Silent letters in English

Silent letters in English cause difficulties for both native speakers and those learning the language.

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Over the past several centuries English has dropped the pronunciation of some letters in certain words while spelling has remained relatively constant. This has led to the difference we see today between how some English terms are written and pronounced. To avoid confusion, it is worth learning which letters are “empty” in certain combinations.

Some may argue that having silent letters in modern English is pointless and that they should be removed. However, in certain contexts these additional letters in the spellings of words provide valuable information. In homophones (words that sound the same), having different spellings can aid understanding in words like: thyme/time, whine/wine, weigh/way, etc. The origins of some words are also preserved in the English spelling system, for example: vineyard (pronounced: “vinyard”). Sometimes the reader can gain additional clues regarding pronunciation and stress from the spelling of a word, for example with “physics” and “physiques”. English has many words of French origin, which have retained their drawn-out “ay” ending (as in: “say”): ballet, bouquet, buffet, cafe, etc. If a word has a very odd spelling, it is likely to have been borrowed into English from another language (Greek, Latin, French, etc.).

Below is a detailed list of words in English with silent letters (in brackets):

b: clim(b), com(b), plum(b)er, thum(b), tom(b), num(b), su(b)tle, dou(b)t, de(b)t, crum(b)

c: mus(c)le, s(c)issors

ch: ya(ch)t

d: han(d)kerchief, san(d)wich, We(d)nesday, han(d)some, e(d)ge, bri(d)ge, a(d)jective

e: ev(e)ry, ev(e)ning, diff(e)rent, sev(e)ral, inter(e)sting, veg(e)table, lit(e)rature, temp(e)rature

g: si(g)n, forei(g)n, champa(g)ne, desi(g)n, (g)nome

gh: hi(gh), ri(gh)t, ni(gh)t, mi(gh)t, si(gh)t, bou(gh)t, thou(gh)t, cau(gh)t, ou(gh)t, dau(gh)ter, wei(gh), nei(gh)bour, strai(gh)t, fi(gh)t, dou(gh)

h: (h)onest, (h)our, (h)onour, (h)eir, g(h)ost, w(h)at, w(h)ether

k: (k)nife, (k)now, (k)nock, (k)not, (k)nee, (k)nuckle, (k)knickers, (k)knowledge, (k)night

l: sa(l)mon, ca(l)m, wou(l)d, cou(l)d, shou(l)d, wa(l)k, ha(l)f, pa(l)m, cha(l)k

m: (m)nemonic

n: autum(n), dam(n), hym(n), gover(n)ment

p: cu(p)board, (p)sychiatry, (p)sychology, cou(p), (p)neumonia, (p)neumatic, recei(p)t

s: i(s)land, i(s)les, ai(s)le

t: lis(t)en, fas(t)en, of(t)en, whis(t)le, cas(t)le, Chris(t)mas, sof(t)en, mor(t)gage

u: g(u)ess, g(u)ard, g(u)ilt, g(u)itar, tong(u)e, g(u)est

w: ans(w)er, (w)rite, (w)rong, (w)ring, (w)rinkle, (w)rist, (w)retched, (w)restler, s(w)ord, (w)hole

A little British comedy on the topic of silent letters

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Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)

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