Silent Letters in English

Many English words have silent letters. Learn the top mispronounced words with silent letters in English

English spelling to sound relationships can be incredibly confusing. Because of the way the language evolved, English got stuck with a whole lot of silent letters. In this blog post, we explore the main silent letters that non-native English speakers tend to struggle with.

1. Words ending <alk>, <alm>, or <alf>

Walk, chalk, and stalk are all pronounced without the /l/. We usually pronounce <alk> as /ɔːk/.
walk, chalk, stalk

Calm, palm, and balm are also pronounced with silent <l>. We pronounce them with an /ɑː/.
calm, palm, balm

Similarly, half, behalf, and calf, are pronounced with /ɑː/ – once again, no <l>.
half, behalf, calf

2. B before T <bt> at the ends of words

Whenever you see <bt> at the ends of words, you can “b” sure that there’s no need to pronounce the <b>!
debt, doubt


3. Words ending <mb> 

What is it with English speakers not pronouncing the <b> at the ends of words? According to JC Wells, some words written <mb> used to be pronounced with the /b/, mostly because they were borrowed from other languages, but about 700 years ago, during the time when there was a lot of linguistic change in Britain, the /b/ was deleted in the pronunciation of some <mb> words. The dropping of plosive consonants at the ends of words is present in other forms in modern English – many speakers drop the /g/ in <ng> words, pronouncing only /ŋ/. This is the case in Standard Southern British English. Other dialects of English, including many dialects in the north of England pronounce the /g/ in <ng> words.

Words that contain silent <b> after <m> include climb, bomb, and thumb. Sometimes, <mb> is even pronounced with a simple /m/ before an ending e.g. in the word <plumber>, where <b> is also silent.
climb, bomb, thumb


4. P before N, before S, and before T

In some languages, such as in French, the <p> is pronounced in words like pneumonia, pterodactyl, and psychology, but in English, the <p> is silent in these words. Pneumonia, pterodactyl, and psychology all originally come from Greek. Although we maintain the <p> in the spelling, the pronunciation of /p/ before /n/, /t/, and /s/ is prohibited by English phonotactics; that is the rules that dictate the possible sequences of phonemes in English phonology. English words don’t start with /ps/, /pn/, or /pt/, but they can start with /pæ/, /pr/, and so on.
pneumonia, pterodactyl, psychology


5. When you see <stl> and a few other <st> combinations

Have you ever visited a castle in the UK? Did you notice that we don’t pronounce the <t> in <castle>? We also don’t pronounce the <t> in thistle or whistle… Other words where <t> is not pronounced after /s/ include listen, and the brand Nestle… Take a listen!
listen, Nestle, castle, thistle, whistle


6. Gnomes and knaves…

You probably know about “knife” but did you “know” that the first letter is silent in all English words that begin with <kn> or <gn>? Example words include <gnaw>, <knowledge>, and <knot>.
gnaw, knowledge, knot


I hope you now “know” a bit more about silent letters in English. Happy practising!