On and on

trekkingToday, another in my series of posts on small, frequent English words which are tricky for non-natives because some are generally strong and some are generally weak.

So far I’ve considered the numerals one, two and four, which are usually strong; the prepositions to and for, which are usually weak; and the strong-weak pair of words which are both written that. This same strong-weak distinction exists between on and and.

The conjunction and is often pronounced weakly as /ən/, with the colourless vowel schwa, and without its final /d/. This form is usual when and conjoins two words of the same type, even in careful speech styles like lecturing and newsreading. Here are War and Peace, Romeo and Juliet, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, all with and pronounced as /ən/ or /n/:

The preposition on, on the other hand, generally does not weaken, but rather keeps its full vowel. The quality of the vowel depends on the speaker’s accent; the British pronunciation is usually transcribed /ɒn/. The strength of on keeps it distinct from weak and.

A good way to illustrate this distinction is with native speaker recordings of the common phrase on and on, /ɒn ən ɒn/:

  We’ve all gone on and on growing older



  I could go on and on about what was manly



  I don’t blame them for going on and on and on
  producing the same wonderful images



  I could go on and on with this and you have to
  know when to stop



  the quarter-finals, which go on and on and on



The word and may be pronounced strongly for emphasis. In this documentary narration, the speaker emphasizes the duration of an earthquake by saying the quake goes on… /and/ on… /and/ on:

In the phrase on and on, both instances of the word on are likely to be accentuated. But even when the word on is not accentuated, as in the phrase life on earth, it’s likely to keep its full vowel. Here are several speakers saying life on, taken from the phrase life on earth:

By contrast, here are speakers saying life and, from the phrase life and death:

You should be able to hear that the instances of and are /ən/, while the instances of on retain their full vowel.


4 replies
  1. Akito
    Akito says:

    “The preposition on, on the other hand, …”
    The recorded examples of on are all adverbs (intransitive prepositions?). I wonder if it would make any difference if you compared whiskey and water and float on water, for example?

    Reply
    • Geoff Lindsey
      Geoff Lindsey says:

      Yes, it would make a difference. In on and on, both instances of on are likely to be accented. In float on water, on is unlikely to be accented, and its vowel is therefore likely to be somewhat shorter and somewhat centralized. However, it’s unlikely to reduce to /ə/. Here are several speakers saying life and, from the phrase life and death:

      And here are speakers saying life on, from the phrase life on earth:

      Clearly the instances of and are /ən/, while the instances of on retain their full vowel.

      Reply
    • Geoff Lindsey
      Geoff Lindsey says:

      Thank you, for prompting me to collect the additional data. I’ve now incorporated it into the main post.

      The rhythmic difference between life and and life on is exactly like the difference between the BrE and AmE pronunciations of python. The second syllable of python is weak in BrE, strong in AmE.

      Reply
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