Should we teach ‘Hard Attack‘?

The terminology around English phonetics can seem frustratingly vague or inprecise, particularly for those who want to use it purely as a learning tool rather than to make an academic study of the subject.

Answers at the bottom of the article. 

But this isn’t always the case. Surely nowhere in the English sound system is there a term as vivid as ‘hard attack’.

It sounds like a martial arts move.

But if you’re imagining people flying across beautiful scenery in extravagant poses, dream on.

This is phonetics.

A hard attack in pronunciation terms is when you stop the flow of air in your glottis by bringing the vocal folds together, then you release it as you make the vowel.

So there are two ways of saying the word APPLE:

The first one clearly has hard attack – the vocal folds are closed at the beginning. This gives more emphasis to both the vowel sound and the word when the /a/ is released.

So by carrying out hard attack, there is a resulting change, albeit subtle, in the amount of emphasis on the word.

This in itself makes it worth teaching: it does have a communicative function.

I’ve been writing about glottal stops since I started teaching pronunciation over a decade ago. But I must admit, I have never included hard attack in my books and only briefly covered it when teaching connected speech.

Is it time to embrace the hard attack?

Sounds painful, doesn’t it?

Well, no pain no gain, so I have included it in the new AXNting video on the glottal stop, which details the 3 uses in GB English:

/t/ Allophone
Hard Attack
Glottal Reinforcement

You can see a 20 second clip of the video below:

Of the three uses, the /t/ allophone is by far the most important for learners.

Not only is it now a very natural part of SSB/GB, it’s also a key feature of loads of regional accents – from West Country to Cockney and MLE in London, to Scouse and Geordie in the north, and on to Scottish accents north of the border.

Hard attack is a less obvious feature.

Though the process for using it is likely to some extent a conscious decision by the speaker to emphasise a word or speak very clearly.

This last reason sees hard attack being the main occurrence of the glottal stop in old-fashioned RP.

But the best reason for studying it, as with so many speech processes, is surely phonetic awareness, which helps to increase any learners’ control over their speech and results in more detailed listening skills.

It forms a small part of a very large phonetic landscape in English pronunciation.

And it surely can’t hurt.

Despite the name.



MID (jaw) vs CENTRAL (tongue).
VOICELESS vs UNVOICED (same meaning, but phoneticians seem to prefer the first term).
CLOSE (jaw is not open) vs NEAR (can refer to jaw or tongue near to a position such as ‘near-front’ or ‘near-close’).
BROAD (basic) vs NARROW (detailed) – both refer to phonetic transcriptions.
PHONEMIC (/ /) vs PHONETIC ([ ]) – a transcription is either phonemic or phonetic.