This is the first blog post in a three-part series on the relationships between the pronunciation of English words and their spellings. Follow the links for part two of the series on Homophones and part three on the Sound System of American English.

The English language is notable for having a large number of words with strange, unphonetic spelling. At times, it can seem that the spelling of a word has little in common with its pronunciation! For example, the word “knight” has a silent “k” and a silent “gh”, so it’s pronounced “nait”. Certainly, when you’re trying to learn English, it can be difficult or frustrating to try to say a new word, only to find out some of its letters aren’t meant to be pronounced! However, by memorizing some of the most common words that have silent letters, you can avoid many of these difficulties. Many of these words appear in the charts below.

You might be curious about how it happened that many English words came to have such unexpected spelling. A full history of the English language, while extremely fascinating, is beyond the scope of this blog post. The short version is that many English words originate from different languages, such as German, French, Latin, and Greek; these origins are reflected in today’s spelling. Furthermore, English spelling started to solidify around the time the printing press was invented in the 15th century, yet pronunciations continued to develop, causing a divergence between a word’s shifting pronunciation and its static spelling. If you are interested in a humorous and detailed account of the history of English, I recommend reading The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, by Bill Bryson.

Without further ado, please enjoy this list of words containing silent letters:

 

Do not pronounce the “b” in the following words:

Spelling:Actually Pronounced:
bombbom
climbclime
combcom
crumbkrum
debtdet
doubtdowt
dumbdum
lamblam
limblim
numbnum
plumberPLUMmer
subtleSUDul
succumbsukUM
thumbthum
tombtoom
wombwoom

 

Do not pronounce the “c” in the following words:

Spelling:Actually Pronounced:
indictindite
muscleMUSSul
sceneseen
scentsent
scissorsSIZZers

 

Do not pronounce the “ch” in the following words:

Spelling:Actually Pronounced:
yachtyot

 

Do not pronounce the “d” in the following words:

Spelling:Actually Pronounced:
adjectiveajective
adjustajust
handkerchiefhankerchief
handsomehansome
sandwichsanwich
WednesdayWENSday

 

Do not pronounce the “g” in the following words:

Spelling:Actually Pronounced:
alignaline
assignassine
benignbuhNINE
campaignkamPANE
champagneshamPANE
colognekolON
designdeZAINE
feignfane
foreignFORen
gnarlnarl
gnashnash
gnatnat
gnawnaw
gnomenome
reignrain
resignresine
signsine

 

Do not pronounce the “gh” in the following words:

Spelling:Actually Pronounced:
boroughboro
boughbow (as in, bend or incline)
brightbrite
boughtbawt
broughtbrawt
caughtkawt
daughterDAWter
doughdoe
droughtdrowt
fightfite
foughtfawt
fraughtfrawt
haughtyhawdy
heighthite
highhi
knightnite
lightlite
naughtyNAWty
neighborNAYber
nightnite
rightrite
sighsai
sightsite
slaughterslawder
sleighslay
soughtsawt
straightstrayt
taughttawt
thoroughthuro
throughthru
thoughtho
thoughtthawt
weighway
weightwait
wroughtrawt

 

Do not pronounce the “h” in the following words:

Spelling:Actually Pronounced:
exhaustedeggZAWsted
exhibiteggZIBit
ghostgost
heirair
herberb
honestonest
honorONer
hourour
spaghettispagetti
Thaitie
vehiclevee-I-kull

 

A knight at night: Sir Patrick Stewart

A knight at night: Sir Patrick Stewart

Do not pronounce the “k” in the following words:

Spelling:Actually Pronounced:
knacknack
kneadneed
kneenee
kneelneel
knewnoo
knifenife
knightnite
knitnit
knobnob
knocknock
knotnot
knowno
knowledgenaledge
knucklenuckle

 

Do not pronounce the “l” in the following words:

Spelling:Actually Pronounced:
calmkahm
chalkchawk
couldcoud
folkfok
halfhaf
LincolnLincon
palmpom
salmonSAMon
shouldshud
talktok
walkwok
wouldwud

 

Do not pronounce the “n” in the following words:

Spelling:Actually Pronounced:
autumnawtum
columnKALum
condemnkonDEM
damndam
hymnhim
solemnSALum

 

Do not pronounce the “p” in the following words:

Spelling:Actually Pronounced:
pneumonianuMONia
psychiatristsai-KAI-uh-trist
psychicSAI-kick
psychologysai-KOL-uh-jee
psychoticsai-KOT-ick
receiptree-SEET

 

Do not pronounce the “t” in the following words:

Spelling:Actually Pronounced:
apostleaPOSSul
balletballAY
bouquetbouKAY
bristleBRISul
buffetbuffAY
bustleBUSSul
castleKASSul
ChristmasKRISmis
debutdayBYOO
fastenFASSen
filletfillAY
glistenGLISSen
gourmetgorMAY
hustleHUSSul
jostleJOSSul
listenLISSen
moistenMOYSSen
mortgageMORgej
oftenOFen
nestleNESSul
rapportruPOR
rustleRUSSul
softenSOFen
thistleTHISSul
whistleWISSul
wrestleRESSul

 

Do not pronounce the “th” in the following words:

Spelling:Actually Pronounced:
asthmaAZmuh
monthsmunss
clothescloze

 

Do not pronounce the “w” in the following words:

Spelling:Actually Pronounced:
answerANser
awryuh-RYE
playwrightPLAYrite
swordsord
towardtord
wrackrack
wranglerangle
wraprap
wrapperrapper
wrathrath
wreakreek
wreathreeth
wreckreck
wreckagereckej
wrenren
wrenchrench
wrestrest
wrestleRESS-ul
wretchretch
wretchedretched
wriggleriggle
wringring
wrinklerinkle
wristrist
writrit
writerite
writherithe
wrongrong
wroterote
wroughtrawt
wrungrung
wryrye

 

Bonus word: “Iron”

The word “iron” doesn’t technically have a silent letter, but people frequently ask me about this word’s pronunciation because it does have some sounds switched around in the middle, and its spelling is unphonetic. “Iron” is NOT pronounced “i-ron” as one would expect; it sounds like “I earn”. For example, the sentence “I earn as much as the iron worker” would sound like, “I earn as much as the ‘I earn’ worker.”

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