My book about American English pronunciation (General American) says that to pronounce the letter A in, for example, cat (whose sound is /æ/), I should drop my jaw down as to say [ä], but then (from that position) try to say [ε]. (The book doesn't use IPA; the [ä] sound is the one present in bought, and the [ε] sound is the one present in bet.)

When I listen to the pronunciation of words containing the /æ/ sound, that seems closes to an a (the Italian one), and sometimes a combination of e and a (such as in man), while bought contains a /ɔː/ which to my ears is closer to the Italian o.

What is the pronunciation of cat?

  • 1
    I am concerned about the quality of this book, simply because it uses "bought" as an example. Thanks to General American merging several vowel sounds that I (Australian) keep separate--namely the "cot-caught" and "father-bother" mergers--I would never say that "cat" is anything like "bought". Commented Dec 28, 2014 at 8:40

3 Answers 3


This link to the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary has a nice audio example. In IPA notation, it is pronounced:


I believe the word man is subject to a "weak form" depending on its placement in the sentence. From this link on the OALD website:

Weak forms and strong forms

Certain very common words, for example at, and, for, can, have two pronunciations. We give the usual (weak) pronunciation first. The second pronunciation (strong) must be used if the word is stressed, and also generally when the word is at the end of a sentence. For example:

  • Can /kən/ you help?
  • I’ll help if I can /kæn/.

It's very difficult to describe how to pronounce a letter or a word with text. I suggest you go to thefreedictionary.com. For most words they have an icon of a speaker. Click on this and it will pronounce the word.

  • 1
    Actually, most online dictionaries have this, not just TFD. Another good site is Forvo.com, which will let you see how a word is pronounced all over the globe.
    – J.R.
    Commented Dec 28, 2014 at 10:51
  • 2
    @J.R. Sure, my intent wasn't to say that TFD is the ONLY place to get pronunciations, just to give an example of a place where you could. "There are lots of places" is often not helpful if you don't give directions to at least one.
    – Jay
    Commented Dec 29, 2014 at 14:28

Cat and /æ/ is pronounced here:

Pronunciation is governed by very complex rules, so the sounds in and around a word can vary greatly with factors we often don't think about: Position in a sentence, whether we are expressing some kind of emotion, if we are placing stress on a word or part of a word for some reason (e.g., "What kind of a cat are you?" could see the vowel sound in cat stretched out in duration and pronounced more loudly.

Secondly, the main difference between native speakers of a dialect and others is in the way our minds impose order on and interpret sounds. So listening carefully and trying to open one's mind to hear more or different kinds of information can be very helpful in improving pronunciation.

There is no substitute for that than having a well-trained or naturally helpful native speaker to listen to you and help you listen to the target sound, and try to describe how and where differences are heard.

In addition to the dictionary samples linked to above, then, I offer a recording of my own voice pronouncing cat in some different ways and at different speeds. Note that "exaggerating" sounds and slowing down sounds can be a terrible way to try to help people hear (perceive) a sound in the way native speakers do, because, well, those just are not the sounds! However, such exaggerations may sometimes help draw your attention to certain features of the "normally" pronounced sounds. Be sure to use those as your guide. And when you get the chance, listen together with a patient native speaker!

Listening guide: (slowly, with some exaggeration) cat / a a a / cat (normally) I have a cat / I have a cat / cats and dogs / cats and dogs / my cat wears a hat

a / apple / apple / red apple / (exaggerated link d_app : red apple / green apple / do you like red apples or green apples?

candy apple / cat hat

cats and dogs / my cat had kittens.

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