spelling and pronunciation: silent letters

Vani writes:

Why are some letters silent, as in island?

Roger Woodham replies:

It is because the pronunciation of certain words has changed over the last few hundred years whereas the spelling has remained the same.

It is simply a matter of learning which letters are silent in certain combinations of letters. Here are some of the most common. Check to see how many you know and how many you still need to learn.

In the following examples, all silent letters are given in brackets. They are normally not pronounced. Listen carefully to native English speakers' pronunciation of these words.

    Click here to listen to these words

b: clim(b), com(b), plum(b)er, thum(b)

The plum(b)er's thum(b) got cau(gh)t in his com(b) as he clim(b)ed the ladder.

d: han(d)kerchief, san(d)wich, We(d)nesday

I have san(d)wiches every We(d)nesday and ir(o)n my wais(t)coats in the ev(e)ning.

e: ev(e)ry, ev(e)ning, diff(e)rent, sev(e)ral, int(e)resting, veg(e)table, lit(e)rature, temp(e)rature, p(e)rhaps

He described sev(e)ral diff(e)rent veg(e)tables on his plate.
I didn't find that very int(e)resting, It certainly wasn't lit(e)rature.
P(e)rhaps his body temp(e)rature was too hi(gh).

      Click here to listen to these words  

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

There was no si(g)n of the French champa(g)ne.

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

The hi(gh) and mi(gh)ty were not in si(gh)t that night.
I cau(gh)t some sa(l)mon and brou(gh)t them strai(gh)t to my dau(gh)ter.
My nei(gh)bour asked me how much I wei(gh)ed.

h: (h)onest, (h)our, (h)onour, (h)eir

"I'll be back in an (h)our," said the (h)eiress. But it was not an (h)onest or an (h)onourable ans(w)er.

k: (k)nife, (k)now, (k)nock, (k)not, (k)nee, (k)nuckle, (k)nickers

Did you know she has a (k)nife in her (k)nickers which could damage your (k)nuckles or your (k)nees?

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

He cou(l)d wa(l)k for ha(l)f a mile and ta(l)k ca(l)mly about sa(l)monella poisoning for an (h)our and a half.

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

He (w)rote a dam(n)ing report about the gover(n)ment's handling of the sa(l)monella crisis.

      Click here to listen to these words  

p: cu(p)board, (p)sychiatry/(p)sychology,
(p)sychotherapy, (p)neumonia/(p)neumatic

The (p)sychiatrist recommended (p)sychotherapy. "There's no med(i)cine in your cu(p)board will help you," she said. "Save that for (p)neumonia."

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

Ireland is an i(s)and. The British I(s)les are not part of Ireland.

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

Fas(t)en you sea(t) belts.

How of(t)en do I have to say that? I can see you're not lis(t)ening when you're whis(t)ling.

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

I feel (w)retched," said the (w)restler.

"My (w)rist is all (w)rinkled. I can't (w)rite and who wou(l)d want to wrest(l)e with me now?"


If you want to ask about other words with silent letters look at the in the You, Me and Us part of our website.