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.
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.
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.
Let’s read the words together:
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?
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:
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.