɪˌkeɪt/. /tu/ sounds stilted

Sorry if this is a bit confusing. This is an area of the language where there isn’t an absolute “yes” or “no” answer that applies across the board. It’s more of a continuum, where the two pronunciations sound better or worse depending on the sounds next to them, stress, syntax, and social context (talking to a friend vs. presenting a speech). And other speakers may have slightly different judgments from mine. Don’t worry about getting it perfect. The more English you hear, the more you will pick up these small distinctions.

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  • Thank you. You are American I am guessing. Right? Jul 29 at 15:11
  • You're welcome! Yes I am.
    – Josh Regev
    Jul 29 at 15:21
  • youtube.com/… Mc Lyte says /tə/ when she says "to maintain is my main aim" in this song. Does it sound right to you? Jul 29 at 17:51
  • Yes, of course. She's a native speaker.
    – Josh Regev
    Jul 29 at 19:35
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Your three examples have different answers, which I think will both answer your question and give you an idea of the complexity of a full answer.

Notes:

  1. What Oxford says is correct, but only applies to "careful speech", which is contrasted with "rapid speech". Rapid speech is what you'll mostly hear on the street, and my answer is only about rapid speech.
  2. My answer only reflects North American pronunciation. I'm pretty sure the pronunciation of the "t" is different elsewhere in the world.
  3. The IPA symbol for a flap sound is /ɾ/. The symbol [t̬] is a voiced [t], which is essentially the same as /d/, so not a flap /ɾ/. (See this excellent explanation)

Now, to your examples.

  • I don't know how to aim in this game.

In this sentence, "to" can be pronounced with a flap and a schwa [ɾə]. So yes, it's

  • They don't want to aid the poor.

Here, "want to" would be pronounced "wanna", so it's not a helpful example.

  • I gave cookies to each of them.

In this example, "to" is pronounced like a regular "t" and schwa: /tə/.

The pronunciation of the "t" is conditioned by the sound before it, specifically, if the sound before is a sonorant, then "t" is pronounced /ɾ/, but if the sound before is an obstruent, the "t" is pronounced /t/.

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    We don't always pronounce want to as wanna. So example (2) is fine. Jul 28 at 16:06
  • As I specified at the top, I'm only referring to North American rapid speech, where "want to" is nearly always pronounced "wanna". The other two examples shed enough light
    – gotube
    Jul 28 at 16:11
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    I am a native speaker of English from North America, and I don't always pronounce want to as wanna. Specifically, if want is stressed, I don't reduce it to wanna (although I almost certainly would use a flapped /t/). Jul 28 at 16:13

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