Definition and Examples of Silent Letters in English

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In English pronunciation, silent letter is an informal term for a letter of the alphabet (or a letter combination) that's usually left unpronounced, such as the b in subtle, the c in scissors, the g in design, the t in listen, and the gh in thought. Also called a dummy letter.

According to Ursula Dubosarsky, roughly "60 percent of words in English have a silent letter in them" (The Word Snoop, 2009).

Examples and Observations

  • The letter combination gh is silent in the following words: bought, caught, dough, eight, flight, high, right, sleigh, sigh, taught, thought.
  • Different Kinds of Silent Letters
    Edward Carney, author of A Survey of English Spelling [see below; revised 2012], distinguishes two kinds of silent letters: auxiliary and dummy.
    "Auxiliary letters are part of a group of letters that spell a sound that does not have a usual single letter to represent it. For example,
    /th/ thing
    /th/ there
    /sh/ share
    /zh/ treasure
    /ng/ song
    Dummy letters have two subgroups: inert letters and empty letters. Inert letters are letters that in a given word segment are sometimes heard and sometimes not heard. For example,
    resign (g is not heard)
    resignation (g is heard)
    malign (g is not heard)
    malignant (g is heard)
    Empty letters are letters that do not have a function like auxiliary letters or inert letters. The letter u in the word gauge is empty. Here are some examples of silent consonants:
    Silent b: dumb, thumb
    Silent c: indict
    Silent ch: yacht
    Silent d: bridge, ledge, edge
    Silent g: foreign, sign, design, assign
    Silent h: rhinoceros, spaghetti
    Silent k: knee, knit, knob, know, knuckle
    Silent l: calf, talk, could, should, would
    Silent m: mnemonic
    Silent n: autumn, column
    Silent p: raspberry, receipt
    Silent t: castle, listen, whistle
    Silent w: answer, wrap, wreath, wreck, wring, wrong, write
    "There are no rules that we can apply to words with empty letters[;] you just have to use them and remember their spelling."
    (Jeffrey Strausser and José Paniza, Painless English for Speakers of Other Languages. Barron's, 2007)

    Silent Consonants

    "Silent consonant letters constitute one of the problem areas in respect to pronunciation of English words. To solve some of the problems of the learners, a few spelling sequences containing silent letters are discussed below:

    (i) b is always silent in the spelling sequences mb and bt occurring in the word-final position: comb, numb, bomb, limb, debt . . ..

    (ii) d is always silent in the spelling sequence dj: adjective, adjunct, adjacent . . ..

    (iii) g is silent in the spelling sequence gm or gn: phlegm, gnarl, champagne, sign, gnat, gnaw . . ..

    (iv) h is silent in the spelling sequence gh and in the word-final position: ghost, ghetto, aghast, ghastly, ah, eh, oh.

    (v) k is always silent in the word-initial spelling sequence kn: kneel, knee, knob, knight, knave, knowledge, knife, knock."

    (J. Sethi et al., Practical Course in English Pronunciation. PHI, 2004)

    Little Ghosts
    "English spelling is haunted by what William Watt calls 'the little ghosts of silent letters.' Indeed, it has been estimated that two thirds of our lexicon is populated with these mischievous specters, leading Thorstein Veblen to proclaim: 'English orthography satisfies all the requirements of the canons of reputability under the law of conspicuous waste."
    (Richard Lederer, Crazy English. Pocket Books, 1989)

    Silent Letters and the Classical Revival

    "As the influence of the Classical world was revived in the 15th century, scholars of English desired to remind their readers that most of the words in the language originated in Latin and Greek. To show off their knowledge that doubt, then spelled 'dout' because it came into medieval English via French doute, derived originally from Latin dubitare they added the — and it stuck. In its way, it was a nationalistic gesture, reasserting the Classical origins of English over Dutch, French, German and Norse influences of the intervening millennium since Roman influence waned in Britain from the fifth century and Anglo-Saxon languages began to infiltrate."
    (Ned Halley, Dictionary of Modern English Grammar.

    Wordsworth, 2005)

    "Another important thing to know is that quite a few of today's silent letters have not always been so quiet. The word knight, for example, used to be pronounced in English with the k and the gh sounded out (ke-nee-g-hht), as were many of the silent e's and l's. And the silent w in words like wreck or write was originally there to show a funny sort of Old English r sound that was different from the the ordinary r. But over time the way people spoke English changed, even though the spelling didn't.

    "And don't forget The Great Vowel Shift . . .."
    (Ursula Dubosarsky, The Word Snoop. Dial Books, 2009)

    Silent Letters and Spelling Reform: -e

    "Empty letters are naturally a target for spelling reformers, but one should not rush in with the scissors too hastily. A favorite target is final [-e].

    The instances of [-e] at the end of copse, bottle, file, giraffe, are often referred to as 'silent' letters, but they are very different. The [-e] of copse marks the word as different from the plural cops. The word bottle cannot sensibly be spelt as *bottl, since syllabic consonants are always spelt with a vowel letter and a consonant letter, except for sm in sarcasm, prism. Similarly it might be thought that file could be spelt *fil. It would still be different from fill, as it is in filing, filling. However, some degree of redundancy is essential to human language . . .. Even the [-e] at the end of giraffe has something to be said in its favour. It can be said to mark the unusual final stress of the noun as in the [-CCe] of brunette, cassette, corvette, largesse, bagatelle, gazelle."
    (Edward Carney, A Survey of English Spelling. Routledge, 1994)

    The Lighter Side of Silent Letters

    "A man walked into a travel agency in New Delhi, and said to an agent, 'I wish to purchase an airplane ticket to the Netherlands. I must go to the Haig-you.'

    "'Oh, you foolish man. Not "Haig-you." You mean "The Hague."'
    "'I am the customer and you are the clerk,' replied the man. "Do as I ask, and hold your tung-you.'
    "'My, my, you really are quite illiterate,' laughed the agent. 'It is not "tung-you." It is "tongue."'
    "'Just sell me the ticket, you cheeky fellow. I am not here to arg.'"
    (Adapted from Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters by Ted Cohen. The University of Chicago Press, 1999)

    Mr. Loobertz: We put the "cool" in "school."
    Special Agent G. Callen: Wouldn't that be "chool"?

    Mr. Loobertz: The "h" is silent.
    Special Agent G. Callen: I'm in ell.
    (Lew Temple and Chris O'Donnell, "Full Throttle." NCIS: Los Angeles, 2010)

    "Who would shoot a gnome? And why is the 'g' silent?"
    (Holly Marie Combs as Piper Halliwell in "Charmed Noir." Charmed, 2004)

    Lt. Randall Disher: First letter, "t" as in "tsunami."
    Captain Leland Stottlemeyer: Tsumani?
    Lt. Randall Disher: Silent "t."
    Captain Leland Stottlemeyer: What? No. "T" as in "Tom." Just say "Tom."
    Lt. Randall Disher: What's the difference?
    Captain Leland Stottlemeyer: It doesn't. The "t" is silent.
    Lt. Randall Disher: It's not completely silent. "Tsumami."
    (Jason Gray-Stanford and Ted Levine in "Mr. Monk and the Daredevil." Monk, 2007)