The Farlex Grammar Book > English Spelling and Pronunciation > Pronunciation Conventions > Silent Letters
One of the trickiest aspects of English spelling and pronunciation is the presence of many different silent letters. Because English has evolved from several different sources (Latin, Greek, French, German, Old English, etc.), it has had to assimilate the various spelling and pronunciation quirks of all of its predecessors. This has resulted in many instances in which particular letters become silent. While it may seem like such silent letters serve no purpose in a word, this is not strictly true: silent letters can help distinguish two words that are otherwise homophonous, help indicate the meaning or origin of a word, or even help us determine the overall pronunciation of a word.
Silent letters vs. digraphs (and trigraphs and tetragraphs)
Most silent letters are actually part of different combinations that make specific unique speech sounds. These combinations are known as digraphs (two letters), trigraphs (three letters), and, much less commonly, tetragraphs (four letters). These can be made up of vowels, consonants, or a combination of both.
When we talk about silent letters, we are usually talking about silent consonants, as these are much less logical and much harder to predict than silent vowels (most of which are simply part of a vowel digraph, which we won’t cover here). However, there is one silent vowel that has a huge impact on the spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of words and other letters.
By far the best known and most versatile silent letter is silent E (sometimes known as “magic E”). We cover this particular silent letter more in depth in a separate section, but we’ll give a brief overview of its most common functions here.
Dictating words’ pronunciation and meaning
One of the most common purposes of silent E is to help the reader determine the pronunciation of a vowel sound that comes before the previous consonant. In many cases, silent E also helps indicate a difference in meaning between a similarly spelled word that doesn’t have an E at the end. Here are some examples:
Word without Silent E
Word with Silent E
(adj.) Not good or undesirable.
(verb) The simple past tense of bid.
(noun) A topic, subject, or idea.
(verb) To hold onto something.
(verb) To complain in a nagging or petulant manner.
(verb) To jump or leap a short distance.
(verb) To wish for or desire (something).
(noun) A young bear, lion, wolf, or certain other animal.
(noun) A solid shape comprising six equal square faces.
Dictating pronunciation but not meaning
Silent E also has the same effect on pronunciation in words for which there is no E-less alternative:
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/).
In addition to changing vowel sounds, silent E changes the pronunciation of both C and G, indicating when they take their soft pronunciations (/s/ and /ʤ/, respectively). 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:
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
Word with Silent E
(noun) The act of washing the body in water.
(verb) To immerse in water for the purposes of washing; to take a bath.
(noun) An instance of inhaling air into the lungs.
(verb) To inhale air into the lungs.
(noun) Material made from woven or knitted fibers.
(verb) To put on or provide clothing.
(noun) Plural of tooth.
(verb) Of babies, to grow teeth for the first time.
(noun) A ring of entwined flowers, leaves, or other foliage.
(verb) To form into or take the shape of a wreath.
There are a few other functions beyond dictating vowel and consonant pronunciation, so, if you’d like to learn more, see the section on Silent E.
While E is the most commonly recognised silent vowel letter, due to its variety of uses and the spelling rules associated with it, there is another silent vowel with a much less elaborate purpose: U.
U is used in conjunction with Q to help it form the /k/ sound. However, when QU comes before any vowel other than silent E, the U creates a /w/ sound (as in require or quadruple). U is only silent in the QU combination when it appears at the end of a word, in which case it always will be followed by silent E (with the rare exception of a few foreign loan words).
- antique (/ænˈtik/)
- baroque (/bəˈroʊk/)
- bisque (/bɪsk/)
- critique (/krɪˈtik/)
- grotesque (/groʊˈtɛsk/)
- mystique (/mɪˈstik/)
- physique (/fɪˈsik/)
- plaque (/plæk/)
- statuesque (/ˌstætʃ uˈɛsk/)
- technique (/tɛkˈnik/)
- torque (/toʊrk/)
- unique (/juˈnik/)
This pattern also occurs when U follows G at the end of words—in fact, it happens much more often. Most of the time, it results in a “hard” G sound, /g/, but there are a few instances in which silent U follows the digraph NG, /ŋ/:
- analogue (/ˈænəlˌɔg/)
- brogue (/broʊg/)
- catalogue (/ˈkætəlˌɔg/)
- colleague (/ˈkɑlig/)
- dialogue (/ˈdaɪəˌlɔg/)
- epilogue (/ˈɛpəˌlɔg/)
- fatigue (/fəˈtig/)
- harangue (/həˈræŋ/)
- intrigue (/ɪnˈtrig/)
- league (/lig/)
- plague (/pleɪg/)
- rogue (/roʊg/)
- tongue (/tʌŋ/)
- vague (/veɪg/)
- vogue (/voʊg/)
(Note that analogue, catalogue, dialogue, and homologue are all commonly spelled without UE in American English—analog, catalog, dialog, and homolog.)
Unlike QU, though, GU can result in a silent U in various positions within a word, rather than just at the end. In fact, U is often silent if it follows G and precedes another vowel, especially E and I:
However, this pattern is not a concrete rule, and U is often pronounced as /w/ or /ju/ in these same letter patterns in other words—for instance, guava (/ˈgwɑvə/), segue (/ˈsɛɡweɪ/), linguist (/ˈlɪŋɡwɪst/), ambiguous (/æmˈbɪɡjʊəs/), etc. Fortunately, U is more likely to be silent in these sequences than not, but it is important to be aware that this spelling convention is not always consistent.
Finally, U can be silent in a few words after other consonants, though these are much less common than Q or G. For example:
- biscuiit (/ˈbɪskɪt/)
- build (/bɪld/)
- buoyant (/ˈbɔɪənt/)
- buy (/baɪ/)
- circuit (/ˈsɜrkɪt/)
- fluoride (/ˈflɔraɪd/)
Because consonants generally make distinct speech sounds (unlike vowels, which can be malleable and inconsistent, depending on the word), it is much more striking when they are silent in a word, because it looks quite odd to the eye.
We’ll first look at instances in which individual letters are silent, due to a word’s etymological origin or evolution of pronunciation; further on, we’ll talk about when consonants become silent due to doubling.
Silent B is usually the result of how a given word evolved from blends of Latin, Old English, and/or French. Sometimes, as in the word doubt, the silent B was added to the word to help it resemble Latin or draw a clearer connection to a related Latin term (in this case, dubitare, from which dubious is derived). In other cases, such as limb or thumb, the silent B doesn’t have a clear etymological explanation at all—it’s just an oddity we have to remember.
Most often, B is silent when it follows the letter M. Less commonly, silent B can occur when B precedes the letter T. For example:
C often becomes silent when it comes after the letter S and is followed by E or I. Like silent B, these Cs come from the Latin origins of the words, in which SC was pronounced /sk/. Over time, the pronunciation dropped the hard /k/ sound made by C, but the spelling remained the same. For example:
S + C + E
S + C + I
(/ˈmʌsəl/; LE here produces a sound like EL)
We can also think of C as silent in the consonant clusters CK and CQ, since they are both pronounced /k/ with or without C. Here are a few examples of each:
Finally, C is sometimes silent in the words arctic (/ˈɑrktɪk/, /ˈɑrtɪk/) and antarctic (/æntˈɑrktɪk/, /æntˈɑrtɪk/), but this depends on regional dialect as well as personal preference.
There are almost no words in which D is truly silent. Instead, when D appears in a large consonant cluster (especially when it appears after N), it is occasionally left unpronounced. For example:
- handkerchief (/ˈhæŋkərʧɪf/)
- handsome (/ˈhænsəm/)
- grandfather (/ˈgrænfɑðər/)
- grandmother (/ˈgræ[n]mʌðər/; N is also sometimes silent)
- granddaughter (/ˈgrændɔtər/; first D is silent, but second D is pronounced)
- grandson (/ˈgrænsʌn/)
- sandwich (/ˈsænwɪʧ/)
(Note that, for most of these words, the D may be pronounced in some dialects but left out in others.)
The only word in which D is silent due to the evolution of a word’s spelling is the notorious Wednesday (/ˈwɛnzdeɪ/). It is derived from Old English wodnesdæg, which originally did pronounce the D.
When G comes after N, they form a specific digraph that creates the phoneme /ŋ/, as in sing (/sɪŋ/) or strong (/strɔŋ/).
When G comes before the letter N, the two letters are typically pronounced separately. However, G occasionally becomes silent in certain words that were derived from French, Italian, or Old English. For example:
- align (/əˈlaɪn/)
- arraign (/əˈreɪn/)
- assign (/əˈsaɪn/)
- benign (/bəˈnaɪn/)
- bologna (/bəˈloʊni/)
- campaign (/kæmˈpeɪn/)
- champagne (/ʃæmˈpeɪn/)
- consign (/kənˈsaɪn/)
- deign (/deɪn/)
- design (/dəˈzaɪn/)
- feign (/feɪn/)
- foreign (/ˈfɔrɪn/)
- gnarl (/nærl/)
- gnash (/næʃ/)
- gnat (/næt/)
- gnaw (/nɔ/)
- gnome (/noʊm/)
- impugn (/ɪmˈpjun/)
- lasagna (/ləˈzɑnjə/)
- malign (/məˈlaɪn/)
- poignant (/ˈpɔɪnjənt/)
- reign (/reɪn/)
- resign (/rəˈzaɪn/)
- sign (/saɪn/)
- sovereign (/ˈsɑvrɪn/)
- vignette (/vɪˈnjɛt/)
Note, however, that in several of the verbs ending in “-gn,” G will cease being silent when the suffixes “-ant,” “-atory,” or “-ation” are attached to the end of the word. For instance:
- assign→assignation (/ˌæsɪgˈneɪʃən/)
- benign→benignant (/bɪˈnɪgnənt/); benignity (/bɪˈnɪgnɪti/)
- consign→consignation (/ˌkɑnsɪgˈneɪʃən/)
- design→designation (/ˌdɛzɪgˈneɪʃən/)
- malign→malignant (/məˈlɪgnənt/); malignity (/məˈlɪgnɪti/)
- resign→resignation (/ˌrɛzɪgˈneɪʃən/)
- sign→signatory (/ˈsɪgnəˌtɔri/)
If you’re wondering if a word features a silent G, try saying it with one of these suffixes attached and see if a /g/ sound arises.
H is also occasionally silent at the beginnings of certain words. The spelling of the word on its own is usually not enough to dictate whether H is pronounced or silent, though, so we simply have to memorize such words. For the sake of comparison, let’s look at some examples of words where H is either pronounced or silent:
H is pronounced
H is silent
(*This pronunciation is most common in American English. In British English, the H is usually pronounced: /hɛrb/.)
Silent H can also appear mid word or at the end of a word, but only when it appears between two vowels (though not all words follow this convention) or else when a word ends with a vowel followed by H. For example:
(/ˈgreɪəm/ or /græm/)
(*The H is silent in vehicle for the vast majority of English speakers, but in some dialects it may also be pronounced: /ˈvihɪkəl/.)
While it is certainly not uncommon for H to be silent on its own, it is much more commonly silent when it occurs after other consonants.
Silent H in CH
The most common sound made by the digraph CH is /ʧ/, as in achieve (/əˈʧiv/) or reach (/riʧ/). Less commonly, the H essentially becomes silent, and the digraph 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:
There are only a few standard words that end in CH pronounced as /k/, such as stomach (/ˈstʌmək/) and triptych (/ˈtrɪptɪk/). 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 /ʃ/ rather than /sk/: /ˈʃɛdjuːl/.)
Silent H in GH
Less commonly, the H in the digraph becomes silent, so it simply makes the sound of “hard” G (/g/):
- afghan (/ˈæfɡæn/)
- aghast (/əˈgæst/)
- ghastly (/ˈgæstli/)
- gherkin (/ˈgɜrkɪn/)
- ghetto (/ˈgɛtoʊ/)
- ghost (/goʊst/)
- ghoul (/gul/)
- spaghetti (/spəˈgɛti/)
- yoghurt (/ˈyoʊgərt/; more commonly spelled yogurt in American English)
Silent H in RH
The commonest occurrences of silent H are in the pair RH (pronounced /r/). Most of the time, this combination appears at the beginning of a word. Many of these are specialized terms that come from mathematics, botany, anatomy, or medicine, so we’ll just look at those that are more likely to appear in everyday speech or writing:
- rhapsody (/ˈræpsədi/)
- rhetoric (/ˈrɛtərɪk/)
- rheumatic (/rʊˈmætɪk/)
- rheumatoid (/ˈruməˌtɔɪd/)
- rhinoceros (/raɪˈnɑsərəs/)
- rhinoplasty (/ˈraɪnoʊˌplæsti/)
- rhinovirus (/ˌraɪnoʊˈvaɪrəs/)
- rhodium (/ˈroʊdiəm/)
- rhombus (/ˈrɑmbəs/)
- rhomboid (/ˈrɑmbɔɪd/)
- rhubarb (/ˈrubɑrb/)
- rhyme (/raɪm/)
- rhythm (/ˈrɪðəm/)
RH can also appear in the middle of words, mostly medical terminology. In each of these, RH is preceded by another R, and the whole cluster (RRH) is pronounced /r/:
- arrhythmia (/əˈrɪðmiə/)
- catarrh (/kəˈtɑr/)
- cirrhosis (/sɪˈroʊsɪs/)
- diarrhea (/ˌdaɪəˈriə/)
- hemorrhage (/ˈhɛmərɪdʒ/)
- hemorrhoid (/ˈhɛməˌrɔɪd/)
- myrrh (/mɜr/)
- pyorrhea (/ˌpaɪəˈriə/)
- seborrhea (/ˌsɛbəˈriə/)
Silent H in WH
Modern English words beginning with WH are almost all derived from Old English, in which they were originally spelled HW. Over time, the position of the letters reversed, and the digraph came to represent the /w/ sound, with H becoming silent. This spelling pattern seems to have influenced other words with initial /w/ sounds that were from languages other than Old English, too (such as whip). For instance:
While not common in modern English, some dialects do still pronounce the H very subtly—though it comes before the /w/ sound, producing the phoneme /hw/ as a reflection of the Old English origin. Here are just few examples of these terms with the alternative pronunciation:
- whack (/hwæk/)
- what (/hwʌt/)
- where (/hwɛr/)
- when (/hwɛn/)
- why (/hwaɪ/)
- which (/hwɪʧ/)
- wheel (/hwil/)
- whisper (/ˈhwɪspər/)
- white (/hwaɪt/)
Finally, it’s important to remember that a few words beginning “who-” are pronounced /hu-/ or /hoʊ-/ rather than /wu-/ or /woʊ-/. Luckily, there are very few of these. For example:
- who (/hu/)
- whole (/hoʊl/)
- whom (/hum/)
- whose (/huz/)
Silent H in XH
One last pair of consonants in which H usually becomes silent is XH. This combination also results in the pronunciation of X changing from /ks/ to /gz/ (a pattern that often occurs when X appears between two vowels). For example:
- exhaust (/ɪgˈzɔst/)
- exhibit (/ɪgˈzɪbɪt/)
- exhilarate (/ɪgˈzɪləˌreɪt/)
- exhort (/ɪgˈzɔrt/)
- exhume (/ɪgˈzum/)
Note that there is one exception: exhale (/ɛksˈheɪl/). This pronunciation also carries over to any terms derived from exhale, such as exhalant or exhalation.
K becomes silent if it appears before the letter N at the beginning of a word. This KN spelling is a relic of Middle English—itself derived from Germanic origins. While the original pronunciation reflected the two letters more closely, it became simplified in modern English to the /n/ sound. For example:
- knack (/næk/)
- knapsack (/ˈnæpˌsæk/)
- knave (/neɪv/)
- knead (/nid/)
- knee (/ni/)
- kneel (/nil/)
- knell (/nɛl/)
- knickers (/nɪkərz/)
- knife (/naɪf/)
- knight (/naɪt/)
- knit (/nɪt/)
- knock (/nɑk/)
- knot (/nɑt/)
- know (/noʊ/)
- knuckle (/ˈnʌkəl)
L sometimes becomes silent when it appears after the letter A and before the consonants F, V, K, and M, as well as before D after the vowels OU. Almost all of these instances of silent L occur when the combination appears at the end of the word; ALF, ALV, etc., appearing at the beginning or middle of a word will usually feature a non-silent L.
In some cases, this silent L elongates or otherwise modifies the vowel sound that comes before it, giving the slight impression of an /l/ sound without being distinctly pronounced. Here are a few common examples:
(An exception to the ALV pattern above is the word valve— /vælv/.)
Similar to the ALK pattern above, the word caulk is pronounced (/kɔk/). In fact, because of this similarity, it has a variant spelling of calk (likewise, balk has a variant spelling of baulk).
Finally, silent L also appears before K in two other words: folk and yolk, both of which originate in Old English. In these words, the appearance of L lets us know that O will have a “long” pronunciation as seen in words like poke or stoke: folk is pronounced /foʊk/ and yolk is pronounced /joʊk/.
There is one word that features a silent M: mnemonic. Here, the N is pronounced but not the M: (/nɪˈmɑnɪk/). This pronunciation also is true for the adverbial form of the word, mnemonically (/nɪˈmɑnɪk[ə]li/).
N becomes silent when it appears after M at the end of a word. For example:
- autumn (/ˈɔtəm/)
- condemn (/kənˈdɛm/)
- column (/ˈkɑləm/)
- hymn (/hɪm/)
- solemn (/ˈsɑləm/)
Note that N is pronounced in these words when they take certain vowel suffixes, such as “-al,” “-ation,” and “-ist”:
- autumn→autumnal (/ɔˈtʌmnəl/)
- condemn→condemnation (/ˌkəndɛmˈneɪʃən/)
- column→columnist (/ˈkɑləmnɪst/)
- hymn→hymnal (/ˈhɪmn/), hymnist (/ˈhɪmnɪst/)
- solemn→solemnify (/səˈlɛmnɪfaɪ/), solemnity (/səˈlɛmnɪti/)
Occasionally, P can be silent when it is followed by the letters N, S, or T, usually in certain letter combinations that come from words of Greek origin or influence. For example:
(*It’s important to note that psyche is used as a prefix, “psych-” [derived from Greek “psykhe-”], which is used to create many other terms, such as psychiatry, psychic, psychology, psychopath, psychotherapy, etc. In each of these, P remains silent.)
Aside from words derived from Greek roots, silent P occurs in a handful of other words:
- cupboard (/ˈkʌbərd/)
- raspberry (/ˈræzˌbɛri/)
- corps (/kɔr/; both P and S are silent, unless the word is plural, in which case S is pronounced /z/)
- coup (/ku/)
- receipt (/rɪˈsit/)
In the first two terms, P is made silent through a process called elision—the /p/ sound was initially present (as they were originally compound words of cup + board and raspis + berry), but because it is difficult to individually pronounce /p/ and /b/ next to each other in the same word, /p/ has been naturally omitted. The other three words come from French (which determines the pronunciation) via Latin (which determines the spelling).
Finally, there are some words in which P tends to become silent in everyday speech when it appears in the consonant cluster MPT. (Just be aware that this omission of the /p/ sound may be considered poor or improper diction by some.) For example:
- assumption (/əˈsʌmʃən/; more properly, /əˈsʌmpʃən/)
- contempt (/kənˈtɛmt/; more properly, /kənˈtɛmpt/)
- empty (/ˈɛmti/; more properly, /ˈɛmpti/)
- exempt (/ɪɡˈzɛmt/; more properly, /ɪɡˈzɛmpt/)
- prompt (/prɑmt/; more properly, /prɑmpt/)
- tempt (/tɛmt/; more properly, /tɛmpt/)
- redemption (/rɪˈdɛmʃən/; more properly, /rɪˈdɛmpʃən/)
The letter T sometimes follows the pattern of P in cupboard and raspberry in that it becomes silent due to the complexity of the consonant sounds around it. This occurs in some words when T comes after the letter S and is followed by a reduced vowel sound, known as a schwa (/ə/), most commonly with the ending LE, and, less commonly, EN:
ST + LE
ST + EN
This same pattern is why T is silent in the words soften (/ˈsɔfən/), often (/ˈɔfən/),* and Christmas /ˈkrɪsməs/.
(*Depending on regional dialect or personal preference, the T is sometimes pronounced in pestle [/ˈpɛstəl/] and often [/ˈɔftən/].)
Silent T in French loanwords
Certain loanwords that come from French maintain a silent T at the end of the word. For instance:
- ballet (/bæˈleɪ/)
- bouquet (/buˈkeɪ/)
- gourmet (/gʊərˈmeɪ/)
- valet (/væˈleɪ/)
Other instances of silent T
T is also silent in the word mortgage (/ˈmɔrgəʤ/), which comes from the French term morgage, derived from Old French mort gaige, based on the Latin mortus. The English spelling reintroduced the T to be closer to Latin, but the pronunciation remained the same as the French.
Another odd instance of silent T is the word boatswain, pronounced /ˈboʊsən/ (note that W also becomes silent). This strange pronunciation is the result of a similar process that led to the silent T in Christmas or soften. Quite simply, the cluster of consonants is rather arduous to pronounce individually, so, over time, the trickier T and W sounds were elided (skipped over vocally).
In fact, because the pronunciation is so drastically different from its spelling, boatswain has a variant spelling of bosun to better reflect the modern pronunciation.
Luckily, this is a nautical term that isn’t likely to appear in everyday speech or writing, but it’s still worth knowing the correct pronunciation of the word.
W, like Y, is considered a semi-vowel, which means that it can behave either like a vowel or a consonant depending on its position and function in a word. For example, it is functioning like a vowel when it pairs with other vowels to form vowel digraphs, as in low (/loʊ/), draw (/drɔ/), stew (/stu/), etc.; when W is used to articulate a distinct speech sound, as in work (/wɜrk/), it is functioning as a consonant.
However, W can also appear alongside several other consonants, and, in these combinations, W is not pronounced at all. This is due to the Old English origin of the words; W was pronounced initially, but as the pronunciation of the language evolved, it was eventually elided from speech.
Silent W in WR
By far the most common occurrence of silent W is when it comes before the consonant R. Notwithstanding compound words and those formed using prefixes, WR always appears at the beginning of words. For instance:
- wrack (/ræk/)
- wrangle (/ˈræŋɡəl/)
- wrap (/ræp/)
- wrath (/ræθ/)
- wreak (/rik/)
- wreath (/riθ/)
- wreck (/rɛk/)
- wrestle (/ˈrɛsəl/)
- wrist (/rɪst/)
- write (/raɪt/)
- wrong (/rɔŋ/)
- wrung (/rʌŋ/)
Silent W in WH
This occurs in some words beginning with WH when it is followed by O, as in:
- who (/hu/)
- whole (/hoʊl/)
- whom (/hum/)
- whose (/huz/)
Other Silent Ws
Finally, there are a few words in which W is silent after another consonant:
- answer (/ˈænsər/)
- boatswain* (/ˈboʊsən/; note that T is also silent in this word)
- coxswain* (/ˈkɒksən/)
- gunwale* (/ˈɡʌnəl/)
- sword (/sɔrd/)
- two (/tu/)
(*The rather odd pronunciation of these three terms stems from their nautical origin, as seafarers evolved the pronunciation to suit their own preferences.)
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the digraph TH (which makes the sounds /θ/, as in bath, or /ð/, as in them) is always silent in two words:
- asthma (/ˈæzmə/)
- isthmus (/ˈɪsməs/)
Like P in empty, TH is sometimes made silent in everyday speech through casual elision—that is, the “proper” pronunciation includes the speech sound, but it is common in everyday speech to omit it (or glide over it quickly enough that it is indistinct). For TH, this occasionally happens when it is adjacent to S (like the two previous examples). For instance:
- clothes (/kloʊz/; more properly, /kloʊðz/)
- depths (/dɛps/; more properly, /dɛpθs/)
- months (/mʌns/; more properly, /mʌnθs/)
Silent doubled consonants
While there are many single consonants that are silent among others in a word, there are far more that are silent because there are two in a row when only one is needed to establish the correct consonant sound.
Doubling consonants at the ends of words
Many words have a doubled consonant at the end to help determine their meaning and pronunciation. In some cases, this doubled consonant distinguishes the word from another word with the same pronunciation. Other times, it simply indicates that the preceding vowel has a “short” sound.
(Certain vowels can be doubled in a similar way at the end of a word, but, because they comprise vowel digraphs with varying pronunciations, we have not included them here.)
The most common consonants to be doubled in this way are F, L, and (by far the most common) S; however, other consonants can appear doubled at the end of words as well. There are far too many examples to list here, but let’s look at a few:
add (extra D distinguishes it from the noun ad, short for advertisement)
butt (short for buttocks, but the extra T also helps distinguish it from the conjunction but)
err (extra R distinguishes it from the interjection er)
inn (extra N distinguishes it from the preposition in)
miss (extra S distinguishes it from the prefix “mis-”)
off (extra F distinguishes it from the preposition of)
(*The first doubled S in assess is due to the word’s Latin origin, assessare, which stems from a combination of the inflected prefix ad- and the root word sedere.)
Doubling consonants with Latin prefixes
Many words are derived from a combination of Latin roots and prefixes, and the final letter of certain Latin prefixes changes to match the first letter (or sound) of the root to which the prefix attaches. Note that many of these changes do not result in a silent consonant (for example, in- becomes im- in imbue). So, for the sake of conciseness, we’ll only look at those prefixes whose changes create doubled silent letters; for more detailed information about the variations of certain Latin prefixes, go to the section on Prefixes.
To; toward; near to; in the direction or vicinity of.
ac- before roots beginning q-
af- before roots beginning with f-
ag- before roots beginning with g-
al- before roots beginning with l-
an- before roots beginning with n-
ap- before roots beginning with p-
as- before roots beginning with s-
at- before roots beginning with t-
(Ad- can also change to ac- before c-, but this changes the consonants’ sounds (-cc- is pronounced /-ks-/), whereas C is truly silent in acq-.)
(ac-): acquaint, acquiesce, acquire, acquit
(af-): affair, affect, affirm, affix
(ag-): aggrandize, aggravate, aggress
(al-): allege, allot, allow, allure
(an-): annex, annihilate, annotate, announce
(ap-): appall, appeal, applaud, apply, approve
(as-): assail, assault, assemble, assert, assign
(at-): attain, attempt, attire, attribute, attract
Together; together with; joint; jointly; mutually. Also used as an intensifier.
com- before roots beginning with m-
col- before roots beginning with l-
cor- before roots beginning with r-
con- before roots beginning with n-
(com-): command, commingle, commiserate, commit
(col-): collaborate, collapse, colleague, collect, collide, collude
(con-): connect, connive, connotation
(cor-): correct, correlate, correspond, corrode, corrupt
Away; from; outward; out of; upwards.
Becomes ef- before f-
efface, effect, effeminate, effort
1. Not; non-; opposite of; without.
2. Into; in; on; upon.
il- before roots beginning with l-
im- before roots beginning with m-
ir- before roots beginning with r-
(il-): illegal, illiterate, illogical, illuminate, illusion, illustrate
(im-): immaculate, immaterial, immature, immediate, immigrate, immobile
(in-): innocent, innocuous, innervate, innovate, innuendo
(ir-): irradiate, irrational, irreparable, irreversible, irrigate
1. To; toward; across; away from; over.
2. Against; before; blocking; facing, concealing.
oc- before roots beginning with c-
of- before roots beginning with f-
op- before roots beginning with p-
(oc-): occasion, occult, occupy, occur
(of-): offer, offend
(op-): opponent, oppress, opportune
1. Under; below; beneath; outside or outlying.
2. At a secondary or lower position in a hierarchy.
3. Incompletely or imperfectly; partially; less than, almost, or nearly.
4. Forming a smaller part of a larger whole.
5. Up to; up from under or beneath.
sup- before roots beginning with p-
sur- before roots beginning with r-
(Sub- can also change to suc- before c- and sug- before g-, but this changes the consonants’ sounds [-cc- is pronounced /-ks-/, and -gg- is pronounced /-dʒ-/], rather than one letter becoming silent.)
(sup-): supplicate, suppose, support, suppress, supply
(sur-): surreptitious, surrogate
Because most vowel suffixes are able to replace silent E by preserving the root word’s pronunciation and meaning, we often have to double the final consonant of a root word when it precedes a vowel suffix to avoid confusion. This is especially true for single-syllable root words, but it occurs in certain words with two or more syllables as well. (We cover this more in depth in a separate section, so we’ll just give a brief overview here.)
Doubling the final consonant in single-syllable words
When a single-syllable word ends in a vowel + a consonant, we almost always double the consonant when a vowel suffix is attached; if we don’t, we end up with the suffixed forms of root words that originally ended in silent E (or look as though they did). For example:
Correctly Suffixed Words
Incorrectly Suffixed Words
(looks like the root word is bare)
(looks like the root word is dote)
hopped, hopper, hopping, hoppy
hoped, hoper, hoping, hopy
(looks like the root word is hope)
jogged, jogger, jogging
joged, joger, joging
(looks like the root word is joge)
madden, madder, maddest
maden, mader, madest
(looks like the root word is made)
stoppable, stopped, stopper, stopping
stopable, stoped, stoper, stoping
(looks like the root word is stope)
We only follow this pattern when a word has a single syllable, a single short vowel, and ends with a single consonant—we don’t double consonants for words that end in consonant clusters or digraphs (e.g., dark→darken) or those that have vowel digraphs in the middle (e.g., steam→steamed). We also never double the consonant X, as it technically forms two distinct consonant sounds joined as one, /ks/.
Doubling the consonant when the final syllable is emphasized
When a word has two or more syllables, we almost always double the final consonant before a vowel suffix when the final syllable is vocally stressed. In the examples below, the stressed syllables are shown in bold, with the IPA pronunciation included beneath each root word.
Emphasis on final syllable
Emphasis on other syllable
forfeited, forfeiting, forfeiture
incurrable, incurred, incurring
interpreted, interpreter, interpreting
opened, opener, opening
transmittable, transmitted, transmitting
traveled, traveler, traveling*
(*In American English, L is not doubled at the end of words in which the vocal stress is on the first syllable. In British English, though, it is much more common to double the final L regardless of which syllable is stressed, though this doesn’t happen to any other letters. Go to the section on American vs. British English Spelling to learn more about such differences.)
Get all volumes of The Farlex Grammar Book in paperback or eBook.