Stop pronouncing these words wrong! If you’re looking for explanations and examples of words with silent T, you’ve come to the right place. Charts, definitions, a word list of over 20 examples, and the history of how silent T became silent.
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How Many Vowels Are There?
How many vowels are there in English? Five? Six? Twenty? Five and a half?
If you ask an American what the English vowels are, we will almost all say the exact same thing that we learned in school as children:
A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y.
Ellen Degeneres recently tweeted at NSYNC, and she jokingly congratulated for making a major accomplishment "without a vowel" in their band name. However, as many people (including Ginseng) explained, Y is a vowel in NSYNC. Ellen was just making a joke, of course, but many people, learners and native speakers alike, really don't understand what it means when we say that Y is "sometimes" a vowel.
Let's look a little closer at what exactly we mean when we say "and sometimes Y" in order to help us understand several important aspects of English pronunciation and spelling.
Vowels and Consonants
Before we can say how many vowels there are, we need to clarify what exactly a vowel is. The answer is not as simple as you may think. The most common dictionary definitions say something like this:
1. a speech sound in which air flows out through the mouth and is not blocked by the teeth, tongue, or lips;
2. a letter representing one of these sounds.
On the other hand, consonant is usually defined something like this:
consonant (n.) - any speech sound or letter that is not a vowel.
So a vowel is a sound made with your mouth open, and a consonant is basically every other sound.
Sounds and letters
You may have noticed that the definitions of consonant and vowel above talk about both sounds and letters, and this is where the confusion comes from. Sounds and letters are different things. Letters are written and are meant to represent the sounds in a language.
However, you have probably noticed that English sounds and letters don't have a perfect correspondence. For example, sometimes the letter C sounds like S (as in city) but other times it sounds like K (as in cat).
This is especially true about vowels. If we ignore Y for a moment, there are 5 vowel letters: A, E, I, O, U. However, if we look at vowel sounds there are between 14 and 21 (depending on the accent).
How is this possible? Think about the different sounds that A makes in the words father, bake, and cap, and the different U sounds in put, cup, and nuke.
The most important idea here is that letters can make different sounds.
Why is Y Special?
Okay, but we're talking about Y, right? Is it a consonant or a vowel!? How many vowels are there!? We need a number!
So, like many other letters, the letter Y represents many different sounds. You can see the most common ones in the words only, cry, myth, and yet.
Let's look more closely at those examples: in only, Y makes the long E sound /i/, the same sound E makes in we. In cry, Y makes the long I sound /aɪ/, pronounced like the I in mine. In myth, Y makes the short I sound /ɪ/, the same sound as the I in kid. As you can see, these are all vowel sounds.
The Y in yet is different. It isn't really a sound that other letters frequently make. Its "the Y sound" /j/. And this is a consonant sound. If you make this sound, you will feel that the back of your tongue rises up toward the top of your mouth. Remember, when we block or obstruct the air to make a sound, this is what makes a consonant.
So the reason that the letter Y is sometimes a vowel and sometimes a consonant is that it makes several different sounds. Some of these sounds are vowel sounds, and one is a consonant sound. In the words only, cry, and myth, Y is a vowel. In yet, yellow, and you it is a consonant.
In case you were still wondering about Ellen's NSYNC tweet, the Y in NSYNC is definitely a vowel.
Y is Almost Always a Vowel
So we know why Y is sometimes a vowel, but we were curious: How often is Y a vowel and how often is it a consonant. How common are the different sounds that Y makes? The answer was not easy to find, but eventually we came across an academic paper that contained the answer we needed.
It turns out that Y is not just "sometimes" a vowel. It is almost always a vowel. It is only a consonant around 2.5% of the time. That means about 97.5% of the time it is a vowel. By far, the most common sound it makes is long E /i/. As you might guess, this is probably because -y and -ly are very common suffixes in English.
Next time you hear someone say "A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y," you can correct them: "A, E, I, O, U, and 97.5% of the time Y!"
English spelling is crazy but there are patterns. Silent E words follow a very common pattern. Check out this explanation with charts and over 200 of examples.
Well, you already know that Ginseng is an online English school. But as we talk to more and more people around the world about Ginseng, we’ve learned that more and more people want to know about the word ginseng:
- What does it mean?
- How do you pronounce it?
- Why is it the name of an English school!?!?
Well, ask and you shall receive. Let's get some answers to those questions!
What is Ginseng?
Ginseng is a plant! And it's a funny plant because the root—the underground part of the plant—is more famous than the flowers and leaves.
Ginseng has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries to help people relax. Some people even say it improves your memory!
The word ginseng comes from the Hokkien pronunciation (/jîn-sim/)of the Chinese word (人参) for the plant. That literally translates to person-root, because the root often has two “legs” and looks like a person.
How do You Pronounce Ginseng?
First, that G is soft. This means it sounds like an English J, as in jump. G is often—but not always—pronounced this way when it is before either an E or an I.
The first syllable sounds exactly like the word gin, a common alcohol. It also sounds like the first syllable in ginger, another root.
The last syllable sounds exactly like the English word sing. The E is pronounced like a short I sound. (Note: some people pronounce the -seng with a short E sound, but that's not what we say for Ginseng English).
The stress in the word is on the first syllable. So all together, the word ginseng is pronounced jin-sing (IPA: /ˈdʒɪn sɪŋ/).
Why did you name the school Ginseng?
Lots of reasons! Many of the best brands out there are not literal descriptions of what the company does. Think about Google, Nike, Mercedes. This was the type of brand we wanted. We didn't want to be Rob’s Online English School. We wanted something more abstract and suggestive, something evocative.
Ginseng worked better for a couple of reasons:
We first started considering this name because of its sound. It’s one of the only other words in which the letters E-N-G are pronounced /ɪŋ/ like they are in Eng-lish.
Also, ginseng has lots of positive connotations: it's relaxing and it helps your memory. These are two very important things for learning a language!
What about that logo?
Ginseng root is often made into a relaxing tea, so our logo is a steaming cup of tea to help you relax while you learn English with us! As you may have noticed, it’s also our letter G, upside-down!
More about Ginseng English
One challenging aspect of learning English is that there are different registers: we have spoken English and written English, formal English and informal English. Some words are okay in every register, but others are only okay in speech. Some only sound right in writing.
Contractions are a big part of distinguishing between these different forms of English. If you ever go to an English-speaking university, you'll find that you can't use can't or don't or isn't in your academic writing. Let's take a look at what contractions are and how they can make your English more or less formal.
What are Contractions?
Contractions are words that combine two or more other words together into a new shortened version, usually using an apostrophe ('). Contractions are very common in spoken English. You have probably heard some of these common contractions: I'm, can't, aren't, don't, didn't.
The apostrophe is small, but important. In writing you must use the apostrophe. You do not pronounce it, but it is important in writing. Notice that the apostrophe represents some letters that are missing from the longer form of the word. For instance, the apostrophe in didn't is in place of the O in did not and the apostrophe in I'm is in the place of the A in I am.
Be careful, because not every word with an apostrophe is a contraction. Possessive nouns in English end with apostrophe -s, (Bob's house, Carla's mom) but these are not contractions.
Why Do We Have Contractions?
Contractions originate in speech. We are lazy when we speak English! When we are speaking quickly, we reduce certain sounds (make them shorter and quieter), and over time we elide them completely (we don't pronounce them at all). So over time, she will becomes she'll, I have becomes I've, going to becomes gonna.
When do we use contractions?
This question has a slightly complicated answer.
We frequently use contractions in spoken English, and you should try to use common contractions in your speech to make your English more fluent. We generally do not use any contractions in formal writing (academic papers, for examples).
In between casual speech and formal written English, there is a gray area: we have more formal spoken English, like presentations and business meetings. We have less formal writing, like emails and letters. In this case, you have more of a choice. Some people use contractions and some do not. In this gray area, we should also talk about different types of contractions!
Not all contractions are the same. Some are more standard and acceptable than others. Standard contractions include the following:
You can use these in anything but formal writing. This means they are common in speech, creative writing, emails, text messages, notes, and letters. Try to pay attention when you are reading online. Are there contractions in what you are reading? If there are no contractions, you are probably reading a more formal style of writing.
But there are other contractions that are nonstandard. These contractions have evolved more recently and haven't become as acceptable in written English yet. Nonstandard contractions should only be used in very informal situations (text messages with friends, for instance) or to be funny. Here are some examples:
This is not a complete list. People can often get creative and make their own contractions like these, so watch and see if you can identify new contractions!
We have talked a whole lot about silent letters in English here on the Ginseng English blog.
But, as a recent article in Reader's Digest points out, nearly every letter in the English language is silent sometimes. There is only one letter in the language that is never silent. Can you guess what it is?
The letter is V! There are various very valuable v-words, and that V is never silent!
If you're thinking, "Wait, but what about A!? What about X!?" you can check out Wikipedia's list of silent letters from A to Z. (You might notice that they do have something listed under V, but it's the name of a town in Scotland, which isn't exactly an English word in the way we generally think of things.)
More free English resources
If you’re looking for explanations and examples of words with silent G, you’ve come to the right place. Charts, definitions, word lists, and the history of how silent G became silent.
The C-V-C Pattern
One of the craziest things about learning English is the relationship between spelling and pronunciation. We don't even need to talk about ought, enough, through, etc, right?
But there are some patterns to learn that can make English a little less crazy. Today let's talk about one of the most important ones: C-V-C words.
But what does C-V-C mean???
I'll tell you. C-V-C means consonant-vowel-consonant. A C-V-C word is a three-letter word that follows the spelling pattern of a consonant, then a vowel, and then another consonant. Remember, vowels are the letters A, E, I, O, U (sometimes Y!), and consonants are all the other letters. For example, top. T is a consonant. O is a vowel. P is a consonant. C-V-C.
Here are some more examples of C-V-C words:
Can you see the pattern?
Now, why is this important? It is important because if you can recognize a C-V-C word, you can almost certainly pronounce it, even if it's a new word for you! That's because in C-V-C words, the vowel is almost always a "short" vowel.
Check out the list of the short vowel sounds with examples in the chart.
Double Consonants and C-V-C Words
There is another reason that C-V-C words are important. This one is a little more difficult.
Maybe you know that in English, we sometimes need to double a letter when we add a suffix like -er, -ed, -ing, and -est. This is important for comparative and superlative adjectives, the simple past tense, and the present progressive. For example mad becomes madder, nap becomes napped, win becomes winning, and big becomes biggest. For these words we have double consonants, but not always: nicer, hoped, mining, poorest. At first, this can be very confusing. When do we double the consonant!? How do we know!? C-V-C words!!! You generally need to double the last consonant when adding a suffix to a C-V-C word. There are some exceptions: generally we do not double the consonants W, X, or Y.
Longer C-V-C words
Above we defined C-V-C words as 3-letter words. That makes sense: C + V + C = 3 letters, right? But actually, there are more C-V-C words. It is really about the end of the words. Any one-syllable word that ends in C-V-C also follows the pattern above. Here are some other examples:
There is one other type of C-V-C word. All of the C-V-C words so far have been one syllable, and most C-V-C words are only one syllable. But some two-syllable words also follow this pattern. Two-syllable words ending in C-V-C, with the stress on the second syllable also follow the C-V-C pattern. The stress is very important here. There are not many words like this, and most are just a prefix added to a shorter word. Most two syllable words have stress on the first syllable. But when you do find a two-syllable word ending in C-V-C, with the stress on the second syllable, you know that you should double the consonant when adding -ed, -ing, -er, or -est.
Examples of C-V-C Words
C-V-C Words with A
bad, bag, bam, ban, bat, cab, cad, cam, can, cap, cat, cav, dab, dad, dam, dap, fab, fad, fan, fat, fax, gab, gag, gal, gap, gas, gat, had, hag, ham, has, hat, jab, jam, lab, lad, lag, lap, mad, mag, man, mat, max, nab, nag, nap, pad, pal, pan, pat, rad, rag, ram, ran, rap, rat, sac, sad, sag, sap, sat, sax, tab, tad, tag, tan, tap, tar, tat, tax, vac, van, vat, wad, wag, wan, war, was, wax, yak, yam, yap, zag, zap
C-V-C Words with E
bed, beg, bet, cel, den, fed, fen, fez, gel, gem, get, hem, hen, hex, jet, keg, led, leg, let, med, men, met, net, peg, pen, pep, pet, red, rep, rex, set, sex, ten, veg, vet, vex, wed, wet, yen, yet, zed, zen
C-V-C Words with I
bib, bid, big, bin, bit, did, dig, dim, din, dip, fib, dig, fit, fix, gig, gin, hid, him, hip, his, hit, jig, kid, kin, kit, lid, lip, lit, mix, nib, nil, nip, nix, pig, pin, pit, rib, rid, rig, rim, rip, sib, sim, sin, sip, sis, sit, six, tin, tip, wig, win, wit, wiz, yip, zig, zip, zit
C-V-C Words with O
bob, bod, bog, bon, bot, box, cob, cod, cog, com, con, cop, cot, coz, dog, dom, don, dot, fob, fog, fox, god, got, hob, hog, hop, hot, job, jog, jot, lob, log, lop, lot, lox, mob, mod, mom, mop, nod, nog, nor, not, pod, pom, pop, pot, pox, rob, rod, rot, sob, sod, sog, son, sop, sot, tom, ton, top, tot, won
C-V-C Words with U
bud, bug, bun, bus, but, cub, cup, cut, dub, dud, dug, fun, gun, gut, hub, hug, hum, hun, hut, jug, jut, lug, mud, mug, mum, nub, nut, pub, pug, pun, pup, pus, put, rub, rug, rum, run, rut, sub, sud, sum, sun, sup, tub, tug, tut, tux, yum, yup
Some words look like C-V-C words, but aren't exactly. For example words that end in -AY and -AW are not really C-V-C words, because the -AY and -AW actually combine into a new vowel sound. The same is true for -OY words and -OW words.
Words ending in vowel-R often follow the spelling patterns of other C-V-C words, but R changes the pronunciation of the vowel before it, creating a sound that is not exactly a short vowel. We call these new vowel sounds R-colored vowels.
More free English resources
So, we all know by now that English is crazy, right? We have talked about silent N and silent K and silent L and silent B. But English is even crazier. It's not just letters that are silent. We have silent syllables in English, too!*
What is a Syllable?
A syllable is a part of a word with one vowel sound and the consonants around it. For example, the word working has two vowel sounds, so it has two syllables. We often show syllables like this: wor-king. Often one syllable is stronger than the others, and we can show this, too. In the word working, the first syllable is stronger. This is called the stressed syllable. We can show the stressed syllable in different ways:
wor-king, WOR-king, 'wor-king
Some words only have one syllable, like big, cat, and think. Some words have LOTS of syllables, like an-ti-dis-es-tab-lish-men-tar-i-an-ism.
Why are Some Syllables Silent?
Like we said, some syllables are strong. That means some other syllables are weak. When we are speaking quickly, over many many years, the pronunciation of the word changes, and some syllables eventually become so weak that they are completely silent.
How Do I Know If a Syllable is Silent?
You don't. Sorry! There are some patterns for where silent syllables happen (for instance, they are always in the middle of a word, they are often the syllable before an R sound, they are almost always the syllable after the stressed syllable), but it's really not a good idea to guess that a syllable will be silent. There are only a couple dozen words in English that have silent syllables, so your best strategy is to learn which words they are.
That's why we've assembled this list! Please comment below if you have any words for us to add to the list!
Are These Syllables Always Silent?
Now, some of you are probably thinking, "But I KNOW I've heard people say in-te-res-ting with 3 syllables!!!" You probably have! Every time we pronounce a word, it sounds a little bit different. Sometimes when we are speaking slowly or emphatically, we might pronounce the silent syllable in miserable or interesting. This sounds confusing, but don't worry! If you leave the syllable silent, it will never be wrong!
*Note: Deleting syllables is a common phenomenon in American English, but it may not happen in all varieties of English.
If you’re looking for explanations and examples of words with silent L, you’ve come to the right place. Charts, definitions, word lists, and the history of how silent L became silent.
If you’re looking for explanations and examples of words with silent N, you’ve come to the right place. Charts, definitions, word lists, and the history of how silent N became silent.
If you’re looking for explanations and examples of words with silent B, you’ve come to the right place. Charts, definitions, word lists, and the history of how silent B became silent.
Check out the sounds that roosters make in different languages around the world!