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Getting to (K)now Silent Letters

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One of the most confusing aspects of the English language is silent letters. Read on to learn where they came from and what role they play.

Silent letters are difficult to comprehend whether you're a native speaker or English language learner.
Silent letters can be found at the beginning, middle, or end of a word.
What are Silent Letters?

  • Silent letters are letters that don’t correlate with any sound when a particular word is spoken.
  • There are silent vowels and silent consonants.
  • Silent letters can help differentiate homophones (words that sound the same but have different spellings).
  • Some silent letters give insight into the origin of a word.

The English language can be exasperating. For example, sometimes “y” is a vowel, sometimes it’s not. Cough, rough, and though all have very distinct pronunciations. Plus, there are hundreds of new words added to the dictionary every year. But among all the quirks the English language has, perhaps none is as baffling as silent letters.

Yes, there are silent letters. Please don’t shut your laptop in frustration or hurl your mobile phone across the room. This is a first in a series of articles that will bring some order to the chaos and will expand your knowledge on silent letters by providing an honest and thorough explanation about what they are and why they exist.


What Are Silent Letters?

A silent letter is a letter that isn’t heard when a particular word is pronounced. Think of the “b” in subtle, the “a” in bread, and the “h,” in ghost. Almost every word in the alphabet plays the role of a silent letter in at least one word.

It’s best to familiarize yourself with these pesky characters. According to Ursula Dubosarky—author of “The Word Snoop”about 60% of English words contain silent letters. There are silent consonants as well as silent vowels. They can be found at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. Below you’ll find a few examples of silent letters.

Beginning
Middle
End
Gnome
Butcher
Climb
Honest
Muscle
Column
Knock
School
Imagine
Almost every letter in the English alphabet plays the role of a silent letter in at least one word.
60% of English words contain a silent letter.

Why Do Silent Letters Exist?

It may seem like there’s no explanation for the madness that is silent letters. But in fact, there are reasons certain silent letters exist. We’ll visit a few of them.

1) When writing, silent letters can help differentiate homophones.

Take for example hour and our. They are spelled almost the same, but the “h” in hour helps you identify that the word means “60 minutes”.

Hours went by, and still, they never admitted that the tickets were ours.

Another example of these types of homophones are knew and new as well as know, now, and no.

He knew that the new version of the game was going to be more expensive, but he bought it either way.

2) The word came from another language.

Often, a word has a silent letter because it came from another language. For example, tsunami /[t]suːˈnɑːmi/ is a Japanese word. Psychology /saɪˈkɒlədʒi/ has Greek origins. But because “ts” and “ps” don’t follow English phonological rules, the first letter was converted to a silent letter. Rendezvous/ˈrɒndɪvuː/ is another example of a word with origins from a different language. Like the French pronunciation, the “z” and the “s” are silent in English, too.

Silent letters were sometimes added into words by people with strong influeces over the English language.
Printers who had printing presses had a strong influence over the spelling of English words.

This article is just an introduction to these complex letters. If you’re still asking yourself “what is a silent letter,” don’t worry. Remembering when to include them in a word is mostly based on memorization. It’s easy to forget a silent letter if you’re simply spelling it based on phonetics alone. That’s why having a handy writing assistant like LanguageTool is a huge advantage for native speakers and English language learners alike. It will correct your misspelled words (yes, even those that include silent letters), provide synonyms with just a double click, and fix any grammar errors. Before you know it, you will have a knack for silent letters.


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