Silent E  

What is Silent E?

The term silent E (sometimes called magic E) refers to the use of an unpronounced E after another letter (usually a consonant) at the end of a word. As its name suggests, silent E is not pronounced as a separate vowel sound; instead, its most common function is to dictate the pronunciation of the vowel (and occasionally the consonant) that comes before it. However, as we’ll see later, there are many exceptions to this rule, as well as a number of other technical functions that silent E can perform.

Dictating both pronunciation and meaning

As we looked at in the section on vowels, silent E affects the way another vowel in the word is pronounced, changing the speech sound into what is commonly referred to as a “long vowel”—one that is pronounced like the name of the letter. Let’s take a look at some similarly spelled words in which the addition of a silent E changes the pronunciation as well as the meaning. For example:
Word without Silent E
Meaning
Word with Silent E
Meaning
bad
(/bæd/)
(adj.) Not good or undesirable.
bade
(/bd/)
(verb) The simple past tense of bid.
them
(ɛm/)
(pron.) The objective case of the personal pronoun they.
theme
(im/)
(noun) A topic, subject, or idea.
grip
(/grɪp/)
(verb) To hold onto something.
gripe
(/grp/)
(verb) To complain in a nagging or petulant manner.
hop
(/hɑp/)
(verb) To jump or leap a short distance.
hope
(/hp/)
(verb) To wish for or desire (something).
cub
(/kʌb/)
(noun) A young bear, lion, wolf, or certain other animal.
cube
(/kjub/)
(noun) A solid shape comprising six equal square faces.
Silent E also has this effect on the sound of Y when Y functions as a vowel (the “long” and “short” vowel sounds for Y are the same as I: /aɪ/ and /ɪ/, respectively). There are no standard pairs of words that have the same spelling except for silent E, but we can look at an example of two words with similar spelling to see the differences in pronunciation: myth (/mɪθ/) and scythe (/sð/). Notice how silent E also affects the pronunciation of TH; we’ll look at this more closely further on.

Dictating pronunciation but not meaning

It’s important to remember that silent E also has this effect in words that couldn’t be spelled without it—that is, the word without the silent E would have no meaning. Therefore, only the pronunciation is dictated by silent E, not the meaning of the word compared to another.
For example:
A a
E e
I i
O o
U u
Y y
bale
(/bl/)
concrete
(/ˈkɑnkrit/)
bike
(/bk/)
rope
(/rp/)
fuse
(/fjus/)
thyme
(/tm/)
cake
(/kk/)
impede
(/ɪmˈpid/)
tile
(/tl/)
broke
(/brk/)
mule
(/mjul/)
hype
(/hp/)
rave
(/rv/)
scene
(/sin/)
strike
(/strk/)
trope
(/trp/)
rebuke
(/rɪˈbjuk/)
tyke
(/tk/)

Exceptions to the rule

While the silent E rule regarding vowel pronunciation is fairly consistent, there are many instances in which the preceding vowel does not become long. This is typically the result of spelling having changed over time, or of an E becoming silent after having once been pronounced. Some common examples include:
  • are (/ɑr/)*
  • above (/əˈbʌv/)
  • come (/kʌm/)
  • done (/dʌn/)
  • have (/hæv/)
  • give (/gɪv/)
  • glove (/glʌv/)
  • gone (/gɔn/)*
  • love (/lʌv/)
  • some (/sʌm/)
  • none (/nʌn/)
(*Note that these vowel sounds are considered a kind of long vowel, but are not what is traditionally taught as one—that is, they do not sound like their vowel letters’ names.)

Certain endings

This exception to the rule that silent E produces long vowels before single consonants is also often seen in many (though not all) multi-syllable words ending with “-ive,” “-ine,” and “-age.” Much less commonly, it also happens with words ending in “-ate.” (Note that, in the case of “-age” and “-ate,” the short vowel sound for A changes from /æ/ to /ɪ/.)
For example:
IVE
INE
AGE
ATE
active
(/ˈæktɪv/)
captive
(/ˈkæptɪv/)
defensive
(/dɪˈfɛnsɪv/)
effective
(/ˈɪˈfɛktɪv/)
offensive
(/əˈfɛnsɪv/)
doctrine
(/ˈdɑktrɪn/)
examine
(/ɪgˈzæmɪn/)
feminine
(/ˈfɛmənɪn/)
imagine
(/ɪˈmæʤɪn/)
medicine
(/ˈmɛdəsɪn/)
advantage
(/ædˈvæntɪʤ/)
bandage
(/ˈbændɪʤ/)
courage
(/ˈkɜrɪʤ/)
image
(/ˈɪmɪɪʤ/)
outage
(/ˈaʊtɪʤ/)
accurate
(/ˈækjərɪt/)
celibate
(/ˈsɛlɪbɪt/)
corporate
(/ˈkɔrpərɪt/)
estimate*
(/ˈɛstəmɪt/)
frigate
(/ˈfrɪgɪt/)
Many words ending in “-ine” also have a different long-vowel sound for the letter I (/i/, traditionally taught as the “long E” sound). This is especially true for the names of chemical compounds, but it occurs in other instances as well. For example:
  • gasoline (/ˈgæsəˌlin/)
  • glycine (/ˈglaɪˌsin/)
  • latrine (/ləˈtrin/)
  • limousine (/ˈlɪməˌzin/)
  • marine (/məˈrin/)
  • nicotine (/ˈnɪkəˌtin/)
  • ravine (/rəˈvin/)
  • saline (/seɪˈlin/)
(*As a noun, estimate is pronounced /ˈɛstəmɪt/. However, this word can also function as a verb, in which case it is pronounced /ˈɛstəmt/, with silent E producing a “long A” as it usually does. There are other words like this that have two pronunciations dictated by E, which we’ll look at next.)

Words with two pronunciations

Many words that have the exact same spelling will have two different meanings with two separate pronunciations. The standard rule that silent E will make the preceding vowel “long” applies to one of these pronunciations, but not the other (though E is silent in both); this difference in pronunciation lets us know which meaning we’re using. For example:
Short vowel sound before final consonant
Meaning
Long vowel sound before final consonant
Meaning
advocate
(/ˈædvəkɪt/)
(noun) Someone who represents or stands up for a certain cause.
advocate
(/ˈædvəˌkt/)
(verb) To speak for, represent, or support (something) publicly.
dove
(/dʌv/)
(noun) A type of bird.
dove
(/dv/)
(verb) Simple past tense of dive.
live
(/lɪv/)
(verb) To exist or be alive.
live
(/lv/)
(adj.) Having or showing the characteristics of life.
minute
(/mɪˈnɪt/)
(noun) A unit of 60 seconds.
minute
(/maɪˈnjut/)
(adj.) Very small, unimportant, or petty.
separate
(/ˈsɛpəˌrɪt/)
(adj.) Detached; distinct; independent.
separate
(/ˈsɛpəˌrt/)
(verb) To divide or keep apart.

Changing consonant sounds

In addition to changing the sound of preceding vowels, silent E can also have an impact on the pronunciation of certain consonant sounds, specifically those produced by C, D, and the digraph TH.

Changing C and G

The consonants C and G both have a “hard” and “soft” pronunciation. “Hard C” is pronounced the same as the letter K (/k/), while “soft C” has the same sound as the letter S (/s/). “Hard G” has a unique consonant sound (/g/), while “soft G” is pronounced like the letter J (/ʤ/).
When they come before a silent E, both C and G take their soft pronunciations. This most commonly occurs when CE comes after the letter I and when GE comes after the letter A, but it can occur with other vowels as well. For example:
Soft C
Soft G
ice
(/aɪs/)
age
(/eɪʤ/)
advice
(/ædˈvaɪs/)
cage
(/keɪʤ/)
sacrifice
(/ˈsækrɪˌfaɪs/)
stage
(/steɪʤ/)
face
(/feɪs/)
oblige
(/əˈblaɪʤ/)
fleece
(/flis/)
college
(/ˈkɑlɪʤ/)
truce
(/trus/)
refuge
(/ˈrɛfjuʤ/)
This effect is also true when CE and GE come after N at the end of a word, as in:
  • advance (/ədˈvæns/)
  • essence (/ˈɛsəns/)
  • glance (/glæns/)
  • arrange (/əˈreɪ/)
  • cringe (/krɪ/)
  • orange (/ˈɔrə/)

Changing TH

Silent E also has a bearing on the pronunciation of the consonant digraph TH. In most words that end in TH, it is pronounced as /θ/, an unvoiced consonant sound (meaning the vocal cords aren’t vibrated to create noise). When a final TH is followed by E, however, it almost takes the voiced consonant sound /ð/.
Often, adding a silent E after TH also has the effect of changing the meaning of a word, usually from a noun to a verb. For example:
Word without Silent E
Meaning
Word with Silent E
Meaning
bath
(/bæθ/)
(noun) The act of washing the body in water.
bathe
(/beɪð/)
(verb) To immerse in water for the purposes of washing; to take a bath.
breath
(/brɛθ/)
(noun) An instance of inhaling air into the lungs.
breathe
(/brið/)
(verb) To inhale air into the lungs.
cloth
(/klɔθ/)
(noun) Material made from woven or knitted fibers.
clothe
(/kloʊð/)
(verb) To put on or provide clothing.
teeth
(/tiθ/)
(noun) Plural of tooth.
teethe
(/tið/)
(verb) Of babies, to grow teeth for the first time.
wreath
(/riθ/)
(noun) A ring of entwined flowers, leaves, or other foliage.
wreathe
(/rið/)
(verb) To form into or take the shape of a wreath.
Ending some words in a vowel + THE will result in the /ð/ sound but will not change the meaning from a noun to a verb. For example:
  • lathe (/leɪð/)
  • scythe (/saɪð/)
  • swathe (/sweɪð/)
  • tithe (/taɪð/)

Other functions of Silent E

In addition to dictating pronunciation, meaning, or both, silent E also has a number of particular orthographic functions at the end of many words.

Providing a final syllable with a vowel

Each syllable in a word must contain a vowel sound. Many words are spelled with a final syllable consisting of a consonant + L, so an E is added to make sure the syllable is complete. While this E is often referred to as silent, in fact it does provide a very subtle, unstressed vowel sound—known as a schwa (/ə/)—before the consonant sound /l/.
This “semi-silent” E can also affect the pronunciation of the vowel sound that precedes the consonant + LE. Generally (there are exceptions), the rule is this: If a single vowel comes before a single consonant + LE, the vowel sound is “long”; if a single vowel comes before two consonants + LE, the vowel sound is “short”; and if a vowel digraph comes before a consonant + LE, the vowel sound is dictated by the digraph itself.
For example:
Single vowel + Consonant + LE
Single vowel + Two Consonants + LE
Vowel Digraph + Consonant + LE
able*
(bəl/)
bugle
(/ˈbjugəl/)
cable
(/ˈkbəl/)
cradle
(/ˈkrdəl/)
idle
(dəl/)
ladle
(/ˈldəl/)
maple
(/ˈmpəl/)
noble
(/ˈnbəl/)
soluble
(/ˈsɑljubəl/)
title
(/ˈttəl/)
assemble
(/əˈsɛmbəl/)
bundle
(/ˈbʌnbəl/)
cattle
(/ˈkætəl/)
curdle
(/ˈkɜrdəl/)
example
(/ɪgˈzæmpəl/)
little
(/ˈlɪtəl/)
paddle
(/ˈpædəl/)
marble
(/ˈmɑrbəl/)
middle
(/ˈmɪdəl/)
single
(/ˈsɪŋgəl/)
beagle
(/ˈbigəl/)
couple
(/ˈkʌpəl/)
beetle
(/ˈbitəl/)
feeble
(/ˈfibəl/)
double
(/ˈdʌbəl/)
inveigle
(/ɪnˈvgəl/)
needle
(/ˈnidəl/)
people
(/ˈpipəl/)
steeple
(/ˈstipəl/)
trouble
(/ˈtrʌbəl/)
(*The word able also acts as a suffix in many words, meaning “capable of, tending to, or suitable for.” In this capacity, the vowel A is reduced to an unstressed schwa, as in capable [/ˈkeɪpəbəl/] or suitable [/ˈsutəbəl/].)
Note, though, that there are a few words in which no vowel letter is present in the final syllable. These occur when M is the last letter of the word after S or, less commonly, TH; we do not add silent E in these words. For example:
  • enthusiasm (/ɛnˈθu.ziˌæz.əm/)
  • tourism (/ˈtʊəˌrɪz.əm/)
  • rhythm (/ˈrɪð.əm/)
While there is no vowel letter in the final syllable of these words, notice that there is still a vowel sound—an unstressed schwa (/ə/), just like we had in words ending in consonant + LE. (Go to the section on Syllables for more information about the different ways they are formed and identified.)

After final U and V

The vast majority of English words do not end in a U or a V. In a similar way to how E is added after words ending in a consonant + L, it is also added after words ending in U or V to help normalize their appearance. However, unlike when it appears after a consonant + L, this E is truly silent; it does not add a schwa or any other vowel sound to the word.
Finally, for words that end in a single vowel + VE, silent E may or may not affect the previous vowel’s pronunciation (like many of the exceptions we looked at earlier). Unfortunately, the spelling of the word won’t indicate when this is or is not the case, so we just have to memorize the pronunciation of such words.
For example:
U + E
V+ E
clue
(/klu/)
dialogue
(/ˈdaɪəˌlɔg/)
ensue
(/ɪnˈsu/)
fatigue
(/fəˈtig/)
opaque
(/oʊˈpeɪk/)
revenue
(/ˈrɛvəˌnu/)
unique
(/juˈnik/)
value
(/ˈvælju/)
above
(/əˈbʌv/)
brave
(/breɪv/)
crave
(/creɪv/)
eve
(/iv/)
have
(/hæv/)
love
(/lʌv/)
prove
(/pruv/)
wove
(/woʊv/)
Notice that the words ending in GUE or QUE don’t have an additional syllable at the end, so G and Q are pronounced /g/ and /k/ while U and E both become silent. However, in some words, this letter combination does produce an extra syllable, in which case either U or E is pronounced. For instance:
  • argue (/ˈɑrgju/)
  • dengue (/ˈdɛngeɪ/)
  • communiqué* (/kəmˌjunəˈkeɪ/)
  • risqué* (/ˌrɪˈskeɪ/)
  • segue (/ˈsɛgweɪ/)
(*Communiqué and risqué are loan words from French. Because of this, the final E is traditionally written with an accent mark. However, because these words have become common in English, this accent mark is often left off.)

Keeping a singular noun from ending in S

Another functional purpose of silent E is to keep a singular noun from ending in a single S. This ensures that the word is not mistaken for a plural noun or a third person singular verb.
For example:
  • base (/beɪs/)
  • course (/kɔrs/)
  • cheese (/ʧis/)
  • goose (/gus/)
  • lease (/lis/)
  • moose (/mus/)
  • promise (/ˈprɑməs/)
  • purse (/pɜrs/)
  • spouse (/spaʊs/)
  • verse (/vɜrs/)

Non-silent E

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that while a single E following a consonant at the end of a word is usually silent (or else produces a reduced schwa), it does occasionally produce a true speech sound of its own. For example:
  • ante (/ˈænti/)
  • apostrophe (/əˈpɑstrəfi/)
  • coyote (/kaɪˈoʊti/)
  • hyperbole (/haɪˈpɜrbəˌli/)
  • recipe (/ˈrɛsəpi/)
  • sesame (/ˈsɛsəmi/)
  • simile (/ˈsɪməli/)
  • syncope (/ˈsɪnkəˌpi/)
E is also pronounced when it occurs at the end of words with a single consonant sound, as in:
  • be (/bi/)
  • he (/hi/)
  • me (/mi/)
  • she (i/)
  • the (ə/ or i/)
  • we (/wi/)
Quiz

1. Which of the following is not a function of silent E?





2. A vowel that precedes a consonant + silent E is most commonly pronounced in which way?





3. How does silent E affect the pronunciation of C and G?





4. In which of the following words is the vowel’s pronunciation not made long by the silent E?





5. What speech sound does E produce when it appears at the end of a word after a consonant + L?





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