Monday, December 5, 2011

The V(owel)-C(onsonant)-silent "e" Rule

One of the most frustrating features of English is pronunciation because it isn't clearly related to spelling. There doesn't seem to be any logic to spelling and pronunciation - no matter if you're a native speaker or a non-native speaker of English. So, are there any rules that we teachers can pass on to our students about how to say unfamiliar words?

The simplest rule that most native speakers follow - even if they don't consciously know it's a rule - is the (V)owel - (C)onsonant - Silent ("e") pronunciation pattern V-C-e at the end of a word.  The easiest way to illustrate is with words: gate, late, mate, state, fate, date, rate, relate, debate and so on. In these words, the "a" in the "-ate" part sounds like [e] in the phonetic alphabet, "e" sounds like [i], "i" sounds like [ay], "o" like [oʊ], and "u" like [yu], with a "y" sound in front of the "u", as in "cute" [kyut] or without the "y" sound, as in "dude" [dud] or "flute" [flut].

kite       vote       cute           complete
trite       dote       mute          delete
cite        tote       flute           compete
bite       mode     fume          
mite      pole       perfume       
site        mole      assume          
lime      sole        crude              
mime     hope     attitude        
crime     cope     dude
fine       dope      rule
wine      mope    mule
line        rode      cube
As you can see, there are a lot more words ending in -aCe, -iCe, -oCe, and -uCe than -eCe.  I suspect that that probably means there are alternate spellings for the long "e" sound in English. And, of course, remember that the above "rule" (V-C-e) is only a rule of thumb.  In other words, there are several exceptions to the rule, such as the irregular past participles, done and gone, whose "o's" are pronounced differently in each word and differently from lone, which does follow the rule.  

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