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The Functions of “Silent E” in Written English

The Functions of "Silent E" in Written English

E is the most common vowel and letter in the English language. Many words end in e in written English. In most words that end with an e, the letter is not pronounced, resulting in the term “silent e.” Although the list of words that end with a “silent e” is lengthy, the unpronounced letter is not a pesky spelling quirk intended to confound writers of English. Instead, “silent e” performs multiple important functions in written English.

Indicate Vowel Sounds

The first function of the “silent e” in written English is to indicate a vowel sound. Many grammars state that a “silent e” changes a preceding “short vowel” into a “long vowel.” For example, the “silent e” at the end of made indicates that the vowel sound is [ei] rather than the [ɑ] of mad. In other words, the “silent e” tells the preceding vowel to say its name. The vowel sounds indicated by a “silent e” are:

  • [ɑ] low back unrounded → [ei] (mad → made)
  • [ɛ] low-mid front unrounded → [i] high front unrounded (met → mete)
  • [ɪ] near-high near-front unrounded → [ɑi] (bit → bite)
  • [ɑ] low back unrounded → [oʊ] (not → note)
  • [ə]/[ʌ] mid-central → [iu] or [u] (cut → cute)

Other examples of a “silent e” indicating a vowel sound include the following:

  • at – ate
  • bid – bide
  • bit – bite
  • can – cane
  • cap – cape
  • chid – chide
  • cod – code
  • con – cone
  • cop – cope
  • crud – crude
  • cub – cube
  • cut – cute
  • dim – dime
  • din – dine
  • dud – dude
  • fad – fade
  • far – fare
  • fat – fate
  • fin – fine
  • fir – fire
  • flak – flake
  • gal – gale
  • gam – game
  • gap – gape
  • glad – glade
  • glob – globe
  • grad – grade
  • grim – grime
  • grip – gripe
  • Hal – hale
  • hat – hate
  • hid – hide
  • hop – hope
  • Jan – Jane
  • jib – jibe
  • Kat – Kate
  • kit – kite
  • lob – lobe
  • lop – lope
  • mad – made
  • man – mane
  • mat – mate
  • mod – mode
  • mop – mope
  • nil – Nile
  • nod – node
  • not – note
  • pal – pale
  • pan – pane
  • pin – pine
  • pip – pipe
  • plan – plane
  • plat – plate
  • plum – plume
  • pop – pope
  • prim – prime
  • prob – probe
  • quit – quite
  • rat – rate
  • rid – ride
  • rip – ripe
  • rob – robe
  • rub – rube
  • run – rune
  • Sal – sale
  • Sam – same
  • scrap – scrape
  • shad – shade
  • sham – shame
  • shin – shine
  • sit – site
  • slid – slide
  • slim – slime
  • slop – slope
  • snip – snipe
  • spin – spine
  • stat – state
  • strip – stripe
  • tap – tape
  • Tim – time
  • trip – tripe
  • tub – tube
  • vin – vine
  • wad – wade
  • win – wine
  • writ – write

More words for which a “silent e” indicates a “long vowel” sound without a corresponding word with a “short vowel” sound include the following:

  • bake
  • bale
  • bike
  • bile
  • blade
  • blame
  • bone
  • bore
  • brake
  • brave
  • bribe
  • bride
  • brute
  • cake
  • came
  • cave
  • chime
  • chose
  • chore
  • chrome
  • chute
  • clone
  • close
  • core
  • crane
  • crate
  • crave
  • crime
  • dale
  • dame
  • date
  • Dave
  • dike
  • dive
  • dole
  • dome
  • dope
  • drape
  • drive
  • duke
  • fake
  • fame
  • fife
  • file
  • five
  • flame
  • fluke
  • flume
  • flute
  • fore
  • frame
  • fume
  • fuse
  • gate
  • gave
  • glide
  • gnome
  • gore
  • grape
  • grate
  • grave
  • grope
  • hike
  • hire
  • hive
  • hole
  • home
  • hone
  • hose
  • jade
  • jake/Jake
  • jive
  • June
  • knife
  • lake
  • lame
  • lane
  • late
  • life
  • like
  • lime
  • line
  • live
  • lode
  • lone
  • lute
  • make
  • male
  • Mike
  • mile
  • mime
  • mine
  • mite
  • mole
  • more
  • mule
  • muse
  • mute
  • name
  • nine
  • nope
  • nose
  • nude
  • nuke
  • pave
  • phone
  • pike
  • pile
  • pole
  • pore
  • pose
  • pride
  • prone
  • prude
  • prune
  • puke
  • quote
  • rake
  • rave
  • rife
  • rite
  • rode
  • role
  • Rome
  • rope
  • rose
  • rote
  • rude
  • rule
  • ruse
  • sane
  • save
  • scale
  • scribe
  • scope
  • score
  • shake
  • shape
  • shave
  • shone
  • shore
  • shrine
  • side
  • skate
  • slave
  • smile
  • snake
  • snide
  • snore
  • sore
  • spade
  • spike
  • spire
  • sprite
  • stake
  • stale
  • stole
  • stone
  • store
  • stride
  • strife
  • strike
  • strive
  • strode
  • swine
  • swipe
  • swore
  • take
  • tale
  • tame
  • those
  • thrive
  • tide
  • tile
  • tire
  • tone
  • tore
  • trade
  • tribe
  • tune
  • vile
  • vote
  • wake
  • wave
  • whale
  • while
  • whine
  • white
  • whole
  • wide
  • wife
  • wipe
  • wire
  • wore
  • wrote
  • yule
  • zone

Note that many grammars describe the change in vowel sound as a “silent e” as a change from a “short vowel” to a “long sound.” However, unlike Old English, Modern English no longer has short or long vowels.

Indicate Consonant Sounds

The second function of the “silent e” in written English is to indicate a consonant sound. Many grammars state that a “silent e” changes a preceding hard c [k] or g [g] written with a letter c or g to a soft c [s] or g [dʒ]], changes a preceding th [θ] to a th [ð], and changes a preceding z [z] to a s [s]. The consonant sounds indicated by a “silent e” are:

  • [k] voiceless velar stop/plosive → [s] voiceless alveolar fricative
  • [g] voiced velar stop → [dʒ] voiced palato-alveolar affricate
  • [θ] voiceless dental fricative → [ð] voiced dental fricative
  • [z] voiced alveolar fricative → [s] voiceless alveolar fricative

Examples of a “silent e” indicating a consonant sound include the following:

  • brace
  • dice
  • face
  • fleece
  • grace
  • hence
  • lace
  • lice
  • mace
  • mice
  • nice
  • niece
  • pace
  • place
  • price
  • race
  • rice
  • slice
  • space
  • splice
  • trace
  • twice
  • vice

 

  • advantage
  • age
  • average
  • baggage
  • bandage
  • cage
  • college
  • cottage
  • courage
  • damage
  • garbage
  • gauge
  • image
  • knowledge
  • ledge
  • manage
  • message
  • package
  • page
  • passage
  • postage
  • rage
  • sausage
  • shortage
  • stage
  • storage
  • village
  • wage

 

  • bath – bathe
  • breath – breathe
  • cloth – clothe
  • loath – loathe
  • sheath – sheathe
  • sooth – soothe
  • teeth – teethe
  • wreath – wreathe

 

  • burs – burse
  • cars – carse (low fertile land usually along a river)
  • dens – dense
  • dows – dowse
  • moos – moose
  • pars – parse
  • tens – tense

Note that the first rule additionally applies to some words affected by the second rule such as bath and bathe and wag and wage.

Distinguish of Homophones

The third function of the “silent e” in written English is to distinguish homophones.

In many cases, the “silent e” prevents confusion with regular plural nouns and third person singular present tense verb forms. For example:

  • bows (third person singular present tense form of bow) – bowse (haul by means of a tackle)
  • brows – browse
  • aw – awe
  • by – bye
  • cops – copse
  • haws – hawse (part of a ship)
  • laps – lapse
  • pleas – please
  • pros – prose
  • teas – tease

Add a Vowel to a Syllabic Consonant

The fourth function of the “silent e” in written English is to add a vowel to a syllabic consonant, specifically the syllabic l [l]. The rules of English spelling state that every syllable must have a vowel. A “silent e” following a syllabic l prevents words from violating the spelling rule. For example:

  • able
  • agile
  • aisle
  • amble
  • ample
  • angle
  • ankle
  • apostle
  • apple
  • article
  • axle
  • babble
  • baffle
  • bangle
  • battle
  • bauble
  • beagle
  • beetle
  • bible
  • bobble
  • bottle
  • bridle
  • bristle
  • brittle
  • bubble
  • buckle
  • bugle
  • bundle
  • bungle
  • burgle
  • bustle
  • cable
  • cackle
  • candle
  • castle
  • cattle
  • chronicle
  • chuckle
  • circle
  • crackle
  • cradle
  • crinkle
  • cripple
  • crumble
  • crumple
  • cubicle
  • cuddle
  • cycle
  • dapple
  • dawdle
  • dazzle
  • dimple
  • doodle
  • dribble
  • drizzle
  • duffle
  • dwindle
  • eagle
  • embezzle
  • example
  • exile
  • fable
  • facile
  • fickle
  • fiddle
  • fondle
  • frazzle
  • freckle
  • frizzle
  • gable
  • gentle
  • giggle
  • google
  • grapple
  • gristle
  • grumble
  • gurgle
  • guzzle
  • haggle
  • handle
  • hassle
  • heckle
  • hobble
  • huddle
  • hurdle
  • hurtle
  • icicle
  • idle
  • jangle
  • jiggle
  • jingle
  • jostle
  • juggle
  • jungle
  • kettle
  • knuckle
  • ladle
  • little
  • manacle
  • maple
  • marble
  • measle(s)
  • meddle
  • middle
  • mingle
  • miracle
  • muddle
  • muffle
  • muscle
  • muzzle
  • needle
  • nestle
  • nettle
  • nibble
  • nipple
  • noble
  • noodle
  • nozzle
  • nuzzle
  • obstacle
  • ogle
  • paddle
  • particle
  • peddle
  • people
  • pickle
  • pimple
  • pinnacle
  • poodle
  • prickle
  • principle
  • puddle
  • purple
  • puzzle
  • raffle
  • rankle
  • rattle
  • riddle
  • rifle
  • ripple
  • ruble
  • ruffle
  • sable
  • saddle
  • sample
  • scale
  • scrabble
  • scribble
  • scuffle
  • scuttle
  • settle
  • shackle
  • shale
  • shuffle
  • shuttle
  • sidle
  • simple
  • single
  • skittle
  • smile
  • smuggle
  • snaffle
  • sniffle
  • snuffle
  • snuggle
  • sparkle
  • speckle
  • spectacle
  • sprinkle
  • squiggle
  • stable
  • stale
  • staple
  • startle
  • steeple
  • stifle
  • stipple
  • straddle
  • straggle
  • strangle
  • struggle
  • stubble
  • style
  • suckle
  • supple
  • swindle
  • table
  • tackle
  • temple
  • tentacle
  • thistle
  • throttle
  • tickle
  • tingle
  • tipple
  • title
  • topple
  • tousle
  • trample
  • treacle
  • trifle
  • truffle
  • tumble
  • turtle
  • tussle
  • twinkle
  • uncle
  • vehicle
  • waddle
  • warble
  • whale
  • while
  • whistle
  • wiggle
  • wobble
  • wrestle
  • wriggle
  • wrinkle

Maintain Spelling Rules

The fifth function of the “silent e” in written English is to prevent words from ending in u and v. The rules of English spelling state that words cannot end with a u or v. A “silent e” following a u or v prevents words from violating the spelling rule. For example:

  • accrue
  • ague
  • applique
  • argue
  • arabasque
  • avenue
  • barbecue
  • barbeque
  • bisque
  • blue
  • boutique
  • burlesque
  • calque
  • clique
  • clue
  • colleague
  • construe
  • continue
  • critique
  • cue
  • curlicue
  • dialogue
  • discontinue
  • due
  • epilogue
  • fatigue
  • fescue
  • flue
  • fugue
  • glue
  • grotesque
  • harangue
  • hue
  • imbue
  • intrigue
  • issue
  • league
  • merengue
  • meringue
  • miscue
  • monologue
  • mosque
  • overdue
  • overissue
  • overvalue
  • picturesque
  • pique
  • plague
  • plaque
  • prologue
  • pursue
  • queue
  • rescue
  • residue
  • revenue
  • revue
  • rogue
  • rue
  • segue
  • statue
  • sue
  • superglue
  • synagogue
  • tissue
  • tongue
  • torque
  • true
  • undervalue
  • undue
  • unglue
  • unique
  • vague
  • value
  • venue
  • virtue
  • vogue

 

  • above
  • active
  • alive
  • approve
  • arrive
  • carve
  • cave
  • chive
  • clove
  • cove
  • crave
  • creative
  • cursive
  • curve
  • dive
  • dove
  • drive
  • drove
  • eve
  • give
  • forgive
  • gave
  • give
  • glove
  • grave
  • grove
  • halve
  • have
  • hive
  • groove
  • improve
  • involve
  • live
  • love
  • mauve
  • native
  • nerve
  • olive
  • pave
  • prove
  • rave
  • survive
  • swerve
  • twelve
  • valve
  • wave

Note that words borrowed from other language such as chateau, jujitsu, and tofu and abbreviations such as flu and gov can end in a u or v. Native English words cannot.

Historical Carryover

The sixth function of the “silent e” in written English is to maintain the history of a word. In some words with historically long vowels, the final e indicated the length of the vowel. The remaining “silent e” is a historical carryover. The effect is especially common in words that historically had an f rather than a v such as in give and love. (The fifth function of “silent e” additionally applies to both words.) Other examples of a “silent e” that maintains the history of a word include the following:

  • come
  • cleanse
  • done
  • some
  • were

“Silent e” performs six important functions in written English: indicate vowel sounds, indicate consonant sounds, distinguish homophones, add a vowel to a syllabic consonant, specifically the syllabic l [l], prevent words from ending in u and v, and maintain the history of a word. In some words, multiple rules apply.

See also Spelling Rules for “Silent E” for a printable that lists and explains the multiple rules for the “silent e” in written English.

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