Consonant Digraphs  

What is a consonant digraph?

A consonant digraph is a combination of two consonant letters that form a single consonant speech sound (technically known as a consonant phoneme). Sometimes the combination results in one letter becoming silent, but many times the pairing produces a unique sound that neither letter would form on its own.

The Digraphs

There is a huge range of digraphs in English. For the sake of conciseness, this section will only cover consonant digraphs that create unique sounds. Those that only result in one of the letters becoming silent are covered in the section on Consonants, while digraphs formed from a combination of two vowels are discussed in the sections on Vowels, Diphthongs, and Triphthongs
The digraphs we’ll look at here are CH, DG, DJ, GH, NG, PH, SH, SS, TH, and WH.

CH

The digraph CH forms three distinct phonemes: /ʧ/, /k/, and /ʃ/. There are few reliable spelling patterns that indicate when CH will form one sound over another, so we simply have to memorize the different pronunciations. Below, we’ll look at some common examples of each.

Producing the sound /ʧ/

The most common sound made by CH is /ʧ/, which is formed by first pressing the tip of the tongue against the roof of the mouth before forcing air through (to form the /t/ sound) and then quickly pressing the sides of the tongue against the top teeth and constricting the back of the throat (to form the /ʃ/ [SH] sound). This is why the symbol for /ʧ/ is a combination of /t/ and /ʃ/.
CH often comes after T when it makes this sound (forming a trigraph), but it can also do so on its own.
For example:
  • achieve (/əˈʧiv/)
  • arch (/ɑrʧ/)
  • batch (/bæʧ/)
  • beach (/biʧ/)
  • charge (/ʧɑrʤ/)
  • child (/ʧaɪld/)
  • church (/ʧɜrʧ/)
  • ditch (/dɪʧ/)
  • purchase (/ˈpɜrʧəs/)
  • reach (/riʧ/)
  • teacher (/ˈtiʧər/)
  • match (/mæʧ/)
  • much (/mʌʧ/)
  • which (/wɪʧ/)

Producing the sound /k/

Less often, CH produces the same sound as a K or hard C, transcribed in IPA as /k/. This sound almost always occurs when CH appears at the beginning or in the middle of a word. For example:
Beginning Position
Mid Position
chemistry
(kɛmɪstri/)
choir
(kwaɪər/)
chord
(/kɔrd/)
chorus
(kɔrəs/)
Christmas
(krɪsməs/)
anchor
(/ˈæŋkər/)
archive
(/ˈɑrˌkaɪv/)
psyche
(/ˈsaɪki/)
psychology
(/saɪˈkɑləʤi/)
schedule
(/ˈskɛʤʊl/)*
synchronize
(/ˈsɪŋkrəˌnaɪz/)
technology
(/tɛkˈnɑləʤi/)
Other than the word ache (/eɪk/), which ends in a silent E, there is only one standard word that ends in CH pronounced as /k/: stomach (/ˈstʌmək/). However, certain abbreviated forms of other words will sometimes end this way as well, such as psych (/saɪk/, short for psychology) or tech (/tɛk/, short for technology).
(*Note that in British English, schedule is often pronounced with a /ʃ/ sound rather than /k/: ʃɛdjuːl/.)

Producing the sound /ʃ/

Even less commonly, CH can be pronounced /ʃ/ (like the digraph SH), usually (but not always) when it appears between two vowels. For instance:
  • brochure (/broʊˈʃʊr/)
  • chef (/ʃɛf/)
  • machine (/məˈʃin/)
  • mustache (/ˈmʌˌstæʃ/)
  • parachute (/ˈpɛrəˌʃut/)

DG and DJ

The digraphs DG and DJ both create the same consonant sound produced by the letter J, represented in IPA by the symbol /ʤ/. DG is often followed by the letter E (which is made silent), while DJ is almost always preceded by the letter A. Neither digraph can appear at the very beginning* or very end of a word; they must always follow and be followed by at least one other letter.
For example:
DG words
DJ words
abridged
(/əˈbrɪʤd/)
badge
(/bæʤ/)
judge
(/ʤʌʤ/)
fledgling
(/ˈflɛʤlɪŋ/)
lodging
(/ˈlɑʤɪŋ/)
adjacent
(/əˈʤeɪsənt/)
adjective
(/ˈæʤɪktɪv/)
adjourn
(/əˈʤɜrn/)
adjunct
(/ˈæˌʤʌŋkt/)
adjust
(/əˈʤʌst/)
(*A few foreign loanwords do begin with DJ, such as djinni [/ɪˈni/], an Islamic word for a supernatural spirit that influences the actions of people on Earth.)

judgment vs. judgement

The verb judge can be made into a noun by adding the suffix “-ment” onto the end. In American English, this ending replaces the E that normally follows DG forming the word judgment (/ˈʤʌʤmənt/). In American English, this is always considered the correct spelling.
In British English, however, it is equally common to see the word spelled as judgement (the pronunciation remains the same: /ˈʤʌʤmənt/), though judgment tends to be favored in legal and business writing.
Regardless, if the accuracy of your spelling needs to be precise, you should spell the word judgment as it is always correct, no matter where in the world you are.

GH

The digraph GH can form two sounds—/g/ and /f/—and can also be silent. GH only makes the hard /g/ sound when it is at the beginning of a syllable (and usually the beginning of a word). However, when GH follows vowels within the same syllable, it can either be silent or produce the /f/ sound—the spelling alone will not dictate which pronunciation it yields, making it a particularly difficult digraph to learn.

Producing the sound /g/

The hard /g/ sound is not very common for the digraph GH, but there are a few common words in which it appears:
  • aghast (/əˈgæst/)
  • ghetto (gɛtoʊ/)
  • gherkin (gɜrkɪn/)
  • ghost (/goʊst/)
  • ghoul (/gul/)
  • spaghetti (/spəˈgɛti/)

Producing the sound /f/

The /f/ phoneme is also not common for this digraph. When GH is pronounced this way, it almost always comes after the vowels OU. For example:
  • cough (/kɔf/)
  • enough (/ɪˈnʌf/)
  • rough (/rʌf/)
  • slough (/slʌf/)
  • tough (/tʌf/)
  • trough (/trɔf/)
GH can also produce the /f/ sound after the vowel digraph AU, but this only occurs in the word laugh (/læf/), as well as any derivative words like laughter or laughing.
(There is another word that follows this spelling pattern—draught (/dræft/—but this is chiefly a British English spelling of the word draft).

Silent GH

The most common pronunciation for GH is actually none at all. While the /g/ and /f/ pronunciations of the digraph are relatively uncommon, there are many words in which GH is silent.
Like the /f/ pronunciation, silent GH also appears after OU and AU, but it also follows the vowels AI, EI, and I. Be careful, though; even though several words may have the same vowels coming before silent GH, not all of them have the same pronunciation. For example:
OU + GH
AU + GH
AI + GH
EI + GH
I + GH
bought
(/bɔt/)
dough
(/d/)
fought
(/fɔt/)
ought
(/ɔt/)
through
(/θru/)
caught
(/kɔt/)
daughter
(/dɔtər/)
fraught
(/frɔt/)
haughty
(/ˈhɔti/)
naughty
(/ˈnɔti/)
straight
(/strt/)
eight
(/t/)
neighbor
(/ˈnbər/)
height
(/ht/)
sleight
(/slt/)
weigh
(/w/)
bright
(/brt/)
high
(/h/)
night
(/nt/)
sight
(/st/)
thigh
(/)
In all of the above, GH is actually forming tetragraphs (and one trigraph) with the vowels to which it is attached; go to these sections to learn more about the sounds these can make.

hiccup vs. hiccough

Hiccup is the usual and traditional spelling of the word referring to an involuntary spasm of the diaphragm that results in a sharp inhalation of breath followed by a sudden closing of the glottis. The word is an onomatopoeia, mimicking the sound made when this happens.
Hiccough means the same thing, but its spelling is a more recent variation (supposedly because of an association being made between a cough and a hiccup).
Regardless of the spelling, though, the word is pronounced the same way: /ˈhɪkʌp/. This is the only instance in which GH is pronounced as /p/, rather than being silent or producing the sounds /g/ or /f/.

Producing two separate sounds

We must be careful when G and H appear next to each other but function in two separate syllables. This usually happens in compound words in which a word ending in G is attached to another word beginning in H. In this case, GH is no longer a digraph and each letter is pronounced individually. For example:
  • doghouse (/ˈdɔgˌhaʊs/)
  • foghorn (/ˈfɔgˌhɔrn/)
  • leghorn (/ˈlɛgˌhɔrn/)
  • staghound (/ˈstægˌhaʊnd/)
Additionally, when a word ending in the digraph NG (which we’ll look at next) forms a compound with a word beginning with H, it results in a separate pronunciation of the sounds /ŋ/ and /h/:
  • clearinghouse (/ˈklɪrɪŋˌhaʊs/)
  • longhand (/ˈlɔŋˌhænd/)
  • longhouse (/ˈlɔŋˌhaʊs/)
  • stronghold (/ˈstrɔŋˌhoʊld/)
  • wrongheaded (/ˈrɔŋˌhɛdɪd/)

NG

The digraph NG almost always produces the same speech sound, represented in IPA by the symbol /ŋ/. This phoneme is formed by closing the back of the throat while keeping the mouth open and vibrating the vocal cords (making it a voiced speech sound).
NG can appear in the middle or at the end of a word, and it always comes after a vowel; it never appears at the beginning of a word. For example:
  • bang (/bæŋ/)
  • clang (/klæŋ/)
  • dinghy (/ˈdɪŋi/)
  • darling (/ˈdɑrlɪŋ/)
  • fangs (/fæŋz/)
  • hanged (/hæŋd/)
  • longing (/ˈlɔŋɪŋ/)
  • stringy (/ˈstrɪŋi/)
  • winged (/wɪŋd/)
The most common occurrence of the digraph NG is in the suffix ING, which is used to form the gerund and present participle forms of verbs (as in the example longing above). Some other examples include:
  • acting (/ˈæktɪŋ/)
  • braving (/ˈbreɪvɪŋ/)
  • dreaming (/ˈdrimɪŋ/)
  • feeling (/ˈfilɪŋ/)
  • hearing (/ˈhirɪŋ/)
  • running (/ˈrʌnɪŋ/)
  • seeing (/ˈsiɪŋ/)
  • talking (/ˈtɔkɪŋ/)
  • wearing (/ˈwɛrɪŋ/)

Producing the sound /ŋk/

In some dialects, NG will produce a /k/ sound after /ŋ/ when the digraph is followed by ST or TH:
  • angst (ŋkst/)
  • length (/lɛŋkθ/)
  • strength (/strɛŋkθ/)
This /ŋk/ sound only occurs in the three root words above, but it can also carry over to words derived from them, such as lengthy or strengthen.

Producing the sound /ŋg/

In some words, N and G appear next to each other but function separately across two separate syllables. This is not a true digraph (since two sounds are made from the two letters together), but, due to the proximity of the two letters, the sound /ŋ/ is still made. This results in the pronunciation /ŋg/. For example:
  • anger (/ˈæŋgər/)
  • finger (/ˈfɪŋgər/)
  • hunger (/ˈhʌŋgər/)
  • language (/ˈlæŋgwəʤ/)
  • single (/ˈsɪŋgəl/)
  • tangle (/ˈtæŋgəl/)

Producing the sounds /ng/ and /nʤ/

Finally, it’s worth noting that NG does not always result in the /ŋ/ phoneme. In some words in which N and G are split between two syllables, N carries its standard pronunciation (/n/) while G can create either a hard G (/g/) or (more commonly) soft G (/ʤ/) sound. For example:
Produces /ng/
Produces /nʤ/
congratulations
(/kənˌgræʧəˈleɪʃənz/)
congruence
(/ˈkɔngruəns/)
engaged
(nˈgeɪʤd/)
engrave
(nˈgreɪv/)
ingrained
(nˈgreɪnd/)
ungrateful
(nˈgeɪtfəl/)
angel
(/ˈeɪəl/)
change
(/ʧeɪ/)
danger
(/ˈdeɪər/)
dingy
(/ˈdɪi/)
lounge
(/laʊ/)
manger
(/ˈmeɪər/)
stingy
(/ˈstɪi/)
strange
(/streɪ/)

PH

The digraph PH makes the same speech sound as that of the letter F, transcribed in IPA as /f/. This digraph can appear anywhere in a word. For example:
Beginning Position
Mid Position
End Position
phantom
(fæntəm/)
pheasant
(fɛzənt/)
philosophy
(/fəˈlɑsəfi/)
phoenix
(finɪks/)
photograph
(foʊtəˌgræf/)
physical
(fɪzɪkəl/)
alphabet
(/ˈælfəˌbɛt/)
catastrophic
(/ˌkætəˈstrɑfɪk/)
elephant
(/ˈɛləfənt/)
emphasize
(/ˈɛmfəˌsaɪz/)
lymphoma
(/lɪmˈfoʊmə/)
orphan
(/ˈɔrfən/)
autograph
(/ˈɔtəˌgræf/)
digraph
(/ˈdaɪˌgræf/)
nymph
(/nɪmf/)
morph
(/mɔrf/)
paragraph
(/ˈpærəˌgræf/)
triumph
(/ˈtraɪəmf/)

Producing two separate sounds

We must be careful when P and H appear next to each other but function in two separate syllables. This usually happens in compound words in which a word ending in P is attached to another word beginning in H. In this case, PH is no longer a digraph and each letter is pronounced individually. For example:
  • loophole (/ˈlupˌhoʊl/)
  • haphazard (/hæpˈhæzərd/)
  • uphill (/ˈʌpˈhɪl/)
  • uphold (pˈhoʊld/)
  • upholstery (pˈhoʊlstəri/)
Note that the H in upholstery may also be silent: /əˈpoʊlstəri/. H is also silent in the word shepherd (/ˈʃɛpərd/), which is derived from the Old English word sceaphierdesceap (“sheep”) + hierde (“herder”).

SH

The SH digraph always produces the same sound, represented in IPA by the symbol /ʃ/. This sound is formed by forming a narrow passageway with the sides of the tongue against the top teeth and then forcing air through partly open lips. It is unvoiced, meaning the vocal cords do not vibrate.
Like PH, the SH digraph can appear anywhere in a word.
Beginning Position
Mid Position
End Position
shadow
(ʃæˌdoʊ/)
sheets
(/ʃits/)
shining
(ʃaɪnɪŋ/)
shoulder
(ʃoʊldər/)
shrewd
(/ʃrud/)
shudder
(ʃʌdər/)
ashen
(/ˈæʃən/)
cushion
(/ˈkʊʃən/)
dashboard
(/ˈdæʃˌbɔrd/)
fashion
(/ˈfæʃən/)
pushover
(/ˈpʊˌʃoʊvər/)
township
(/ˈtaʊnʃɪp/)
accomplish
(/əˈkɑmplɪʃ/)
blush
(/blʌʃ/)
diminish
(/dɪˈmɪnɪʃ/)
lavish
(/ˈlævɪʃ/)
publish
(/ˈpʌblɪʃ/)
wash
(/wɑʃ/)

Producing two separate sounds

We must be careful when S and H appear next to each other but function in two separate syllables, usually when a prefix ending in S is attached to a word beginning in H. In this case, SH is no longer a digraph and each letter is pronounced individually, as in mishap (/ˈmɪsˌhæp/) or disheartening (/dɪsˈhɑrtənɪŋ/).
This rule also applies when a word beginning with a silent H is preceded by a suffix ending in S: the S is pronounced normally, while the H remains silent in the second syllable, as in dishonest (/dɪˈsɑnəst/) or dishonor (/dɪˈsɑnər/).

SS

The digraph SS appears in the middle or at the end of a word—it never appears at the beginning—and it can make three different speech sounds.

Producing the sound /s/

Most often, the digraph SS simply makes the same sound as a single S: /s/. For example:
  • across (/əˈkrɔs/)
  • assemble (/əˈsɛmbəl/)
  • boss (/bɔs/)
  • brass (/bræs/)
  • blossom (/ˈblɑsəm/)
  • dissuade (/dɪˈsweɪd/)
  • express (/ɪkˈsprɛs/)
  • message (/ˈmɛsɪʤ/)
  • success (/səkˈsɛs/)

Producing the sound /ʃ/

Sometimes when SS appears in the middle of a word, it creates the same sound as the digraph SH: /ʃ/. This pronunciation most often occurs when SS is followed by ION; less commonly, it can also occur when the digraph is followed by URE or UE. For example:
SS + ION
SS + URE
SS + UE
admission
(/ædˈmɪʃən/)
compassion
(/kəmˈpæʃən/)
expression
(/ɪkˈsprɛʃən/)
transmission
(/trænzˈmɪʃən/)
session
(/ˈsɛʃən/)
assure
(/əˈʃʊr/)
commissure
(/(ˈkɒm əˌʃɜr/)
fissure
(/ˈfɪʃər/)
pressure
(/ˈprɛʃər/)
issue
(/ˈɪʃu/)
tissue
(/ˈtɪʃu/)

Producing the sound /z/

In a few cases, SS produces the same sound as the letter Z, transcribed in IPA as /z/. This can only occur when SS appears between two vowels. For example:
  • brassiere (/brəˈzɪər/)
  • dessert (/dɪˈzɜrt/)
  • dissolve (/dɪˈzɑlv/)
  • Missouri (/məˈzʊri/)
  • possess (/pəˈzɛs/; note that the second SS is pronounced /s/)
  • scissors (/ˈsɪzərz/)

TH

The digraph TH most often produces one of two similar but distinct sounds: /θ/ and /ð/.
The sound /θ/ is made by lightly pressing the tip of the tongue against the bottom of the top two teeth as air is forced through the mouth. The vocal cords are not engaged, making this an unvoiced speech sound. The /ð/ phoneme is formed the exact same way, except the vocal cords are engaged, making it a voiced speech sound.
TH is usually pronounced /θ/ when it is followed by a consonant or appears at the very end of a word, while it is more likely to take the /ð/ pronunciation when it is followed by E or I, especially in the middle or at the end of a word. However, this is not always the case, and the spelling of the word alone won’t always indicate whether TH produces /θ/ or /ð/. We therefore have to memorize the pronunciation of TH whenever we encounter it.

Words producing the sound /θ/

Beginning Position
Mid Position
End Position
thanks
(/θæŋks/)
theater
(θiətər/)
thing
(/θɪŋ/)
thorough
(θɜroʊ/)
thread
(/θrɛd/)
through
(/θru/)
Thursday
(θɜrzˌdeɪ/)
anthem
(/ˈænθəm/)
author
(/ˈɔθər/)
cathedral
(/kəˈθidrəl/)
healthful
(/ˈhɛlθfəl/)
mathematics
(/ˌmæθəˈmætɪks/)
nothing
(/ˈnʌθɪŋ/)
prosthetic
(/prɑˈsθɛtɪk/)
bath
(/bæθ/)
depth
(/dɛpθ/)
length
(/lɛŋkθ/)
mirth
(/mɜrθ/)
teeth
(/tiθ/)
warmth
(/wɔrmθ/)
youth
(/juθ/)

Words producing the sound /ð/

Beginning Position
Mid Position
End Position
(usually followed by E)
than (/ðæn/)
the (/ði/)
them (/ðɛm/)
this (/ðɪs/)
though (/ðoʊ/)
thus (/ðʌs/)
thy (/ðaɪ/)
bother (/ˈbɑðər/)
clothing (/ˈkloʊðɪŋ/)
either (/ˈaɪðər/ or /ˈiðər/)
rhythm (/ˈrɪðəm/)
together (/təˈgɛðər/)
whether (/ˈwɛðər/)
wither (/ˈwɪðər/)
breathe (/brið/)
lathe (/leɪð/)
loathe (/loʊð/)
smooth (/smuð/)
soothe (/suð/)
teethe (/tið/)
wreathe (/rið/)

Producing the sound /t/

In some words, TH produces the sound /t/, making the H silent. This most often occurs in proper nouns, such as:
  • Thames (/tɛmz/)
  • Thailand (taɪˌlænd/)
  • Theresa (/təˈrisə/)
  • Thomas (tɑməs/)
There is also one common noun in English that features a TH pronounced as /t/: thyme (/taɪm/). It is pronounced the exact same way as time.

How to pronounce posthumous

The word posthumous is unique in that TH is not pronounced as /θ/, /ð/, or /t/. Instead, the digraph is pronounced /ʧ/ (the sound commonly made by CH), resulting in the pronunciation /ˈpɑsʧʊməs/ (or /ˈpɑsʧəməs/, with the first U reduced to a schwa).
Note that in British English, however, posthumous is pronounced as /ˈpɒstjʊməs/, with TH producing the sound /t/ (with a silent H) while U is elongated into the diphthong /jʊ/.

Producing two separate sounds

As with other digraphs, we must be careful when T and H appear next to each other but function in two separate syllables. This usually happens in compound words in which a word ending in T is attached to another word beginning in H. In this case, TH is no longer a digraph and each letter is pronounced individually. For example:
  • anthill (/ˈæntˌhɪl/)
  • boathouse (/ˈboʊtˈhaʊs/)
  • hothead (/ˈhɑtˌhɛd/)
  • lighthouse (/ˈlaɪtˌhaʊs/)
  • shorthand (/ˈʃɔrtˌhænd/)

WH

In modern English, the digraph WH usually represents a /w/ sound, with H becoming silent. For instance:
  • what (/wʌt/)
  • where (/wɛr/)
  • when (/wɛn/)
  • why (/waɪ/)
  • which (/wɪʧ/)
  • wheel (/wil/)
  • whisper (wɪspər/)
  • white (/waɪt/)
While not common in modern English, however, some dialects do pronounce the H very subtly, though it comes before the /w/ sound, producing the phoneme /hw/. Therefore, all of the words above might be pronounced in the following way:
  • what (/hwʌt/)
  • where (/hwɛr/)
  • when (/hwɛn/)
  • why (/hwaɪ/)
  • which (/hwɪʧ/)
  • wheel (/hwil/)
  • whisper (hwɪspər/)
  • white (/hwaɪt/)
Finally, in some consonant combinations, W is not pronounced at all. This occurs in some words beginning with WH when it is followed by O, as in:
  • who (/hu/)
  • whole (/hoʊl/)
  • whom (/hum/)
  • whose (/huz/)
Note that the pronunciations for these four words do not change across dialect.
Quiz

1. Which of the following is not something a digraph can do?





2. Which of the following is the most common speech sound for the digraph CH?





3. The digraphs DG and DJ both produce which of the following phonemes?





4. Which of the following is the most common speech sound for the digraph GH?





5. True or False: The spelling judgment is always considered correct.



6. Which of the following is not a speech sound that can be made by the digraph SS?





7. Which of the following is the least common pronunciation of the digraph TH?





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