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I know that “can” can be reduced to /kən/ unless it has to be stressed. For example in a sentence like “I believe I can fly” we can say /kən/ instead of /kæn/. My question is, can we do the same thing when “can” is at the beginning of an interrogative sentence as well? I mean can we say /kən/ in sentences like

  • “Can I come in?”,

  • “Can you sign my shirt?”

etc.

I tried to listen to some examples on Youglish, but I was not completely able to tell if they make the schwa sound or not. I think we can do that since I think we don’t have to stress “can” in the sentences like those two. Do you think we can? My question is more specifically about American English.

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    @stangdon You mean it's always /kən/ in sentences like the ones I gave, right? I am guessing you would pronounce it as /kæn/ in a sentence like "Yes, I can!" Jun 15, 2022 at 14:25
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    In some dialects of American English like mine, it's /kɛn/ when stressed, which confused me at first when I read your question.
    – Dan Getz
    Jun 15, 2022 at 14:32
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    The trouble, I always find, with using phonetic symbols is that when you look them up, you're given example words that also change pronunciation with accent. eg /æ/ as in bad, clap. Both those words have a totally different a sound in US English than they do in UK. That leaves us with a starting point that's not a starting point. In my accent, N BrE, it's always kaen [using the British pronunciation guide] unless elided so far as to become kn. Jun 15, 2022 at 14:42
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    In what accent? I think that's the point several of us are making here. It's never a schwa in Br E, other than some extreme RP/posh instances, where it tends further towards ken than can. Jun 15, 2022 at 14:47
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    @stangdon - that's not kən by any stretch of the imagination, it's kɛn, bordering on kæn [this is why phonetics don't work, they're based on a personal accent perception] Jun 15, 2022 at 16:41

1 Answer 1

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Because of the confusion in the comments, I'm going to avoid using phonetic transcriptions. Here are the two pronunciations (American English) that I will refer to:

  1. Can as "ken" as in "Barbie and Ken." I will write this as "ken."

  2. Can as in "can of soda." I will write this as "caan."

Both are correct to use at the beginning of a phrase. Yes, we can use the form "ken" even when "can" is at the beginning of an interrogative sentence?

"Can I come in?" could be pronounced "Ken I come in?"

"Can you sign my shirt?" could be pronounced "Ken you sign my shirt?"

"Ken" is used when you are talking to someone perhaps a bit informally, or talking quickly. "Caan" would be used more if it was a formal request.

To me, there is also an subtle expectation that you expect it to be an easy "yes" answer to the question if you pronounce "can" as "ken." That is, you are assuming that the person will probably let you come in or sign your shirt.

If it was something difficult for the person, or a major thing you are asking of them, then "caan" would be used.

"Hello. Caan you take my place in the draft?"

"I know you've had a busy week. I was wondering, caan you finish writing the article by Thursday?"

(While approaching a new office of a person in a different department that you haven't met:) "Caan I come in?"

[versus]

"Hey dad, ken you drive me to the store in a bit?"

(While wanting to enter somewhere you have entered before or suspect no reason why you may not enter:) "Ken I come in here?"

"Caan" can be used if you want to indicate that you are sincerely asking. "Ken" can be also used if you are sincerely asking, but it has less of the implication than "caan." In the two examples you gave, I would personally probably lean towards using "caan," but it depends on the context (whose room? who is signing the shirt and why?).

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