Silent Letters: Definition, Rules & Example Words

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  • 0:04 English Language
  • 0:27 Silent Letters
  • 0:40 Auxiliary Silent Letters
  • 1:20 Dummy Silent Letters
  • 2:06 Rules & Examples
  • 5:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

The English language is full of tricky spelling rules. One of the trickiest can be the silent letters. In this lesson, we are going to learn about silent letters by discussing the rules and reviewing examples.

English Language

Whether you are learning English for the first time or are a native speaker, English can be a very complicated language. Given the hundreds of spelling and grammar rules, English doesn't always look the way it sounds. A perfect example of this is the use of silent letters within words. In this lesson, we'll discuss the silent letter rules and review several examples.

Silent Letters

Silent letters are letters found in words that are not pronounced and cannot be matched to any specific sound made by a word. Silent letters can be broken up into two major groups: auxiliary and dummy.

Auxiliary Silent Letters

Auxiliary silent letters work with other letters to form one specific sound. They include exocentric and endocentric combinations. Exocentric combinations make a sound that doesn't sound like either of the letters in the silent letter pair. A good example of this is 'ph' when it makes the 'f' sound. These types of silent letters aren't always considered true silent letters, but it's important to be familiar with these members of the silent letter family.

On the other hand, endocentric combinations produce the sound of one of the letters in a pair. A double consonant such as 'ff' in the word 'huffed' is a good example. Only one 'f' is pronounced.

Dummy Silent Letters

Dummy silent letters are simply letters that are not pronounced. Dummy letters, like many silent letters, are found in words for a few reasons. First, inert letters may be pronounced when the base word changes to a longer word. For example, in the word 'sign', the 'g' is not pronounced, but in the word 'signature', the 'g' makes a sound. If the letters in words do not change to make a sound, then they are known as empty letters.

Secondly, silent letters exist in words as a result of the English language changing over time. The silent 'k' in the words 'knife' and 'knight' were at one point pronounced. Over time, prior to the seventeenth century, English speakers stopped pronouncing the 'k' in favor of the 'n' sound, yet the spelling of these words didn't change.

Rules & Examples

The best way to look at the rules for silent letters is to discuss them directly with the examples. Let's get started.

Silent B

The letter 'b' can act as a silent letter when it comes before 't' or if it comes after 'm'. Words such as 'comb', 'tomb', 'bomb', 'debt', and 'doubt' are good examples of the 'b' acting as a silent letter. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule; the word 'obtain' doesn't abide by the rules.

Silent C

The letter 'c' is silent when it follows the letter 's' and comes before 'i', 'e', or 'y'. Some words include 'science' and 'scepter'. The combination 'ck' produces the 'k' sound only, as in 'snack' and 'hack'.

Silent E

The silent 'e' serves an important purpose in English. When a silent 'e' is at the end of a word, the vowel before it makes a long vowel sound, as in the words 'cake', 'hike', and 'bike'.

Silent GH

The 'gh' letter pair is completely silent when appearing in the middle and at the end of a word. In fact, if the 'gh' pair is preceded by an 'i', the 'i' makes a long vowel sound as in the words 'light', 'fight', 'night', and 'sight'. Other examples of the silent 'gh' are 'bought', 'fought', 'caught', 'taught', and 'ought'.

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