“con” and “com”: How Stress Affects the Vowel

Pronunciation of “con” and “com” can seem tricky in words like “complete,” “concert,” and “condition.”  When do you use /ə/ (“uh”) and when do you use /ɑ/ (“ah”)?  Why is the pronunciation different in words with the same spelling pattern?

The answer is actually pretty simple.  When the syllable with “con” or “com” is stressed, such as in the word “concert,” use an /ɑ/ (“ah”).  When the syllable with “con” or “com” is unstressed, such as in the word “concern,” use an /ə/.  This rule works fairly consistently, though there are exceptions.  This is English, of course- there must always be an exception!

In the following table, the stressed syllable in each word is underlined.  The words are sorted by whether the “con” or “com” is in a stressed or unstressed syllable, which typically determines which vowel is used.  The column on the far right lists exceptions to this pronunciation rule.

Unstressed Vowel: /ə/ Stressed Vowel: /ɑ/ Exceptions
Condition Conscious Competition /ɑ/
Complete Common Comfort /ʌ/
Computer Conference Complication /ɑ/
Commute Contracts Company /ʌ/
Control Concept
Commotion Combat
Connect Complicated

Find the stress in words starting with “con” or “com” and you will usually have a good idea of which vowel sound to use! Can you think of any other exceptions to this rule that aren’t listed?