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:
bomb bom
climb clime
comb com
crumb krum
debt det
doubt dowt
dumb dum
lamb lam
limb lim
numb num
plumber PLUMmer
subtle SUDul
succumb sukUM
thumb thum
tomb toom
womb woom

 

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

Spelling: Actually Pronounced:
indict indite
muscle MUSSul
scene seen
scent sent
scissors SIZZers

 

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

Spelling: Actually Pronounced:
yacht yot

 

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

Spelling: Actually Pronounced:
adjective ajective
adjust ajust
handkerchief hankerchief
handsome hansome
sandwich sanwich
Wednesday WENSday

 

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

Spelling: Actually Pronounced:
align aline
assign assine
benign buhNINE
campaign kamPANE
champagne shamPANE
cologne kolON
design deZAINE
feign fane
foreign FORen
gnarl narl
gnash nash
gnat nat
gnaw naw
gnome nome
reign rain
resign resine
sign sine

 

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

Spelling: Actually Pronounced:
borough boro
bough bow (as in, bend or incline)
bright brite
bought bawt
brought brawt
caught kawt
daughter DAWter
dough doe
drought drowt
fight fite
fought fawt
fraught frawt
haughty hawdy
height hite
high hi
knight nite
light lite
naughty NAWty
neighbor NAYber
night nite
right rite
sigh sai
sight site
slaughter slawder
sleigh slay
sought sawt
straight strayt
taught tawt
thorough thuro
through thru
though tho
thought thawt
weigh way
weight wait
wrought rawt

 

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

Spelling: Actually Pronounced:
exhausted eggZAWsted
exhibit eggZIBit
ghost gost
heir air
herb erb
honest onest
honor ONer
hour our
spaghetti spagetti
Thai tie
vehicle vee-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:
knack nack
knead need
knee nee
kneel neel
knew noo
knife nife
knight nite
knit nit
knob nob
knock nock
knot not
know no
knowledge naledge
knuckle nuckle

 

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

Spelling: Actually Pronounced:
calm kahm
chalk chawk
could coud
folk fok
half haf
Lincoln Lincon
palm pom
salmon SAMon
should shud
talk tok
walk wok
would wud

 

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

Spelling: Actually Pronounced:
autumn awtum
column KALum
condemn konDEM
damn dam
hymn him
solemn SALum

 

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

Spelling: Actually Pronounced:
pneumonia nuMONia
psychiatrist sai-KAI-uh-trist
psychic SAI-kick
psychology sai-KOL-uh-jee
psychotic sai-KOT-ick
receipt ree-SEET

 

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

Spelling: Actually Pronounced:
apostle aPOSSul
ballet ballAY
bouquet bouKAY
bristle BRISul
buffet buffAY
bustle BUSSul
castle KASSul
Christmas KRISmis
debut dayBYOO
fasten FASSen
fillet fillAY
glisten GLISSen
gourmet gorMAY
hustle HUSSul
jostle JOSSul
listen LISSen
moisten MOYSSen
mortgage MORgej
often OFen
nestle NESSul
rapport ruPOR
rustle RUSSul
soften SOFen
thistle THISSul
whistle WISSul
wrestle RESSul

 

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

Spelling: Actually Pronounced:
asthma AZmuh
months munss
clothes cloze

 

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

Spelling: Actually Pronounced:
answer ANser
awry uh-RYE
playwright PLAYrite
sword sord
toward tord
wrack rack
wrangle rangle
wrap rap
wrapper rapper
wrath rath
wreak reek
wreath reeth
wreck reck
wreckage reckej
wren ren
wrench rench
wrest rest
wrestle RESS-ul
wretch retch
wretched retched
wriggle riggle
wring ring
wrinkle rinkle
wrist rist
writ rit
write rite
writhe rithe
wrong rong
wrote rote
wrought rawt
wrung rung
wry rye

 

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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