Silent letters in English: Almost all of them

The English language is a lovely mess. Languages get that way after a thousand years of taking on aspects from other languages.

One consequence that has always fascinated me is that English spelling is such a potluck of letters. For example these different syllables produce the same sound: “ot”, “aught”, “aut”, “ought”.

With the help of dictionaries and some Facebook friends, I’ve assembled a list of letters that can be silent in English:

  • GG clef
    G clef

    A: early, dead, toast

  • B: thumb, doubt, subtle
  • C: lock, except, indict, muscle
  • D: Wednesday, handkerchief, handsome
  • E: morgue, tie, giraffe, toe, queue
  • F: clef
  • G: foreign, sign, thought, gnome, through
  • H: where, technology, whine, thought, hour, honest, honor, cheetah, rhyme, exhibition, through, rhetoric
  • I: bruise, business
  • Fajita
    Fajita

    J: fajita, marijuana

  • K: know, knife, knock
  • L: calm, half, salmon, would, should, caulk, pill, mull (see comments)
  • M: mnemonic
  • N: column, autumn, hymn
  • O: you, would, should, through
  • P: pneumonia, psychology, corps
  • Q:
  • R: far, farther
  • S: island, isle, viscount
  • T: hustle, whistle, often, listen
  • U: morgue, source, shoulder, guess, guide, build, queue, tongue
  • V:
  • W: wrap, write, wrong, who, whole, sword
  • X: prix, Montreux
  • Y: slay, slaying
  • Z: rendezvous, chez, laissez-faire

There wasn’t exactly full agreement on all the words. For example “far” was contested; the objection was that the “r” isn’t silent. While that may be debatable, the extra “r” certainly doesn’t make any difference between “father” and “farther”. Another objection was “fajita“; has it truly become part of the English language? I thought it was a very recent entry from Mexican Spanish, but Wikipedia says it’s a term used in “Tex-Mex cuisine” and that the OED cites its earliest use in English as 1971.

Many (most?) of the other words on the list have come to English from other languages… they just did it further back in time. I think I see words of Greek, French, Latin, Old Norse origins in the list. That’s what you get with a language that’s a thousand year-old mutt.

If you can think of examples of silent Qs or Vs, please leave a comment on the blog. I’d love to collect a full alphabet of silent letters.

29 Comments to “Silent letters in English: Almost all of them”

  1. Kaitlin Duck Sherwood 20 October 2009 at 1:36 #

    *I* pronounce the F in clef.

    I don’t pronounce the f in “of” frequently: shoulda, woulda, coulda, kinda…

    • Marisa 26 July 2011 at 11:06 #

      We aren’t saying “could of,” “would of” or “should of,” – it’s “could have,” “would have” and “should have.” “Kinda” is “kind of.”

  2. Michael 20 October 2009 at 7:35 #

    Saying “farther” without pronouncing the “r”… Really? In Canada?

  3. Hank 28 October 2009 at 1:45 #

    I’m a bit confused, the word ‘pill’, is that as in something you put in your mouth, medicine or something? Because if so I most definatley pronounce the Ls in it! But perhaps it’s a different word?
    .-= Hank´s last blog ..Nagroda Nobla z medycyny – jak się starzejemy? =-.

    • Jan 28 October 2009 at 11:00 #

      Hank » Yeah, I messed that up and was actually planning to delete it. With “pill”, my originally thought was that you’d pronounce it the same if it were spelled “pil”, but I think I should just delete it from the list.

  4. Stefania Kinderclub 2 November 2009 at 6:50 #

    Great article! But I never understood why people in the U.S. say “eggplant” and in England “aubergine”!!

  5. Chris 4 November 2009 at 9:59 #

    The comedian Gallagher use to do great material on how crazy our language is. The “so” is just one example. The word we pronounce as “so” can be “sew” also. Then, logic would say the word “pew” should be pronounced “po”, but it’s not, it’s like “few” or “dew” or “do”…why doesn’t that rhyme with “so”…and the circle goes round and round 🙂
    .-= Chris´s last blog ..Christmas Laptop: The ASUS UL30A-X5 Laptop =-.

  6. Clara Celibataire 13 November 2009 at 2:40 #

    Funny job! Actually its the same in every language, we all skip letters to speak faster. But its funny to see all that written (especially when you’re learning english and you wanna sound and speak like a native!)

  7. Mongoose 20 December 2009 at 21:20 #

    I pronounce the D in “handsome” and the L in “calm.”

    Also, in a lot of these examples the letter isn’t so much silent as it is part of a combination of letters that produces a specific sound. Like in Spanish where “ll” makes a specific sound and is a separate heading in the dictionary. For example in “toast”, the A isn’t exactly “silent” because “tost” would sound different. It would rhyme with “lost”. Though of course in “ghost” the O makes the same sound as “OA” in “toast.”

    Likewise the U in “guess” isn’t silent because without it you’d say “jess”, like “gist.” “GU” is another of those entities that have a specific sound. And in “queue”, they’re not silent, the first one is part of “QU” and the second one is part of “EU”. Of course that would be in French, not in English, because “queue” is a French word which sounds quite different in French.

    Also the J in “fajita” and “marijuana” isn’t silent, it has an H-like sound.

    • Jan 21 December 2009 at 1:18 #

      Hey Mongoose, thanks for dropping in from the far North and leaving a comment!

      Probably because English is such a bastard language a language with such a varied ancestry, you can’t predict with certainty how a word is pronounced based on its spelling (and vice versa). I’m sure this is why the contestants in English spelling bees are allowed to know the etymology of the word they have to spell. They hear a sound that could be spelled any number of ways, but then they’re allowed to know which other language it comes from, what it means, etc. etc. (We don’t have organized spelling competitions in Denmark, and I don’t remember hearing about them in any other cultures than the English-speaking parts of North America)

      Would “toast” spelled “tost” rhyme with lost, cost and frost? Or with most, post, host, and ghost? I can’t be sure; but I’m sure it could go either way.

      Similarly with “guess” spelled “gess”. Would the G-followed-by-a-vowel-sound be pronounced like it is in George, gestate, gin, ginger, and gist? Or like it is in ghost, ghastly, gall, goal, gold, gander, gang, gong, guild, gilded, gestalt, etc.?

      I’m not sure how the word “queue” would break down if we start removing some letters, but I find it comical and wasteful that this word requires five letters to produce the same sound as the letter Q alone. Something sure as heck is superfluous in that word.

      The J examples represent another case of taste or preference. In “fajita” I agree the H sound is often spoken. But you have to speak very slowly to actually pronounce the H sound in ma-ri-hu-a-na as opposed to ma-ri-u-a-na.

  8. Mongoose 22 December 2009 at 17:57 #

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on “marijuana”. Personally I tend to pronounce it “pot” anyway. 🙂

    In France there is an annual national spelling competition but it’s not in the form of a bee, it’s a dictation. Dictation is part of the curriculum, you do a lot of it until grade 9. So for the spelling competition, they get someone to create a dictation with some really challenging words. It’s a big deal in some circles.

    Back to the question, you have a point on “tost” and “gess”. I guess my instinct is to hear them differently because they look different from what I associate with “toast” and “guess” – if that makes any sense. But as for the G, it’s always hard before A and O, or in “GH” and “GU”, so most of those examples don’t work so well. And of course “gestalt” is a German word. 🙂

    You know what I think is the worst? Words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently depending what they mean. For example, you record things on a log, which is a record of events. The emphasis moves depending which meaning it is. That bugs me.

    • Jan 22 December 2009 at 19:09 #

      Ah, pronunciation rules. I don’t think I learned many of those (in English), because I learned much/most of my English outside of school, and I think the pedagogical focus in most of our English classes was on becoming functional in English rather than on too much grammar and rules.

      “Gestalt” is very clearly German, but many of the other words are probably also borrowed from other languages. For example “gold”: Did German get that word from English, or was it the other way around, or did both get it from a third language? Since I posted my reply above I thought of a couple of more frequently used hard-G words: Go and get.

      We had dictation in Denmark, too. No competitions, though.

  9. Joseph Condron@Yellow Magpie 20 February 2010 at 5:57 #

    English has some weird spelling because the pronunciation has changed over time. For instance, knife now has a silent k but it used to be pronounced kay-nee-fee.

    So what made sense previously now has lost much of its original pronunciation.

  10. Anonymous 1 July 2010 at 9:18 #

    hey everyone.
    Great job.I had to studied for my English exam and I didn’t know what the silent letter means.

  11. jjjupelane 16 September 2010 at 19:42 #

    In the Philippines, we pronounced the r in far and farther, and also the f in clef..

  12. asif awan 30 April 2011 at 1:52 #

    hello sir i am to like a list of silent words but list is not complete because in z a word jazz is not add it means that something is missing sir i request you please please please send me a complete list of such words which is silent and also any helpful wesite related to such material my e mail id is ilove4awan@gmail.com sir please reply on my e mail adrees . i am your reply so please send me soon . i am highly thankful to you for this good act .

  13. Nadzreen 9 June 2011 at 5:54 #

    what is the longest word in all words?

  14. Marisa 26 July 2011 at 11:18 #

    Please add consonant clusters – such as the “gh” in “daughter” and the “th” in “clothes” (at least I don’t pronounce them). As for q – after a bit of googling, I found “lacquer.”

    • steve777 5 October 2012 at 3:43 #

      So how do you pronounce ‘clothes’?

      • Anonymous 27 February 2014 at 8:23 #

        Most people pronounce “clothes” like ‘close”.

  15. PERUMAIAN 14 February 2012 at 5:38 #

    Almost in all words the ending ‘e’ is silent. But in many such words, it lengthens the vowel the one before the letter preceding it. Examples: wide, tale, pole. There are also silent ending ‘e’s without altering any previous vowels, like please, pulse.

  16. Anonymous 10 May 2012 at 19:54 #

    Silent Q in racquet and lacquer?

    • Anonymous 12 January 2013 at 1:54 #

      silent h/o/ sounds

  17. Manish Singh 15 August 2012 at 0:10 #

    It’s very good to explain all of them for learners.

  18. steve777 5 October 2012 at 3:44 #

    This is a very useful compilation. I’m confused about ‘clef’ though, don’t you pronounce the F?

  19. silentbob 5 March 2013 at 23:57 #

    A: Daemon
    B: Comb, Womb
    C: Science
    D: Edge
    G: Gnu, Gnat, Reign, Tough, Dough
    H: Chorus, Rhubarb, Exhaust
    I: Maize
    K: Knoll, Knew, Knack, Knickers
    X: Faux

  20. jonathan mallard 30 March 2014 at 9:41 #

    As lacquer and racquet are really up to the awareness level of the speaker…is there any language in which the letter ‘q’ is totally silent..?

  21. Joel 9 June 2015 at 13:25 #

    Here is one word with two silent letters. PSALM


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