Why does English have so many silent letters and rule exceptions? Most reasons for silent letters in English relate to the origins of the word. For example, the word “knight” has two silent sounds-K and GH. This word originated from the German word for servant, “knecht” in which each letter is pronounced. English has many words that end in a silent E that changes the prior vowel sound. Such as the word “hate” in which the final silent E makes the prior vowel A long. Some of these words with the silent final E, originated from the time of Chaucer when the final E was pronounced and, therefore made words such as “bite” a two syllable word. The word “bite” was pronounced as “ bi te” with the final E pronounced with the long E sound. English speakers must memorize these unique word spellings and pronunciations or regularly use online dictionaries.
Below you will find 4 more silent letter rules in American English that involve: G, GH, H and K.
Silent G: Rule: G is usually not pronounced when it comes before the letter N.
- Examples: champagne, foreign, sign, feign, design, align, cognac
- Exceptions to Silent G: magnet, igneous, cognitive, signature
Silent GH: There are two rules for silent GH.
Rule 1: GH is not pronounced when it comes after a vowel.
- Examples: thought, drought, through, thorough, borough, daughter, light, might, sigh, right, fight, weigh, weight
- Exceptions to this rule are seen most often in compound words: Doghouse, foghorn, bighead
Rule 2: GH is sometimes pronounced like F.
- Examples: rough, tough, laugh, enough, cough, draught
- Exceptions: Examples see rule 1.
Silent H: There are 3 rules for when letter H is silent.
Rule 1: H is not pronounced when it comes after W.
- Examples: what, when, where, whether, why
Rule 2: H is not pronounced at the beginning of many words.
- Examples: hour, honest, honor, heir
- Exceptions: hill, history, height, happy, hereditary
Rule 3: H is often not pronounced when it comes after C, G or R.
- Examples: choir, chorus, ghastly, ghoul, aghast, echo, rhinoceros, rhythm
* A note about the article “a” and “an” before words that begin with H: Use “an” when the H is silent and use “a” when H is articulated. For example: Class started an hour ago. and We climbed up a hill.
Silent K: Letter K is not articulated when it comes before N at the beginning of a word.
- Examples: knife, knee, know, knock, knowledge, knead