Missing: The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing “E”

Where did that pesky “E” go?

Most language learners go through this: you see a letter in a word, you pronounce it. Latin languages in particular tend to have this pesky, pesky habit. If I had a penny for every time I’ve told one of my students “Say what you hear, not what you read.” I’d be so rich I probably wouldn’t be managing a website to increase my business!

Naturally, it’s all easier said than done, isn’t it? The fact is that spelling and pronunciation in English are so distant from one another that even mother-tongues struggle with them. The only thing is that their trouble is the opposite. While language learners struggle with pronunciation, because they base it on the spelling, natives struggle with the spelling, because they learned the language from listening. The ideal would be to find this perfect balance between the two, but reality is far, far from perfect. So instead, as language teachers all we can do is make lists, provide examples, and invite our students to practice, practice, practice! Because when learners ask for rules what they really ask for is a sense of stability and absolute truth, I avoid using that word when explaining pronunciation and spelling. I prefer to describe them as recurring situations, more than one can often coincide but they are neither mutually inclusive or exclusive! So listed below are some recognisable situations in which the letter e is silent.

Situation 1: the VCE syllable

Excuse me teacher, but what on earth is the VCE syllable? Well, it’s a syllable containing vowel consonant – letter e. This particular combination features a final e that is absolutely silent. You cannot hear it at all. Except that you can! You see, when this combination happens, and the silent e follows a consonant, the vowel before that consonant has a long sound. Wait what do you mean by that, teacher?

Let’s see some examples:
make /meɪk/
eve /iːv/
ice /aɪs/
tone /təʊn/
pure /pjʊə(r)/
Try reading them!

In the words above you do not hear an e at the end of the word… but somehow you hear it with the vowel, before the consonant, making it a long sound! It’s quite important to notice that this combination only has one consonant separating the vowel from the final e… You will not hear the final e merge with the previous vowel if, for example, two consonants separate them (force, lense).

If you compare the word fat /fæt/ (as in /fæt kæt/) to the similarly spelled but inclusive of final e fate /feɪt/ you cannot help but notice what a difference a silent e makes! And similarly, the difference between rod and rode, pin and pine, cut and cute, her and here.

You might have noticed a similarity with the words I’ve listed just now: they are CVCs (consonantvowel consonant) and with an added e, their pronunciation changes.

Situation 2: after TH

So, some nouns that end in -th become verbs (and change pronunciation) when you add a silent e.

bath /bɑːθ/becomesbathe /beɪð/
breath /breθ/becomesbreathe /briːð/
cloth /klɒθ/becomesclothe /kləʊð/
teeth /tiːθ/becomesteethe /tiːð/

Situation 3: This is not a plural!

So when in English you see a word and with the letter s it usually means that it’s a plural noun or a verb in the third person singular. However the English language has a lot of words that end with a final s sound, except… those are followed by a silent e. Think of horse, dense, phase, tease, house and so on. Having that e right at the end avoids possible confusion with a plural. Just remember not to actually pronounce it!

Situation 4: the CLE pattern

So you’ll notice that in English we have quite a few syllables that have no apparent vowel sound, formed by the combination of consonant letter l – silent e. Vowels there are silent, merely placeholders for someone to recognize that yes, that is indeed a syllable. Think of the word TROUBLE, in which ble is really just the b sound followed by the l sound. Hello again silent e!

Try reading these!
Can you think of at least 5 more words ending in CLE?

Situation 5: Softening your C and G

Bag, manic, zodiac, swing… regardless of how we pronounce C and D when spelling the alphabet, they have a pretty hard sound, especially when they are at the end of a word. Enter our old friend, the silent e, and suddenly we can have the following soft, soft sounds: wage, advice, palace, challenge, independence, huge, revenge, orange, rice, exchange, once, voice.

Situation 6: Help out your i, u and v

Have you noticed that there are no English words ending with the letters i, u and v? And no, pi (π) doesn’t count, because that’s Maths, not English. Well, we just can’t have words end by those letters so we add the silent e. Try reading the following: pie, love, blue.

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com
Photo by Jou00e3o Vu00edtor Heinrichs on Pexels.com
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

I cannot stress this enough: I don’t believe we can really classify these as rules. For example we can see how sometimes two words have the same exact sound, different meaning, and are simply differentiated by the silent e, as in by vs bye. As always, the best thing is listening, listening, listening – only by repeating what we hear can we truly learn how to speak!