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Silent Letters – Video

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In this lesson, you can learn about silent letters in English.

Think about words like know, climb, or answer. They all have silent letters: letters which are written, but not pronounced.

Do you know which letters are silent in these three words?

In this lesson, you’ll learn more about silent letters, so that your pronunciation in English can be clear and correct!

QUIZ: Silent Letters

Test your knowledge of the vocabulary and ideas from this lesson. There are 20 questions in this quiz – most of them contain words you saw in the lesson but in later questions, you’ll see new words.

Some of the questions use phonemic script, as you saw in the lesson. If you want to check the transcription of any word and listen to how it’s pronounced, use an online dictionary. Or, to learn more about how to read IPA, watch this free lesson.

When you have finished the quiz, click ‘View Questions’ to see all the correct answers.

1. Silent Letters at the Beginning of a Word

Silent Letters in English (English Pronunciation Lesson) - silent image

Right, so do you know any words which start with a silent letter?

You should; there was one in the question I just asked you!

The word know starts with a silent letter: you say /nəʊ/ and not /knəʊ/.

There are other words like this, which start with ‘kn’, but the ‘k’ is not pronounced. Can you think of any?

Other examples are knee, knife, or knock.

Another common silent letter at the start of a word is ‘h’.

You can see this in words like hour or honest.

Finally, what do you call a doctor who treats mental illnesses?

This doctor is a psychiatrist.

In words like psychiatrist, which begin with ‘ps’, the ‘p’ is silent.

These words are often more academic words. For example: psychology or pseudonym. There aren’t so many everyday words starting with ‘ps’.

So now you know three ways a word can start with a silent letter:

  • ‘kn’, like know, knee, knife, or knock
  • ‘h’, like honest or hour
  • ‘ps’, like psychiatrist, psychology or pseudonym

2. Silent Letters in the Middle of a Word

You can also find silent letters in the middle of a word.

Here, there are many letters which can be silent.

Let’s do a test. I’m going to show you five words. Can you find the silent letters?

Do you know the answers? Let’s look together.

The ‘b’ in debt is silent: /det/.

The ‘i’ in business is silent: /’bɪznəs/. This is unusual, because normally, silent letters are consonants. However, vowels can sometimes be silent, too.

The ‘l’ in half is silent: /hɑːf/.

The ‘p’ in receipt is silent: /rə’siːt/.

And lastly, the ‘w’ in answer is silent: /’ɑnsə/.

Did you get the right answers?

You can see that many different letters can be silent, and that silent letters can be anywhere in the word.

So how do you know if a letter is silent or not?

With silent letters in the middle of a word, there aren’t really rules.

The best way is to write down the words with the phonetics. English spelling is not logical at all. Using phonetics to write down vocabulary will help you remember the correct pronunciation.

For example, if you look at the word answer, you might try to read the ‘w’.

But if you use the phonetics, you can see that there’s no /w/ sound: /’ɑːnsə/.

Let’s do some more practice. Look at five more words.

  • muscle
  • should
  • island
  • guitar
  • sword

Can you find the silent letters?

Let’s practise the pronunciation: muscle, should, island, guitar, sword.

So now, you’ve seen many of the common English words which have a silent letter in the middle.

3. Silent Letters at the End of a Word

You can also find silent letters at the end of a word.

Here, things are a bit more regular; there are patterns you can find.

What’s this?

Is it my /θʌm/ or my /θʌmb/?

It’s my thumb. The ‘b’ is silent.

In other words ending –mb, the ‘b’ is also silent: climb, limb, bomb.

There are also a few words ending –mn, and the ‘n’ is silent, like autumn or damn.

Finally, there are also some French words which are used in English, like ballet, buffet or gourmet.

With these words, you use the French pronunciation, so you say /bæ’leɪ/ and not /’bælət/.

What about words like rate, site, or cope? Those end with a silent ‘e’, right?

Yes and no.

4. How ‘Silent’ Letters Can Change the Pronunciation of a Word

Sometimes, the line between a silent letter and a non-silent letter can be hard to draw.

This isn’t always true: think about the word autumn. The ‘n’ is completely silent. You could take it away and you would still pronounce the word the same way.

Now, think about the word site. You might say that the ‘e’ is silent.

However, if the ‘e’ wasn’t there, you would pronounce the word /sɪt/, as in ‘sit down’.

So sometimes, silent letters aren’t completely silent. ‘Silent’ letters can change the pronunciation of a word, even if you don’t pronounce the letter itself.

Look at five pairs of words, and think about how the ‘e’ on the end changes the pronunciation.

  • win/wine
  • us/use
  • cop/cope
  • her/here
  • rat/rate

Let’s read the words together:

  • win/wine
  • us/use
  • cop/cope
  • her/here
  • rat/rate

You can see that adding ‘e’ to the end of a word makes a big difference to the pronunciation, even if you don’t actually pronounce it.

Sometimes, silent letters can make an even bigger difference to the pronunciation of a word.

5. Silent Syllables

You saw before that most silent letters are consonants, but that vowels can be silent letters, too.

Sometimes, a vowel can be silent and this can mean that a word ‘loses’ a syllable.

An example? Take the word restaurant.

It’s written with three syllables: /res – tə – rɒnt/.

However, in spoken English, it usually has two syllables: /’restrɒnt/.

This is a special case, because these letters aren’t necessarily silent.

You could say restaurant with three syllables: /’restərɒnt/. However, most native speakers wouldn’t pronounce the word like this.

Can you think of any more examples like this?

Let’s practise. Here are five words. Each word has one ‘silent’ syllable. Which syllable might not be pronounced?

  • comfortable
  • chocolate
  • different
  • camera
  • vegetable

Silent Letters in English (English Pronunciation Lesson) - chocolate image

Pause the video and think about your answers if you want!

Let’s look together:

In comfortable, the ‘or’ can be dropped: /’kʌmftəbəl/.

In chocolate, the ‘o’ can be dropped: /’tʃɒklət/.

In different, the first ‘e’ can be dropped: /’dɪfrənt/.

In camera, the ‘e’ can be dropped: /’kæmrə/.

And in vegetable, you can drop the second ‘e’: /’vedʒtəbəl/

Remember that in all of these words, the letters aren’t necessarily silent. Some native speakers pronounce all of the syllables in these words. However, it’s more common to reduce these words and make them as short as you can.

Reducing the words by dropping syllables also makes them shorter and easier to say. This can help you to speak more fluently!

Let’s review the words one more time:

  • comfortable
  • chocolate
  • different
  • camera
  • vegetable

You might be thinking: how do I know which words have silent syllables? How can I check?

Good questions: like many points with silent letters, there aren’t exactly rules you can follow.

However, you can check whether a word has silent syllables or not. Look the word up in a dictionary. Look at the phonetic transcription, next to the word.

A good dictionary will show you all the possible pronunciations of the word, including whether any syllables can be dropped.

Learn more with this lesson from Oxford Online English on syllables and word stress.

So now you’ve seen how letters can be silent. You’ve learned about common patterns with silent letters, and you’ve seen how silent letters can change the pronunciation of a word.

Thanks for watching!

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