The Thinking Sound – /ɜː/

Which sound do English speakers make when they think? Er, well, it’s /ɜː/ – the central vowel. Difficult for learners because many languages do not have a similar sound. In today’s article, we’ll explore how to pronounce it, how it’s spelt, and how with certain intonation it can mean ‘disgusting!’.

How to Pronounce /ɜː/

/ɜː/ is a neutral vowel, firmly in the centre of the mouth, your tongue should be flat – not forward like /iː/ not back like /ɔː/, flat as a freshly ironed shirt /ɜː/. Your jaw should be half open, and your lips should be relaxed, not rounded or you’ll sound French

[œ], so relax the lips, altogether now /ɜː/. 

Words & Spellings of /ɜː/

Nearly all spellings of /ɜː/ contain an <r> which is silent in GB English.  The most common spellings are <ur> as in TURN and BURN, < ir > as in DIRT and BIRD, & <er> as in PREFER and SERVANT… perfect. It’s also <ear> as in EARN and SEARCH, & <our> like in JOURNAL and COURTEOUS. 


Most words spelt with <wor> are pronounced with /ɜː/: WORD, WORK, WORTH, WORLD, WORSE, WORM and WORSHIP. Watch out for WORE and its participle WORN, which are pronounced with /ɔː/ and take care with WORRY, which is /ʌ/.


English never fails to throw up at least one bizarre exception, and here it is: the <olo> in the word COLONEL is pronounced with /ɜː/, so it is a homophone with KERNEL, which is the central part of a nut, but often used more generally to mean the essence of something, like in the phrase ‘a kernel of truth’.

/ɜː/ in Accents 

In posh accents the jaw is more open towards /ɑː/, so HEARD and HARD sound similar. Some Northern English speakers use /ɜː/ instead of the diphthong /əʊ/ – which is no joke you know? In Liverpool, they don’t say /ɜː/ at all, it’s replaced with /ɛː/, so WHERE and WERE sound the same: “Where were they sir?” In American the ‘r’s are pronounced – yes they CERtainly are, so /ɜː/ may be transcribed /ɝ/.

/ɜː/ in Exclamations

/ɜː/ is the sound used to think in English, and it’s often spelt ER for that purpose. Er, where was I? Ah yes,  /ɜː/ can also mean ‘disgusting’ if it’s said with a falling intonation pattern and perhaps a little vocal fry at the end: UGH. Altogether now, UGH!

/ɜː/ in Sayings

/ɜː/ is found in the very common English saying ‘to err on the side of caution’, meaning don’t take any risks. It also appears three times in the motivational catchphrase, ‘the early bird catches the worm’, meaning you shouldn’t laze around in bed all day if your diet consists of slimy burrowing hermaphrodites. UGH, how disgusting!

This article uses IPA (phonetic) symbols – you can learn them in the free Pronunciation Studio Starter Pack containing pronunciation notes and diagrams for each sound with audio, and an English IPA chart. 

By | 2017-01-23T11:19:53+00:00 October 21st, 2016|Pronunciation, Sounds|17 Comments


  1. Marc October 22, 2016 at 11:05 am - Reply

    Thank you for these great articles, they’re all very helpful.

    • Joseph Hudson October 22, 2016 at 3:56 pm - Reply

      Thanks Marc, I’m glad they are useful!

  2. Martin Thule October 22, 2016 at 1:06 pm - Reply

    Awesome article! Fun and entertainingly way to present pronunciation rules and patterns, now that’s a feat!

    • Joseph Hudson October 22, 2016 at 3:58 pm - Reply

      Thanks Martin, I’ll try and keep both feet on the ground in light of such praise!

  3. Paolo October 22, 2016 at 3:02 pm - Reply

    Thank you for another excellent article! Keep them coming

    • Joseph Hudson October 24, 2016 at 12:03 pm - Reply

      Thanks Paolo, I’ll CERtainly try.

  4. Rovina October 22, 2016 at 6:33 pm - Reply

    Thanks it is really useful.

    • Joseph Hudson October 24, 2016 at 12:04 pm - Reply

      Thanks Rovina.

  5. Andrés Cid October 23, 2016 at 10:50 am - Reply

    A splendid new article, as usual!!!
    Since I met Pronunciation Studio on the Internet 2 years ago, I’ve been following you from Seville, Spain.
    Your work is specially helpful for spanish people whose phonetics is completely different. Thanks a lot!!!

    • Joseph Hudson October 24, 2016 at 12:09 pm - Reply

      Thanks Andrés, Spanish is certainly a world apart phonetically from English, particularly with the vowel system.

      • MARIA ISLAS December 7, 2016 at 10:34 pm - Reply

        Yes, bur please, record your audios slowly. Thank you.

  6. Anna Rosa Hoffarth October 23, 2016 at 3:17 pm - Reply

    These articles are really very helpful. Thanks a lot. And please go on…

    Anna Rosa

    • Joseph Hudson October 24, 2016 at 12:10 pm - Reply

      Thanks Anna Rosa, there are plenty more to come!

  7. Johana October 26, 2016 at 6:21 am - Reply

    Thanks a lot!!! for your useful articles, they are really interesting !! I am following your publications every time!

  8. nucci November 19, 2016 at 5:50 pm - Reply

    Interesting and captivating!!!!!!!!!! Waiting for some more!!!

  9. Barbara January 2, 2017 at 9:46 am - Reply

    Thanks! I love Pronunciation Studio ♡.♡

  10. Stella March 8, 2017 at 9:56 pm - Reply

    The descriptions and comparisons made to produce this sound are very helpful to get it right. Thank you !!

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