Silent letters in English and how to pronounce them

Silent letters in English

The English language is full of words whose written form can be deceptive. Unlike a language like Spanish, in English we rarely sound out all the letters that we see.

The result is a series of words which are written in a way which seems very different from their sound. Lots of these strange ‘silent’ letters are due to the history of the English language. Not only has it absorbed plenty of vocabulary from invaders, like French, Latin and Norse, but the eventual standardization of sounds in the English language has meant that certain words, whilst keeping their older forms of spelling, have had their sounds refined and softened.

Thanks to this development of the language, we are now left with hundreds and hundreds of English words which have some surprising silent letters. Here we take a look at some common words with silent letters, and how to pronounce them.

The silent K: You need to know

The ‘k’ in English is traditionally a hard-sounding vowel ‘cah’ or ‘kah’, especially when it’s at the end of a word: back, for instance. However, when the letter ‘k’ precedes the letter ‘n’ at the start of a word, it falls silent; such as ‘know’. Know’ is interesting, because even though the ‘k’ is silent (we don’t say ‘cah-noh’), it is not pronounced the same way as ‘now’.

  • ‘Know’ = noh. ‘Now’ = naow.

Here’s a few words which have a silent k at the start and a hard k later on: knock, knack, knapsack, knickers, knuckle.

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The silent P: Psychology with no receipt

The ‘p’, usually a popping sound made at the front of the mouth, is silenced when it precedes an ‘s’. Most of these words with silent ‘p’s are to do with the mind or the medicine of the mind: Psychology, psychiatry, psyche, psychological, psychotic or pseudo.

Indeed, when p or ‘ps’ starts a word it is almost always medical. This is thanks to its Greek origins. ‘Pneumonia’ – caused when you catch excessive cold – also has a silent p, so it is pronounced ‘new-moan-ee-a’.

Finally, you’ll every now and then find a silent p in the middle of a word, such as ‘receipt’. In English we say ‘re-seet’, with no ‘p’ sounding in the second syllable, though some would argue that the p is there to slightly soften the sound.


The silent c: Miscellaneous muscle

A bit like the ‘k’, the ‘c’ is usually a hard sound (unless followed by an ‘h’; ‘ch’ is soft, think ‘cheese’, ‘cheers’). However, when following an ‘s’ it is often silent.

  • ‘Muscle’ – we say the same as ‘mussel’, the seafood.

  • ‘Miscellaneous’ – pronounced ‘mis- sell- lay – nee – ous’.

Whilst you do not hear the c, it does slightly change the sound. ‘Scene’ for instance, has the first sound slightly further forward in the mouth than ‘seen’, it’s rhyme. Likewise, the ‘c’ works in slightly softening what would otherwise be a very hard, hissy ‘ss’ sound. Other key words with silent ‘c’s include: ascend, ascent/descent, fascinate, fluorescent, incandescent, obscene, scene, scenario or scented.

The silent g: Benign gnomes

This is one of our favourites. There are many words which sound normal, and should be spelt in a normal simple way – and all of a sudden there’s a ‘g’ in there. ‘Foreign’ is a classic example – the only thing ‘foreign’ in that word is the ‘g’!

We don’t sound the hard ‘guh’ sound of the ‘g’ in these words, but its inclusion does give a slight lengthening of the vowel sound – ‘for-reyn’.

Here’s a few more examples: gnome, benign, malign, design, deign, gnash, sign…

A great example of how the ‘silent’ g isn’t quite silent; if we didn’t pronounce the ‘g’ at all, this would be ‘sin’. However, the ‘g’ lightens and elongates the vowel sound – to be pronounced ‘sigh-n’. This is true for all ‘ign’ words – imagine that the ‘ign’ sounds like ‘sigh’ (de-sigh-n; mal-ighn).

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The silent b: A bomb with aplomb

There are plenty of words in the English language that smuggle in a ‘b’ where it’s not needed, supposedly.

The silent b, usually coming after an m, is not pronounced ‘b’ as it would normally be at the front of a word (‘boy’). However, as with most of these examples, it does soften and slightly elongate the word – so whereas ‘tomb’ would sound like ‘toh-m’ or the name ‘Tom’ is we just took out the b, ‘tomb’ is pronounced ‘tooh-m’.

Here are some key examples: climb, comb, crumb, debt, thumb, tomb or womb.

The silent n: Damn solemn autumn

Not dissimilar to the silent b, the silent n usually appears after an ‘m’ and is not pronounced ‘nuh’ as an ‘n’ normally is, but simply functions to soften the words final vowel sound a little. The ‘n’ is silenced, within the mouth, but it makes these words subtly longer than if they just ended in ‘m’: hymn, damn, solemn, condemn or column.

The silent t: A whistle! Listen!

Ah the confusing silent ‘t’. The ‘t’ – ‘tuh’ sound – is one of the most recognisable and strong sounds in the English language – yet in the middle of ‘listen’, it disappears!

Instead the ‘t’ becomes a little like another, slightly shorter ‘s’: listen becomes ‘lissen’; whistle is ‘whissle’ etc. Here’s a few more: hustle, jostle, apostle, bristle, thistle or wrestle.

Finally, an interesting fact. A long while ago this ‘t’ wasn’t silent. This letter would have been sounded in many regional Englishes, but during the English Vowel Shift which took place from the late 1400s on, these regional anomalies were softened up. In fact, ‘list’ could be used as a shortened form of the word, very common in Shakespeare’s England and before. Here’s a bit of Antony and Cleopatra from 1607, act 4 scene 3:

Peace, what noise? / List, list! / Hark! / Music i’ the air.

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