Silent Letters: Pronunciation Made Easy

by , under Features, Spelling

English is semi-phonetic, which means that the way a word is spelled can give clues to its pronunciation but can also be quite misleading. Often, the pronunciation of a word can be very different to what you might predict based on its spelling. One way English is semi-phonetic is the use of silent letters.

Silent B

We never pronounced the b in crumb. We stopped pronouncing the b in thumb and dumb before the Modern period.

limb
crumb
dumb
plumber
comb
bomb
thumb
climb
tomb
debt
debtor
doubt
doubtful
subtle
subtleness

Silent D

handkerchief
Wednesday
sandwich
handsome

Silent E

ate
hope
drive
gave
write
site
hide
bite

When two vowels go walking the first one does the talking
The e is silent but it has an effect on the preceding vowel

GH as F

(not silent but weird)

rough
tough
laugh
enough
cough
clough
draught

Silent K

We stopped pronouncing the k at the beginning of words in the 17th century.

knife 
knee
know
knock
knowledge
knead

Silent M

The silent m in the Greek word mnemonic was never pronounced in English.  

mnemonic

Silent N

The n in words like autumn and column have never been pronounced in English, but reflect the original French spelling. 

autumn
hymn 
column 
solemn

Silent P

The p in pneumonia has never been pronounced in English.  However, the p in words like psyche and psychology were pronounced by educated people until the 18th century. 

psychiatrist
pneumonia 
pneumatic 
psychotherapy 
psychotic 
psychologist
pseudonym

Silent T

The t after s or f and before en stopped being pronounced in the Early Modern period.  The t at the end of words like rapport, gourmet, and ballet reflect the French spelling and pronunciation. 

castle 
soften
hasten
fasten 
listen 
often 
Christmas 
whistle 
thistle 
bustle
wrestle
rapport 
gourmet 
ballet

Silent C

muscle 
scissors 
ascent 
miscellaneous 
fascinate 
scenario

  

Silent G

The silent g after a vowel and before an m or an n comes from the French and Latin spellings of these words. They were never pronounced in English. 

champagne 
foreign 
sign 
feign 
design 
align 
cognac
gnat
gnaw

  

Silent GH

bought
thought
drought 
thorough 
borough 
daughter
light 
might 
sigh 
right
fight
weigh
weight

Silent H

By the end of the 19th century, the only words in which it was permissible to drop the h and not be considered a defect of pronunciation were the loan words honest,  honourheir, and hour. Words like herbhumour, and humble can be heard pronounced with a silent h depending on the region in American English. 

honest
honour
heir
hour
what
when
where
whether
why

Silent L

We stopped pronouncing the L after a and before f, v, or k after the Middle English period.

calm 
half 
walk 
would 
should 
could 
calf 
salmon 
yolk
chalk
balm

  

Silent S

island 
isle 
islet

  

Silent U

guess 
guidance 
guitar 
guest 
guild 
guard

Silent W

The w before r was no longer pronounced after the mid-16th century. The w after s in sword stopped being pronounced after the mid-17th century.

wrap 
write 
wrong
wring
wreck 
wrestle
wrist 
who 
whom
whole
whoever
two 
sword 
answer

The history of silent letters provided above comes from Why is English Like That?  by Norbert Schmitt and Richard Marsden. If you are interested, you can buy it here.  The two vowels illustration was drawn for me by Nerio Byung Hyun Son in 2016.

The Easy Way to Learn to Pronounce Silent Letters

Learning Activity Instructions: Try to pronounce the words listed above. Use the text-to-speech widget on the VirtualWritingTutor.com to check the pronunciation of the words you are not sure of.

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