English pronunciation can be tricky. In addition to sounds which are not used in many other languages (most notably the th), the pronunciation of a given letter can depend on the letters nearby or even on the whole word. In this post, I want to given a rather detailed but not yet complete discussion of the pronunciation of the letter t. A key concept in understanding the different pronunciations of the letter is to regard it as part of a group of letters, such as in -tion (sa in action), -ture (as in structure), or -tual (as in factual). Using this idea, systematic rules start to emerge.
t as part of th
The pronunciation of th has been discussed in a previous post, see here.
t as part of -tion
When the letter t is followed by -ion, its pronunciation depends on the preceding letter. If t is preceded by a vowel, -tion is always pronounced as [ʃn]. Examples include situation, inflation, indiscretion, and motion. If the t is preceded by a consonant, things are bit trickier and we have to distinguish several cases. The correct pronunciation of t in such words is often missed even by advanced speakers of the English language.
c followed by -tion: In words such as action, infection, or prediction, -ction is pronounced as [ʃn] but not as [tʃn]. Hence, action is pronounced as [ˈækʃn] but not as [ˈæktʃn]. A list of words with -ction can be found here.
n followed by -tion: In the words mention, detention, or convention, the -tion is usually pronounced as [ʃn], although [tʃn] is also acceptable according to the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. A list of words including -ntion can be found here.
t as part of -ture
The pronunciation of the letter t in words such as lecture, capture, structure, or texture is different from the above examples for -tion, although this rule is not always used in practise even by native speakers. Again, some sort of logic emerges when considering the letter t to be part of -ture, because -ture is consistently pronounced as [tʃə] (British English) or [tʃə(r)] (American English). Whereas the pronunciation of, for example, structure is hence given by [ˈstrʌktʃə(r)] according to the Oxford English dictionary, even native speakers sometimes prefer to pronounce it as [ˈstrʌkʃə(r)]. Although this alternative pronunciation is not as widely used as [ˈstrʌktʃə(r)], according to the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, you can hear it quite often. Another example is lecture, which is usually pronounced as [ˈlektʃə(r)] but also as [‘lekʃə]. A list of English words containing -ture can be found here.
t as part of -tual
As part of -tual in words such as factual, actual, or conceptual, the letter t is pronounced explicitly. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, actual is pronounced as [ˈæktʃuəl]. However, similar to the case of -ture, exceptions to this rule exist in practice, and the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary includes [ˈækʃuəl] as a correct pronunciation of actual. The same is true for other words which include -tual, see here for a list.
The discussion and examples above illustrate that although the pronunciation of the letter t seems rather arbitrary at first, some logic and consistency emerge when considering t as part of syllables such as -ture, -tion or -tual. Whereas all three cases are pronounced either with or without a t, depending on the context, pronouncing action as [ˈæktʃn] is not an option. Hence, if you want to make fun of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s English accent like the guy in this video,
you should not make this mistake (the fun starts around the 2:30 mark). For my fellow German native speakers, I would like to mention that according to the Duden, the “German” word Action is pronounced just like action. Hence, the often used pseudo-German expression “äktschn” is just wrong.