Schwa

by Craig Shrives

What Is a Schwa? (with Examples)

The schwa is the most common vowel sound in English. It sounds like a short 'uh.' The symbol for a schwa is ə (an upside down "e"). The schwa can be represented by any vowel letter. In these examples, the vowel creating the schwa sound is shown in bold:
vowelvowel as a schwa
a
salad
,
alphabet
,
thousand
e
elephant
,
taken
,
item
i
animal
,
cousin
,
pencil
o
lemon
,
dinosaur
,
phantom
u
rhombus
,
upon
,
supply
The schwa sound can even be represented by the semi-vowel "y" and no letter at all. For example:
vowelvowel as a schwa
y
syringe
,
sibyls
no vowel
rhythm

(The schwa is between the "th" and "m.")
What is a schwa?

The Schwa Is Never Stressed

The schwa is never a stressed vowel. It can only be formed by an unstressed vowel. However, not every unstressed vowel is a schwa. (Most unstressed vowels are not schwas.) Look at this example:
  • banana
  • (In "banana," the first "a" is a schwa, the second "a" is a stressed vowel, and the last "a" is an unstressed "a.")
When reading English (especially when encountering a new word), it is common for learners to pronounce a word incorrectly by giving a "schwa vowel" the proper sound of its vowel. Here is an example with the word "lemon":

The Lazy Vowel

The schwa is produced when the lips, tongue, and jaw are completely relaxed, which is why it is known as the "lazy vowel." It exists because creating the syllables we need to pronounce words is hard work for our vocal tracts, and using a schwa in a syllable instead of the proper vowel is easier.

Schwas Make Spelling More Difficult

In any word with a schwa, the schwa syllable ranks lowest among its sibling syllables in terms of helping the word to be understood. So, the schwa exists to improve efficiency in speaking. That's great. However, it causes lots of issues with writing in English because writers are often left guessing what vowel to use for a schwa sound. For example:
word with schwacommon misspelling
independent
independant
accommodation
accommadation
apparent
apparant
Speakers of other languages (e.g., Spanish, Russian) are far more disciplined with their vowel pronunciations, and, in those languages, if you can say a word correctly, then you should be able to spell it correctly (and vice versa). Read about common misspellings in English. Read about how to improve your spelling. The sound a vowel makes depends on whether it is a short vowel sound or a long vowel sound. Let's look at the letter "e" as an example:
vowel typeexample
short e
hen
long e
he
It also depends what type of syllable it features in. For example:
syllable typeexample
closed syllable
pet
open syllable
she
magic-"e" syllable
pine
(no sound from the "e")
*vowel-team syllable
glue
*diphthong syllable
blue
r-controlled syllable
her
consonant-"le" syllable
uncle
(no sound from the "e")
*Depending on the curriculum, these are sometimes categorized as one syllable type.

Recognizing the letters is the easy part of learning to read. Learning the syllable types is the hard part, and this is made even harder by the schwa. Without any clear warning, a schwa can undo the standard rule for a syllable type. So, from that perspective, it is a menace.

There are two ways to address the schwa issue:
  • Don't teach the schwa. This relies on a learner's imitation of words eventually trumping the reading rules.
  • Do teach the schwa. Some students benefit from understanding the schwa as it offers an explanation of why a reading rule does not apply. Interestingly, teachers of students with learning difficulties find teaching the schwa useful. (If you have a view on this, please tell us using the contact form below.)

How To Get The Schwa Symbol

(Method 1) Copy and paste the symbol.

Press the "copy" button, and then paste the symbol into your document.

(Method 2) Use the "Alt Code."

The Alt Code for ə is Alt 601. If you have a keyboard with a numeric pad, you can use this method.
  • Hold down the Alt key and type 601 on the numeric pad. When you lift the Alt key, ə appears.
  • (The Num Lock button must be on. This is used in programs like Word.)

(Method 3) Use the HTML Decimal Code (for webpages).

HTML TextOutput
əə

(Method 4) Use the HTML Entity Code (for webpages).

HTML TextOutput
nilnil
There is no html entity code for the schwa symbol.

(Method 5) Use the CSS Code (for webpages).

CSS and HTML TextOutput
<style>
span:after {
content: "\0259";}
</style>
<span>Symbol:</span>
Symbol: ə

(Method 6) Use the HTML Hex Code (for webpages).

HTML TextOutput
&#x259;ə

(Method 7) Use the Unicode (for various, e.g. Microsoft Office, JavaScript, Perl).

The Unicode for ə is U+0259. The important part is the hexadecimal number after the U+, which is used in various formats. For example, in Microsoft Office applications (e.g. Word, PowerPoint), do the following:
TypeOutput
259
[ Hold down Alt ]
[ Press x ]
ə
(Note that you can omit any leading zeros.)
In JavaScript, the syntax is \uXXXX. So, our example would be \u0259. (Note that the format is 4 hexadecimal characters.)
JavaScript TextOutput
let str = "\u0259"
document.write("My symbol: " + str)
My symbol: ə

(Method 8) Use an Image (for various).

HTML TextOutput
<img src = "myImage.png"/>ə

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See Also

The top 20 misspelled words How to improve your English spelling

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