Posted by: Jack Henry | May 18, 2021

Editor’s Corner: The Silent L

Hi Kara,

We are working on our last spelling list of the year and my second-grade daughter is mad at the people who created the English language. (She’s a bit dramatic sometimes.) She doesn’t understand why would, should, and could have an L in them, and said, “What? Did they not have enough words with L in them, so they threw it in these!?!” Any insight that would help me explain this to her?


Little Drama’s Mamma

Dear Mamma,

Hello there! What a smart kid. It’s tough to argue with her; those Ls don’t make a lot of sense. I did some searching, and they are particularly difficult for people studying English for the first time. Unlike many of the topics we research, there were no compact answers or prewritten lessons to share.

There’s a cool article on Merriam-Webster’s site called Every Letter Is Silent, Sometimes.It’s a bit lengthy, but it sounds like something your daughter might get a kick out of…during next year’s spelling studies. Here is what M-W’s article said about L, which could possibly send her over the edge, though. On the other hand, maybe she helped write the first two sentences!


The most indecent of the silent L words is surely colonel. The word sounds identical to kernel, which is an honorable, respectfully spelled word. L is also silent in could, should, would, as well as in calf and half, and in chalk, talk, walk, and for many people in calm, palm, and psalm.

I suspected the answer behind the shifty silent L might be found in its history, so I went to my favorite etymologist online here:

I’ve cut a bit here and there to make the definitions more friendly to today’s yout’.


Old English cuðe, past tense of cunnan "to be able" (can)); ending changed in the 14th century to standard English). The unetymological “L” was added in the 15th to16th century on model of would and should, where it is historical.


Circa 1200, from Old English sceolde, past tense of sceal (see shall). Preserves the original notion of "obligation" that has all but dropped from shall.


Old English wolde, past tense and past subjunctive of willan "to will" (see will). Would-be (adj.) "wishing to be, vainly pretending" is first recorded c. 1300.

To read the full descriptions and see the links to can, shall, and will, click here.

So, the easy answer to your daughter is that the L is part of the Old English words for will (would) and shall (should), and because the words can and could fit a similar pattern, they threw in the L to make them all similar, even though it wasn’t part of the original word. Now we don’t have the Old English verbs, but we’re still stuck with the silent Ls in the middle.

I hope that answer makes some sense to her, even if it does address her disdain. Tell her to keep asking those great questions!

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

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