Posted by: Jack Henry | March 2, 2023

Silent Letters

Good morning, folks!

I was looking around for something interesting to share with you today, and I found this article, Every Letter Is Silent, Sometimes. Now and then, Donna and I challenge you with frequently misspelled words or we discuss the oddities of English, but I don’t know that we’ve ever covered this topic. I had to read more to see if the folks at Merriam-Webster could prove that all 26 of our letters are occasionally hushed. I’m dividing the list in half so you can savor the silence over a couple of days.


The a in bread (as well as in tread) does nothing. You might as well spell it bred except that then it looks too much like the past tense of breed. So don’t do that. A is similarly indefensible in aisle and aesthetic.


Most silent b‘s come at the ends of words and just after m: bomb, climb, comb, crumb, dumb, lamb, limb, numb, plumb, thumb, tomb. Just when one starts to feel comfortable with the relative regularity of these, debt and subtle show up like a couple of toughs.


C may as well cede all power to s in words like science and scissors, but we’ll also point out that it’s not doing much of anything in acquire, indict, or muscle.


D is shirking its auditory duties in handkerchief and mostly doing the same in handsome. Its appearance in Wednesday can only be seen as some kind of cruel joke.


The word sleeve has an excessive number of e‘s. We’re saying it right now. Sleve or sleev would work fine, but English does not like to leave v‘s on the ends of words; it props them up with e‘s, as though they’d fall over otherwise. That v habit explains, then, words like leave and give, but there’s no excusing the e in words like imagine.


While some people do in fact pronounce the second f in fifth, the first pronunciation given in our dictionary is the one that omits it. Overall, however, f is to be commended for its performance generally. We’d give it an A, if we were on speaking terms with that letter.


G has no business being in sign nor phlegm, as far as the modern reader is concerned. It obviously doesn’t care. This callousness is also evident in that slew of gn- words: gnarl, gnash, gnat, gnaw, gnostic, gnu. It can be no surprise, then, that g also participates in the likes of such offenses as high, though, and through.


The h‘s at the beginning of heir, honest, and honor have nothing to say. Neither do the ones in rhyme and ghost. That h makes a contribution of a sort in the second syllable of rhythm only goes so far in repairing the letter’s record.


I doesn’t do a blessed thing in business, except to be impersonated by the u in the first syllable. It also does no discernible good in suit, which in a decent orthographic system would be spelled soot.


Some of you may be happy to know that we have at this point only one English word in which the j is silent: marijuana.


The silent k in an assortment of common words demonstrates a callousness for beginner spellers especially: knee, knife, knight, knit, knob, knock, knot, know, knuckle.


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.


One can get through much of life never encountering m in its silent form. By the time a person is ready for a word like mnemonic they have likely come to accept the vagaries of silent letters.

There you have the first half of alphabet and the examples. Next time, we’ll finish the list with silent examples of N–Z. Once you’ve seen that, you’ll be ready for the next trivia night at your local TGIF!

Kara Church | Technical Editor, Advisory | Technical Publications

Pronouns: she/her | Call via Teams |

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