Grammar Lessons 101: Silent Letters

July 15, 2019 by IELTS

There was a time when there was no commonly accepted spelling or pronunciation standard for written or spoken English. Local dialects, education, and regional difference all influenced how we spelled and pronounced words. Spelling wasn’t codified until the early 18th Century when Noah Webster and Samuel Johnson wrote their dictionaries.

While spelling has remained mostly the same — though there remains regional spelling differences between English-speaking countries, like the United States and Canada — the pronunciation of words has evolved. Letters that were once pronounced in words have fallen silent.

Let’s take a look at some of the more commonly confusing words:

“Ough” Words —

  • Though: the “ough” in though is pronounced with an -oh sound, as in “throw.”

Example: Though she be small, she is fierce.

  • Through: the “ough” in through is pronounced with an -ew sound, as in “threw.”

Example: The only way out is through.

  • Tough: the “ough” in tough is pronounced with an -uff sound, as in “buff."

Example: The test was tough.

  • Cough: the “ough” in cough is pronounced with an -off sound, as in “off.”

Example: She has a raspy cough.

Words with a Silent E —

When a word ends in e, the preceding vowel is long.

  • Bit has a short I sound but turns into bite — with a long I sound (as in “eye”) — when we add an E to the end.
  • Mat has a short A sound. When we add an E to the end of the word, the A becomes long (as in “hay”).

Words with a Silent P —

There are several Greek clusters to English words that harken back to the word’s origin. The general rule of thumb is to pretend the letter P doesn’t exist when speaking the word but make sure to remember to include it when spelling the word.

  • Psychology
  • Psychic
  • Pterodactyl
  • Pneumonia

Other Silent Letters — B, G, and K

Still, there are other words that have silent letters that can be tricky to remember.

  • Doubt — the b is silent, and the word is pronounced with a short O sound, as in “out.”
  • Gnome — is pronounced with a long O sound, as in “dome.”
  • Knight — is pronounced like its homophone “night.” Primarily, the context in which the word is used will provide the only clue whether to use knight or night.
  • Knife — is pronounced with a long I vowel sound, as in “life.”
  • Knit — is pronounced with a short vowel sound, as in “lit.”

Repetition is key to memorization and mastery of words with silent letters. In general, the best way to prepare for your IELTS written and spoken exams is simply to simultaneously listening to the word being spoken while reading it.

For more exam prep ideas, tips and tricks, be sure to explore our blog topics and website further or visit your nearest IELTS Test Centre today!

Blog posts via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to posts from as they happen!