Like the orthography of most world languages, English orthography has a broad degree of standardisation. However, unlike with most languages, there are multiple ways to spell nearly every phoneme (sound), and most letters also have multiple pronunciations depending on their position in a word and the context. Several orthographic mistakes are common even among native speakers. This is mainly due to the large number of words that have been borrowed from a large number of other languages throughout the history of the English language, without successful attempts at complete spelling reforms. Most of the spelling conventions in Modern English were derived from the phonetic spelling of a variety of Middle English, and generally do not reflect the sound changes that have occurred since the late 15th century (such as the Great Vowel Shift).
Despite the various English dialects spoken from country to country and within different regions of the same country, there are only slight regional variations in English orthography, the two most recognised variations being British and American spelling, and its overall uniformity helps facilitate international communication. On the other hand, it also adds to the discrepancy between the way English is written and spoken in any given location.
Function of the letters
Letters in English orthography usually represent a particular sound (phoneme). For example, the word cat // consists of three letters ⟨c⟩, ⟨a⟩, and ⟨t⟩, in which ⟨c⟩ represents the sound /k/, ⟨a⟩ the sound /æ/, and ⟨t⟩ the sound /t/.
Sequences of letters may perform this role as well as single letters. Thus, in the word ship (pronounced /ˈʃɪp/), the digraph ⟨sh⟩ (two letters) represents the sound /ʃ/. In the word ditch, the trigraph ⟨tch⟩ represent the sound /tʃ/.
Less commonly, a single letter can represent multiple successive sounds. The most common example is the letter ⟨x⟩, which normally represents the consonant cluster /ks/ (for example, in the word six, pronounced /ˈsɪks/).
The same letter (or sequence of letters) may be pronounced in different ways when it occurs in different positions within a word. For instance, the digraph ⟨gh⟩ represents the sound /f/ at the end of some words, such as rough /ˈrʌf/, though not in others (though /ˈðoʊ/). At the beginning of syllables (i.e. the syllable onset), the digraph ⟨gh⟩ is pronounced /ɡ/, as in the word ghost (pronounced /ˈɡoʊst/). Conversely, the digraph ⟨gh⟩ is never pronounced /f/ in syllable onsets other than in inflected forms, and is almost never pronounced /ɡ/ in syllable codas (the proper name Pittsburgh is an exception).
Some words contain silent letters, which do not represent any sound in modern English pronunciation. Examples include the ⟨b⟩ in doubt, debt, dumb, etc., the ⟨p⟩ in psychology and pneumatic, ⟨gh⟩ as mentioned above in numerous words such as though, daughter, night, brought, and the commonly encountered silent ⟨e⟩ (discussed further below).
Another type of spelling characteristic is related to word origin. For example, when representing a vowel, the letter ⟨y⟩ represents the sound /ɪ/ in some words borrowed from Greek (reflecting an original upsilon), whereas the letter usually representing this sound in non-Greek words is the letter ⟨i⟩. Thus, the word myth // is of Greek origin, while pith // is a Germanic word. Other examples include ⟨ph⟩ pronounced /f/ (which is usually spelled ⟨f⟩), and ⟨ch⟩ pronounced /k/ (which is usually spelled ⟨c⟩ or ⟨k⟩) – the use of these spellings for these sounds often mark words that have been borrowed from Greek.
Some researchers, such as Brengelman (1970), have suggested that, in addition to this marking of word origin, these spellings indicate a more formal level of style or register in a given text, although Rollings (2004) finds this point to be exaggerated as there would be many exceptions where a word with one of these spellings, such as ⟨ph⟩ for /f/ (like telephone), could occur in an informal text.
Spelling may also be useful to distinguish between homophones (words with the same pronunciation but different meanings), although in most cases the reason for the difference is historical and was not introduced for the purpose of making a distinction. For example, the words heir and air are pronounced identically in most dialects, but in writing they are distinguished from each other by their different spellings. Another example is the pair of homophones pain and pane, where both are pronounced // but have two different spellings of the vowel /eɪ/. Often this is because of the historical pronunciation of each word where, over time, two separate sounds become the same but the different spellings remain: pain used to be pronounced as /pain/, with a diphthong, and pane as /peːn/, but the diphthong /ai/ merged with the long vowel /eː/ in pane, making pain and pane homophones (pane–pain merger). Later /eː/ became a diphthong /eɪ/.
In written language, this may help to resolve potential ambiguities that would arise otherwise (cf. He's breaking the car vs. He's braking the car). Nevertheless, many homophones remain that are unresolved by spelling (for example, the word bay has at least five fundamentally different meanings).
Marking sound changes in other letters
Some letters in English provide information about the pronunciation of other letters in the word. Rollings (2004) uses the term "markers" for such letters. Letters may mark different types of information. For instance, the letter ⟨e⟩ in the word cottage // indicates that the preceding ⟨g⟩ is pronounced /dʒ/, rather than the more common value of ⟨g⟩ in word-final position as the sound /ɡ/, such as in tag //. The letter ⟨e⟩ also often marks an altered pronunciation of a preceding vowel. In the pair ban and bane, the ⟨a⟩ of ban has the value /æ/, whereas the ⟨a⟩ of bane is marked by the ⟨e⟩ as having the value /eɪ/. In this context, the ⟨e⟩ is not pronounced, and is referred to as "silent e". A single letter may even fill multiple pronunciation-marking roles simultaneously. For example, in the word wage, the ⟨e⟩ marks not only the change of the ⟨a⟩ from /æ/ to /eɪ/, but also of the ⟨g⟩ from /ɡ/ to /dʒ/. In the word vague, the ⟨e⟩ marks the long a sound, but the ⟨u⟩ keeps the g hard rather than soft.
Doubled consonants usually indicate that the preceding vowel is pronounced short. For example, the doubled ⟨t⟩ in latter indicates that the ⟨a⟩ is pronounced /æ/, while the single ⟨t⟩ of later gives /eɪ/. Doubled consonants only indicate any lengthening or gemination of the consonant sound itself when they come from different morphemes, as with the ⟨nn⟩ in unnatural = un+natural.
A given letter or (letters) may have dual functions. For example, the letter ⟨i⟩ in the word cinema has a sound-representing function (representing the sound /ɪ/) and a pronunciation-marking function (marking the ⟨c⟩ as having the value /s/ opposed to the value /k/).
Like many other alphabetic orthographies, English spelling does not represent non-contrastive phonetic sounds (that is, minor differences in pronunciation which are not used to distinguish between different words). Although the letter ⟨t⟩ is pronounced by some speakers with aspiration [tʰ] at the beginning of words, this is never indicated in the spelling, and, indeed, this phonetic detail is probably not noticeable to the average native speaker not trained in phonetics. However, unlike some orthographies, English orthography often represents a very abstract underlying representation (or morphophonemic form) of English words.
[T]he postulated underlying forms are systematically related to the conventional orthography ... and are, as is well known, related to the underlying forms of a much earlier historical stage of the language. There has, in other words, been little change in lexical representation since Middle English, and, consequently, we would expect ... that lexical representation would differ very little from dialect to dialect in Modern English ... [and] that conventional orthography is probably fairly close to optimal for all modern English dialects, as well as for the attested dialects of the past several hundred years.
In these cases, a given morpheme (i.e. a component of a word) has a fixed spelling even though it is pronounced differently in different words. An example is the past tense suffix -⟨ed⟩, which may be pronounced variously as /t/, /d/, or /ᵻd/ (for example, dip //, dipped //, boom //, boomed //, loot //, looted /ˈluːtᵻd/). As it happens, these different pronunciations of -⟨ed⟩ can be predicted by a few phonological rules, but that is not the reason why its spelling is fixed.
Another example involves the vowel differences (with accompanying stress pattern changes) in several related words. For instance, the word photographer is derived from the word photograph by adding the derivational suffix -⟨er⟩. When this suffix is added, the vowel pronunciations change largely owing to the moveable stress:
Spelling Pronunciation photograph // or // photographer // photographical //
Other examples of this type are the -⟨ity⟩ suffix (as in agile vs agility, acid vs acidity, divine vs divinity, sane vs sanity). See also: Trisyllabic laxing.
Another such class of words includes sign // and bomb // with "silent" letters ⟨g⟩ and ⟨b⟩, respectively. However, in the related words signature and bombard these letters are pronounced // and //, respectively. Here it could be argued that the underlying representation of sign and bomb is |saɪɡn| and |bɒmb|, in which the underlying |ɡ| and |b| are only pronounced in the surface forms when followed by certain suffixes (-⟨ature⟩, -⟨ard⟩). Otherwise, the |ɡ| and |b| are not realised in the surface pronunciation (e.g. when standing alone, or when followed by suffixes like -⟨ing⟩ or -⟨er⟩). In these cases, the orthography indicates the underlying consonants that are present in certain words but are absent in other related words. Other examples include the ⟨t⟩ in fast // and fasten //, and the ⟨h⟩ in heir // and inherit //.
Another example includes words like mean // and meant //. Here the vowel spelling ⟨ea⟩ is pronounced differently in the two related words. Thus, again the orthography uses only a single spelling that corresponds to the single morphemic form rather than to the surface phonological form.
English orthography does not always provide an underlying representation; sometimes it provides an intermediate representation between the underlying form and the surface pronunciation. This is the case with the spelling of the regular plural morpheme, which is written as either -⟨s⟩ (as in tick, ticks and mite, mites) or -⟨es⟩ (as in box, boxes). Here the spelling -⟨s⟩ is pronounced either /s/ or /z/ (depending on the environment, e.g. ticks // and pigs //) while -⟨es⟩ is usually pronounced /ᵻz/ (e.g. boxes /ˈbɒksᵻz/). Thus, there are two different spellings that correspond to the single underlying representation |z| of the plural suffix and the three surface forms. The spelling indicates the insertion of /ᵻ/ before the /z/ in the spelling -⟨es⟩, but does not indicate the devoiced /s/ distinctly from the unaffected /z/ in the spelling -⟨s⟩.
The abstract representation of words as indicated by the orthography can be considered advantageous since it makes etymological relationships more apparent to English readers. This makes writing English more complex, but arguably makes reading English more efficient. However, very abstract underlying representations, such as that of Chomsky & Halle (1968) or of underspecification theories, are sometimes considered too abstract to accurately reflect the communicative competence of native speakers. Followers of these arguments believe the less abstract surface forms are more "psychologically real" and thus more useful in terms of pedagogy.
English has some words that can be written with accent marks. These words have mostly been imported from other languages, usually French. As imported words become increasingly naturalised, there is an increasing tendency to omit the accent marks, even in formal writing. For example, words such as rôle and hôtel were first seen with accents when they were borrowed into English, but now the accent is almost never used. The words were originally considered foreign – and some people considered that English alternatives were preferable – but today their foreign origin is largely forgotten. Words most likely to retain the accent are those atypical of English morphology and therefore still perceived as slightly foreign. For example, café and pâté both have a pronounced final e, which would otherwise be silent under the normal English pronunciation rules. However café is now sometimes facetiously pronounced "caff", while in pâté, the acute accent is helpful to distinguish it from pate.
Further examples of words sometimes retaining diacritics when used in English are: Ångström (partly because the scientific symbol for this unit of measurement is "Å"), appliqué, attaché, blasé, bric-à-brac, Brötchen, cliché, crème, crêpe, façade, fiancé(e), flambé, naïve, naïveté, né(e), papier-mâché, passé, piñata, protégé, résumé, risqué, über-, voilà. Italics, with appropriate accents, are generally applied to foreign terms that are uncommonly used in or have not been assimilated into English: for example, adiós, crème brûlée, pièce de résistance, raison d'être, über, vis-à-vis and belles-lettres.
It was formerly common in American English to use a diaeresis mark to indicate a hiatus: for example, coöperate, daïs, reëlect. The New Yorker and Technology Review magazines still use it for this purpose, even though it is increasingly rare in modern English. Nowadays the diaeresis is normally left out (cooperate), or a hyphen is used (co-operate) if the hiatus is between two morphemes in a compound word. It is, however, still common in monomorphemic loanwords such as naïve and Noël.
Written accents are also used occasionally in poetry and scripts for dramatic performances to indicate that a certain normally unstressed syllable in a word should be stressed for dramatic effect, or to keep with the metre of the poetry. This use is frequently seen in archaic and pseudoarchaic writings with the -ed suffix, to indicate that the e should be fully pronounced, as with cursèd.
The acute and grave accents are occasionally used in poetry and lyrics: the acute to indicate stress overtly where it might be ambiguous (rébel vs. rebél) or nonstandard for metrical reasons (caléndar); the grave to indicate that an ordinarily silent or elided syllable is pronounced (warnèd, parlìament).
In certain older texts (typically British), the use of the ligatures æ and œ is common in words such as archæology, diarrhœa, and encyclopædia. Such words have Latin or Greek origin. Nowadays, the ligatures have been generally replaced in British English by the separated digraph ae and oe (encyclopaedia, diarrhoea); but usually economy, ecology, and in American English by e (encyclopedia, diarrhea; but usually paean, amoeba, oedipal, Caesar). In some cases, usage may vary; for instance, both encyclopedia and encyclopaedia are current in the UK.
Partly because English has never had any official regulating authority for spelling, such as the Spanish Real Academia Española, the French Académie française, and the German Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung, English spelling, compared to many other languages, is quite irregular and complex. Although French, among other languages, presents a similar degree of difficulty when encoding (writing), English is more difficult when decoding (reading), as there are clearly many more possible pronunciations of a group of letters. For example, in French, the /u/ sound (as in "food", but short), can be spelled ou, ous, out, or oux (ou, nous, tout, choux), but the pronunciation of each of those sequences is always the same. In English, the /uː/ sound can be spelled in up to 18 different ways (see the Sound-to-spelling correspondences section below), including oo, u, ui, ue, o, oe, ou, ough, and ew (food, truth, fruit, blues, to, shoe, group, through, grew), but all of these have other pronunciations as well (e.g. as in flood, trust, build, bluest, go, hoe, grout, rough, sew). The Spelling-to-sound correspondences section below presents a summary of pronunciation variations. Thus, in unfamiliar words and proper nouns the pronunciation of some sequences, ough being the prime example, is unpredictable to even educated native English speakers.
Attempts to regularise or reform the spelling of English have usually failed. However, Noah Webster popularised more phonetic spellings in the United States, such as flavor for British flavour, fiber for fibre, defense for defence, analyze for analyse, catalog for catalogue and so forth. These spellings already existed as alternatives, but Webster's dictionaries helped make them standard in the US. See American and British English spelling differences for details.
Besides the quirks the English spelling system has inherited from its past, there are other idiosyncrasies in spelling that make it tricky to learn. English contains, depending on dialect, 24–27 separate consonant phonemes and 13–20 vowels. However, there are only 26 letters in the modern English alphabet, so there is not a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds. Many sounds are spelled using different letters or multiple letters, and for those words whose pronunciation is predictable from the spelling, the sounds denoted by the letters depend on the surrounding letters. For example, the digraph th represents two different sounds (the voiced dental fricative and the voiceless dental fricative) (see Pronunciation of English th), and the voiceless alveolar sibilant can be represented by the letters s and c.
It is, however, not the shortage of letters which makes English spelling irregular. Its irregularities are caused mainly by the use of many different spellings for some of its sounds, such as the sounds /uː/, /iː/ and /oʊ/ (too, true, shoe, flew, through; sleeve, leave, even, seize, siege; stole, coal, bowl, roll, old, mould), and the use of identical sequences for spelling different sounds (over, oven, move).
Furthermore, English no longer makes any attempt to anglicise the spellings of loanwords, but preserves the foreign spellings, even when they employ exotic conventions like the Polish cz in Czech (rather than *Check) or the Norwegian fj in fjord (although fiord was formerly the most common spelling). In early Middle English, until roughly 1400, most imports from French were respelled according to English rules (e.g. bataille–battle, bouton–button, but not double, or trouble). Instead of loans being respelled to conform to English spelling standards, sometimes the pronunciation changes as a result of pressure from the spelling. One example of this is the word ski, which was adopted from Norwegian in the mid-18th century, although it did not become common until 1900. It used to be pronounced /ʃiː/, which is similar to the Norwegian pronunciation, but the increasing popularity of the sport after the middle of the 20th century helped the /skiː/ pronunciation replace it.
There was also a period when the spelling of a small number of words was altered in what is now regarded as a misguided attempt to make them conform to what were perceived to be the etymological origins of the words. For example, the letter b was added to debt (originally dette) in an attempt to link it to the Latin debitum, and the letter s in island is a misplaced attempt to link it to Latin insula instead of the Old English word īġland, which is the true origin of the English word. The letter p in ptarmigan has no etymological justification whatsoever, only seeking to invoke Greek despite being a Gaelic word.
The spelling of English continues to evolve. Many loanwords come from languages where the pronunciation of vowels corresponds to the way they were pronounced in Old English, which is similar to the Italian or Spanish pronunciation of the vowels, and is the value the vowel symbols [a], [e], [i], [o], and [u] have in the International Phonetic Alphabet. As a result, there is a somewhat regular system of pronouncing "foreign" words in English, and some borrowed words have had their spelling changed to conform to this system. For example, Hindu used to be spelled Hindoo, and the name Maria used to be pronounced like the name Mariah, but was changed to conform to this system.
Commercial advertisers have also had an effect on English spelling. They introduced new or simplified spellings like lite instead of light, thru instead of through, smokey instead of smoky (for "smokey bacon" flavour crisps), and rucsac instead of rucksack. The spellings of personal names have also been a source of spelling innovations: diminutive versions of women's names that sound the same as men's names have been spelled differently: Nikki and Nicky, Toni and Tony, Jo and Joe. The differentiation in between names that are spelled differently but have the same phonetic sound may come from modernization or different countries of origin. For example, Isabelle and Isabel sound the same but are spelled differently, these versions are from France and Spain respectively.
As examples of the idiosyncratic nature of English spelling, the combination ou can be pronounced in at least nine different ways: /aʊ/ in out, /oʊ/ in soul, /uː/ in soup, /ʌ/ in touch, /ʊ/ in could, /ɔː/ in four, /ɜː/ in journal, /ɒ/ in cough, and /ə/ in famous. See the section Spelling-to-sound correspondences for a comprehensive treatment. In the other direction, the vowel sound /iː/ in me can be spelled in at least 18 or 21 different ways: be (cede), ski (machine), bologna (GA), algae, quay, beach, bee, deceit, people, key, volleyed, field (hygiene), amoeba, chamois, dengue, beguine, guyot, and city. See the section Sound-to-spelling correspondences below. (These examples assume a more-or-less standard non-regional British English accent. Other accents will vary.)
Sometimes everyday speakers of English change a counterintuitive pronunciation simply because it is counterintuitive. Changes like this are not usually seen as "standard", but can become standard if used enough. An example is the word miniscule, which still competes with its original spelling of minuscule, though this might also be because of analogy with the word mini. A further example is the modern pronunciation of tissue.
Inconsistencies and irregularities in English pronunciation and spelling have gradually increased in number throughout the history of the English language. There are a number of contributing factors. First, gradual changes in pronunciation, such as the Great Vowel Shift, account for a tremendous number of irregularities. Second, relatively recent loan words from other languages generally carry their original spellings, which are often not phonetic in English. The Romanization of languages (e.g., Chinese) using alphabets derived from the Latin alphabet has further complicated this problem, for example when pronouncing Chinese proper names (of people or places).
The regular spelling system of Old English was swept away by the Norman Conquest, and English itself was supplanted in some spheres by Norman French for three centuries, eventually emerging with its spelling much influenced by French. English had also borrowed large numbers of words from French, which naturally kept their French spellings as there was no reason or mechanism to change them. The spelling of Middle English, such as in the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer, is very irregular and inconsistent, with the same word being spelled in different ways, sometimes even in the same sentence. However, these were generally much better guides to the then pronunciation than modern English spelling is.
For example, the sound /ʌ/, normally written u, is spelled with an o in son, love, come, etc., due to Norman spelling conventions which prohibited writing u before v, m, n due to the graphical confusion that would result. (v, u, n were identically written with two minims in Norman handwriting; w was written as two u letters; m was written with three minims, hence mm looked like vun, nvu, uvu, etc.). Similarly, spelling conventions also prohibited final v. Hence the identical spellings of the three different vowel sounds in love, grove and prove are due to ambiguity in the Middle English spelling system, not sound change.
In 1417 Henry V began using English for official correspondence, which had no standardised spelling, instead of Latin or French which had standardised spelling. For example, for the word right, Latin had one spelling, rectus; Old French as used in English law had six spellings, Middle English had 77 spellings. English, now used as the official replacement language for Latin and French, motivated writers to standardise spellings, an effort which lasted about 500 years.
There was also a series of linguistic sound changes towards the end of this period, including the Great Vowel Shift, which resulted in the i in mine, for example, changing from a pure vowel to a diphthong. These changes for the most part did not detract from the rule-governed nature of the spelling system; but in some cases they introduced confusing inconsistencies, like the well-known example of the many pronunciations of ough (rough, through, though, trough, plough, etc.). Most of these changes happened before the arrival of printing in England. However, the arrival of the printing press froze the current system, rather than providing the impetus for a realignment of spelling with pronunciation. Furthermore, it introduced further inconsistencies, partly because of the use of typesetters trained abroad, particularly in the Low Countries. For example, the h in ghost was influenced by Dutch. The addition and deletion of a silent e at the ends of words was also sometimes used to make the right-hand margin line up more neatly.
By the time dictionaries were introduced in the mid 17th century, the spelling system of English had started to stabilise. By the 19th century, most words had set spellings, though it took some time before they diffused throughout the English-speaking world. In The Mill on the Floss (1860), English novelist George Eliot satirised the attitude of the English rural gentry of the 1820s towards orthography:
- Mr. Tulliver did not willingly write a letter, and found the relation between spoken and written language, briefly known as spelling, one of the most puzzling things in this puzzling world. Nevertheless, like all fervid writing, the task was done in less time than usual, and if the spelling differed from Mrs. Glegg's,–why, she belonged, like himself, to a generation with whom spelling was a matter of private judgment.
The modern English spelling system, with its national variants, spread together with the expansion of public education later in the 19th century.
The most notorious group of letters in the English language, ough, can be pronounced in at least ten different ways, six of which are illustrated in the construct, Though the tough cough and hiccough plough him through, which is quoted by Robert A. Heinlein in The Door into Summer to illustrate the difficulties facing automated speech transcription and reading. Ough, usually representing a pronunciation of roughly //, is in fact a word in its own right, though rarely known or used: an exclamation of disgust similar to ugh. The following are recorded throughout Englishes of the world:
- // (as in toe) for though and dough
- // (as in cuff) for tough, rough, enough, and the name Hough
- // (as in off) for trough, cough, and Gough
- // (as in blue) for through
- // (as in caught) for thought, ought, sought, nought, brought, etc.
- // (as in comma) for thorough, borough, and names ending in -borough; however, American English pronounces this as //
- // (as in cow) as in bough, sough, drought, plough (plow in North America), doughty, and the names Slough and Doughty
The following pronunciations are found in uncommon single words:
- hough: // (more commonly spelled "hock" now)
- hiccough (a now uncommon variant of hiccup): // as in up (unique)
- lough: // with a velar fricative like the ch in loch, of which lough is an anglicised spelling
The place name Loughborough uses two different pronunciations of ough: the first ough has the sound as in cuff and the second rhymes with thorough.
In a generative approach to English spelling, Rollings (2004) identifies twenty main orthographic vowels of stressed syllables that are grouped into four main categories: "Lax", "Tense", "Heavy", "Tense-R". (As this classification is based on orthography, not all orthographic "lax" vowels are necessarily phonologically lax.)
For instance, the letter a can represent the lax vowel /æ/, tense /eɪ/, heavy /ɑː/, or (often allophonically) [ɛə] before |r|. Heavy and tense-r vowels are the respective lax and tense counterparts followed by the letter r.
Tense vowels are distinguished from lax vowels with a "silent" e letter that is added at the end of words. Thus, the letter a in hat is lax /æ/, but when the letter e is added in the word hate the letter a is tense /eɪ/. Similarly, heavy and tense-r vowels pattern together: the letters ar in car are heavy /ɑːr/, the letters ar followed by silent e in the word care are /ɛər/. The letter u represents two different vowel patterns, one being /ʌ/, /juː/, /ə/, /jʊ/, the other /ʊ/, /uː/, /ʊ/. There is no distinction between heavy and tense-r vowels with the letter o, and the letter u in the /ʊ-uː-ʊ/ pattern does not have a heavy vowel member.
Besides silent e, another strategy for indicating tense and tense-r vowels, is the addition of another orthographic vowel forming a digraph. In this case, the first vowel is usually the main vowel while the second vowel is the "marking" vowel. For example, the word man has a lax a pronounced /æ/, but with the addition of i (as the digraph ai) in the word main the a is marked as tense and pronounced /eɪ/. These two strategies produce words that are spelled differently but pronounced identically, as in mane (silent e strategy), main (digraph strategy) and Maine (both strategies). The use of two different strategies relates to the function of distinguishing between words that would otherwise be homonyms.
Besides the 20 basic vowel spellings, Rollings (2004) has a reduced vowel category (representing the sounds /ə, ɪ/) and a miscellaneous category (representing the sounds /ɔɪ, aʊ, aɪ/ and /j/+V, /w/+V, V+V).
Combinations of vowel letters
To reduce dialectal difficulties, the sound values given here correspond to the conventions at Help:IPA/English. This table includes H, W and Y when they represent vowel sounds. If no information is given, it is assumed that the vowel is in a stressed syllable.
Deriving the pronunciation of an English word from its spelling requires not only a careful knowledge of the rules given below (many of which are not explicitly known even by native speakers: speakers merely learn the spelling of a word along with its pronunciation) and their many exceptions, but also:
- a knowledge of which syllables are stressed and which are unstressed (not derivable from the spelling: compare hallow and allow)
- which combinations of vowels represent monosyllables and which represent disyllables (ditto: compare waive and naive, creature and creator)
- In the tables, the hyphen has two different meanings. A hyphen after the letter indicates that it must be at the beginning of a syllable, e.g. j- in jumper and ajar. A hyphen before the letter indicates that it cannot be at the beginning of a word, e.g. -ck in sick and ticket.
- More specific rules take precedence over more general ones, e.g. "c- before e, i or y" takes precedence over "c".
- Where the letter combination is described as "word-final", inflectional suffixes may be added without changing the pronunciation, e.g. catalogues.
- The dialect used is RP.
- Isolated foreign borrowings are excluded.
|Examples of major value||Other|
|Examples of other values|
|b, bb||usually||/b/||bit, ebb, limber, obtain, bombe||∅||bdellium, debtor, subtle, combe|
|finally after m|
(and in derived terms)
|∅||iamb, climber, numbing, bombed||/b/||iambic, nimb|
|c||before e, i, y,|
and digraphs ae, and oe
|/s/||cellar, city, cyst, |
face, prince, nicer
Celts, chicer, syncing
|initially before n, t||∅||cnidarian, ctenoid|
|elsewhere||/k/||cat, cross, predict, opuscle, picture||∅||blancmange, indict, muscle, victual|
|cc||before e, i or y||/ks/||accept, eccentric, occidental||/k/|
|soccer, recce, siccing|
bocce, breccia, cappuccino
|elsewhere||/k/||account, accrue, occur, yucca|
|ch||usually||/tʃ/||chase, chin, attached, chore||/k/|
|ached, anchor, leprechaun |
machete, pistachio, welch
|Greek-derived words||/k/||chasm, chimera, chord, lichen||∅||drachm|
|French-derived words||/ʃ/||chaise, machine, cached, parachute||/k/|
|chemist, choir, machination|
chassis, cheque, chowder, niche (GA)
|d, dd, dh||/d/||dive, ladder, jodhpurs||/t/|
|ached, creased, iced, puffed, raked|
graduate, gradual (both also /dj/ in RP)
Wednesday, handsome, sandwich
|dg before e, i, or y||/dʒ/||lodger, pidgin, edgy||/dɡ/||headgear|
|f, -ff||/f/||fine, off||/v/
|g||before e, i, y, ae, or oe||/dʒ/||gel, pager, gin, algae (GA) |
gentle, rage, gigantic, regimen
|get, eager, gig, algae (RP) |
genre, barrage, gigue, regime
|in gm or gn||∅||phlegmy, diaphragm|
gnome, signed, poignant, reign
|pigmy, signet, indignant|
|elsewhere||/ɡ/||go, great, guest, leg, margaric||/dʒ/||margarine, gaol|
|gg||/ɡ/||dagger, smuggest, staggering||/dʒ/|
|agger, suggest, exaggerate|
|gh||initially||/ɡ/||ghost, ghastly, ghetto|
|elsewhere||∅||daughter, through, fraught, brougham|
eight, higher, straight, sighed
|/ə/ or /oʊ/|
/x/ or /k/
laughter, trough, draught, roughage
burgher, ogham, yogh
|h||usually||/h/||honey, heist, house, manhandle|
|∅||honest, heir, hours, piranha|
annihilate, vehicle, dinghy
|final or after r or ex||∅||oh, rhubarb, rhyme, exhibit, exhaust||/h/||exhale, exhume (in RP)|
jongleur, julienne, bijou
|k, kk, kh||usually||/k/||key, bake, trekking, sheikh, weeknight||∅||beknave, camiknickers|
|initially before n||∅||knee, knife, knock||/k/||knish, Knoebel|
|l, ll||/l/ or /ɫ/||valve, balcony, almost|
|halve, balk, salmon|
colonel (in rhotic accents)
|m, mm||usually||/m/||mine, hammer|
|initially before n||∅||mnemonic|
|n, nn||usually||/n/||nice, funny, enzyme|
monsieur, condemner, damningly
|before /k/ or /ɡ/||/ŋ/||inkling, bangle, anchor, minx||/n/||incline, vanguard, mankind|
|finally after m||∅||hymn, autumn, solemn|
|ng||finally and in terms|
derived from ng-final words
|/ŋ/||long, kingly, singer, clingy||/ŋɡ/|
|congress, singly, finger, language|
binging, wharfinger, dingy, engaol
|congrats, engage, vanguard|
hangar, lingonberry, tongue
|p, pp||usually||/p/||pill, happy, soup, corpse, script||∅||coup, corps, receipt, raspberry|
|initially before n, s, t||∅||pneumonia, psyche, ptomaine||/p/||psst|
|ph, pph||/f/||photograph, sapphire||/v/|
|q (not before u)||/k/||Iraq, Iqaluit|
|r, rr, rh, rrh||usually||/ɹ/||ray, parrot, rhyme, diarrhoea||∅||iron , croissant (RP), hors d'oeuvre|
||∅ in non-rhotic|
dialects like RP
fir, walker, tear, burr, myrrh
|∅||sarsaparilla, forecastle (GA)|
|See below for combinations of vowel letters and the letter r|
|s||usually||/s/||song, ask, misled||/z/|
|is, lens, raspberry|
island, aisle, debris, mesne
|-s- between vowel sounds|
(see also "se" below)
|/z/||phrases, prison, pleasing||/s/||bases, bison, leasing|
|word-final -s morpheme|
after a voiceless sound
|word-final -s morpheme|
after a lenis sound
|sc before e, i or y||/s/||scene, scepter, scissors, scythe||/sk/ |
|sch||/sk/||school, scheme, |
|schedule (RP), schist, eschalot|
|sh||/ʃ/||shin, fashion, wish, |
Lewisham, foreshore, kinship
|ss||/s/||boss, assign, narcissus|
dissert, posses, brassier,
finesse, cesspool, missout
|tissue, passion /ʒ/ or /ʃ/: scissure|
dessert, possess, brassiere, scissor
disseat, misspell, missort
|sw||/sw/||swore, swan, swift||/s/|
|t, tt||usually||/t/||ten, bitter, etiology,|
nastier, attune, piteous,
softer, wallet, gristmill,
|ration, martial, cautious|
bastion, nature, fortune, righteous
soften, ballet, Christmas, mortgage
|in -sten and -stle||∅||hasten, listens, rustling, thistles||/t/||tungsten, listless|
|thin, both, north, absinthe|
the, bother, smooth, soothe
outhouse, potherb (RP)
|v, vv||/v/||vine, heavy, savvy, reveled, revved||/f/||fivepence, sovkhoz|
|w||/w/||sward, swerve, wale||∅|
|two, sword, answer, gunwale|
|before o||/h/||who, whole||/w/||whopping, whorl|
|wr||/r/||wrong, wrist, awry|
|x||initially||/z/||xylophone, xenon, xenophobia|
|before stressed vowel||/ɡz/||example, exist, exotic, exult|
|taxation, tuxedo, proximity, exogenous |
|elsewhere||/ks/||boxes, exercise, expect, |
jinxed, next, six, taxi
|existential, exultation, exit †† |
anxious, luxury, sexual (GA)
|xc before e or i||/ks/||excellent, except, excited|
exhale, exhume, foxhole
|y-||/j/||yes, young||/ð/||ye (mock archaic)|
|z, zz||/z/||gazump, seized, crazier,|
|azure, seizure, brazier (GA)|
† Nearly 80% of Americans pronounce "luxurious" with /ɡʒ/, while two thirds of British people use /kʒ/. Half the American speakers pronounce "luxury" as //, the rest says //
†† About half of both British and American speakers say //, the other half says //.
Combinations of vowel letters and "r"
|Examples of major value||Minor values|
|Examples of minor value||Exceptions|
|ar||stressed||/ɑːr/||argyle, car, farce||/ɛə/ scarce|
|arV, are||/ɛ(ə)/||area, care, garish, wariness||/æ/|
|arid, parish, mariners, caraway |
aria, are, safaris, faraway
|/ɔː/ quarantine (GA)|
|aer||/ɛə/||aerial, aeroplane||/ɪə/||chimaera||/ə/ anaerobe|
|air, aire||/ɛə/||cairn, millionaire, dairy||/aɪ/ hetaira, zaire|
|er||/ɜː/||her, coerced, jerk, merchant|
|/ɑː/ clerk, sergeant|
|erV, ere||/ɪə/||here, series, reremice, stereo||/ɛə/|
|compere, there, werewolf|
derelict, heresy, perish, very
|/ɜː/ were, weregild|
|ear||/ɪə/||dearly, hears, yearling, tear||/ɛə/ |
|tear, bears, wearing |
linear, nuclear, stearin
|/ɜː/ heard |
|earC||/ɜː/||pearly, hearse, yearning, earth||/ɑː/||hearken, hearty, hearth||/ɪə/ beard, peart |
/eɪə/ bearnaise, /i'ɑː/ rearm
|eer||/ɪə/||cheering, beer, eerie||/iːə/||freer, seers|
|eir||/ɛə/||heir, madeira, their||/ɪə/||weird, weir, eyrie||/aɪ/ oneiric, eirenic|
|eur||/jʊə/||euro, liqueur, neural||/ɜː/||masseur, voyeur||/ʊə/ pleurisy, /iːɜː/ theurgy|
|ir||/ɜː/||bird, fir, stirrer||/ɪə/ menhir|
|irV, ire||/aɪə/||pirate, mired, virus, iris, wiring||/ɪ/||mirage, virile, iridescent, spirit|
|ier||/ɪə/||cashier, fierce, frontier, pier,||/aɪ(ə)/ |
/iə/ to /jə/
|shier, fiery, hierarchy, plier
busier, rapier, glacier, hosiery
|/iɛ(ə)/ concierge, premiere|
/iˈeɪ/ atelier, bustier, dossier
|or||/ɔː/||ford, boring, more||/ɒ/||forest, borrow, moral||/ɜː/ whorl|
|after w||/ɜː/||word, work, worst||/ɔː/||worn, sword, swore||/ʌ/ worry|
|oar||/ɔː/||boar, coarse, keyboard, soaring||/ə/ cupboard, starboard|
|oir||/wɑː/||reservoir, memoir, moire, soiree||/ɔɪə/||coir, loir, Moira||/waɪə/ choir|
|oor||/ɔə/||door, flooring||/ʊə/||poor, moor, roorback||/ə/ whippoorwill|
/oʊ ɔː/ coordinate
|our||stressed||/ɔː/||four, courtesan, discourse||/aʊə/|
|hour, flour, scours|
journey, courtesy, scourge
tour, courier, gourd, velour
|/ʌ/ encourage, flourish|
|unstressed||/ə/||camouflage, labour, nervous||/u/|
|entourage, bivouac, bedouin |
/w/ ratatouille, ouabaine
|owr, ower||/aʊə/||dowry, cowries||/oʊ/||cowrites, showroom|
|ower||/aʊə/||flower, tower||/oʊ/||lower, stower|
|ur||/ɜː/||turn, occur, curdle, burr|
furry, demurral, blurred, recurring
|/ʌ/||recurrent, occurrence||/ʊ(ə)/ langur|
|urV, ure||/jʊ(ə)/||lure, purity, curing||/ʊ(ə)/||allure, guru, Silurian||/ɛ/ bury, burial|
/jɔː/ sure, assurance
|after r, ʃ, ʒ, j, Cl||/ʊ(ə)/||rural, jury, plural|
|yr||/ɜː/||myrtle, myrrh||/ɪ/ pyrrhic|
|yrV, yre||/aɪə/||lyre, tyrant, gyrate||/ɪ/||syrup, Pyrenees|
Combinations of other consonant and vowel letters
|Examples of major value||Minor values|
|Examples of minor value||Exceptions|
|al||/æl/||pal, talcum, algae, alp||/ɔːl/||bald, falcon (also: /æl/)|
|calf, half||/æl/||alfalfa, malfeasance||/ɔlf/ palfrey
|alk||/ɔːk/||walk, chalking, talkative||/ælk/||alkaline, grimalkin||/ɔlk/ balkanise|
|call, fallout, smaller|
shall, callus, fallow
|/ɛl/ (GA) marshmallow, pall-mall|
|alm||/ɑːm/||alms, balmy, calm, palmistry||/ælm/ |
|palmate, salmonella, talmud |
almanac, almost , instalment
|/æm/ salmon, /ɔːm/ halm |
/ɑːlm/ almond (GA)*
|alter, malt, salty, basalt||/ælt/|
|alto, shalt, saltation|
|/ɑlt/ gestalt (GA)|
/əlt/ royalty, penalty
|final -ange||/eɪndʒ/||arrange, change, mange, strange||/ændʒ/||flange, phalange||/ɑːnʒ / melange|
|final -aste||/eɪst/||chaste, lambaste, paste, taste||/æst/||cineaste, caste (GA), pleonaste||/ɑːst/ (out)caste (RP)|
|unstressed ci- before a vowel||/ʃ/||special, gracious||/si/||species|
|-cqu||/kw/||acquaint, acquire||/k/||lacquer, racquet|
|final -ed after /t/ or /d/||/ɪd, əd/||loaded, waited|
|final -ed after a voiceless sound||/t/||piped, enserfed, snaked||/ɛd/||biped, underfed||/ɪd, əd/ naked|
|final -ed after a lenis sound||/d/||limbed, enisled, unfeared||/ɛd/||imbed, misled, infrared|
|eh||/eɪ/||eh, prehniet, tempeh||/ɛə/||yeh||/ɛ/ feh /ə/, keffiyeh|
|final -es after a fricative||/ɪz, əz/||mazes, washes, axes, bases, pieces||/iːz/||axes, bases, feces, oases|
|unstressed ex- before vowel or h||/ɪɡz, əɡz/||exist, examine, exhaust||/ɛks/||exhale|
|gu- before a||/ɡw/||bilingual, guano, language||/ɡ/||guard, guarantee|
|final -le after a non-l consonant||/əl/||little, table||/l/||orle, isle||/leɪ/ boucle|
|final -(a)isle||/aɪl/||aisle, isle, enisle, lisle|
|final -ngue||/ŋ/||tongue, harangue, meringue||/ŋɡeɪ/||merengue, distingué||/ŋɡi/ dengue|
|oh, final or before a consonant||/oʊ/||oh, kohlrabi, ohm, pharaoh||/ɒ/||demijohn, johnny||/ɔː/ bohrium|
|old||/oʊld/||blindfold, older, bold||/əld/||scaffold, kobold (also /ɒld/|
|olk||/oʊk/||yolk, folklore||/ɒlk/||polka (RP), kolkhoz||/oʊlk/ polka (GA)|
|oll||/ɒl/||dollhouse, pollen, trolley, holly||/oʊl/||tollhouse, swollen, troller, wholly||/ɔː/ atoll (GA), /ɔɪ/ cholla|
/əl/ caroller, collide
|olm||/ɒlm/||olm, dolmen||/oʊlm/||enrolment, holmium||/oʊm/ holm (oak)|
|ong||/ɔːŋ/ † |
|songstress, along, strong, wronger
congress, jongleur, bongo, conger
|congeries, longevity, pongee
tonger, bong, dugong, tongs
longer, strongest, elongate
monger, humongous, mongrel
sponger, longe, spongy
|/ʌŋ/ among, tongue |
/ɑːnɡ/ † ongoing, nongraded
/ənɡ/ congratulate, lemongrass
/əndʒ/ congeal, congestion
/ɒnʒ/ allonge /oʊnʒ/ congé (GA)
|qu-||/kw/||queen, quick||/k/||liquor, mosquito|
|final -que||/k/||mosque, bisque||/keɪ/||manque, risqué||/kjuː/ barbeque|
|final -re after a non-r consonant||/ər/||timbre, acre, ogre, centre||/reɪ/, /ri/|
|cadre (GA), compadre, emigre|
genre, oeuvre, fiacre
|final -ron after a vowel||/rɒn/||neuron, moron, interferon, aileron||/rən/||baron, heron, environ||/ə(r)n/ iron|
|unstressed sci- before a vowel||/ʃ/||conscience, luscious, prosciutto||/sai/||sciatica, sciamachy, sciential||/ʃi/ conscientious (RP), fasciated |
/sɪ/ (RP) omniscient, prescience
|final -se after a vowel (noun)||/s/||house, excuse, moose, anise, geese||/z/||prose, nose, tease, guise, compromise||/zeɪ/ marchese|
|final -se after a vowel (verb)||/z/||house, excuse, choose, arise, please||/s/||grouse, dose, lease, chase, promise|
|unstressed -si before a vowel||/ʒ/||vision, occasion, explosion, illusion||/ʃ/|
|pension, controversial, compulsion|
easier, enthusiasm, physiological
|/si/ tarsier, Celsius|
|unstressed -ssi before a vowel||/ʃ/||mission, passion, Russia, session||/si/||potassium, dossier, messier|
|unstressed -sure||/ʒər/||leisure, treasure||/ʃər/||tonsure, censure|
|unstressed -ti before a vowel||/ʃ/||cautious, patient, inertia, initial, ration||/tʃ/|
|question, Christian, suggestion|
patios, consortia, fiftieth, courtier
ratios, minutia, initiate, negotiate
|/taɪ/ cation, cationic|
/tj/ rentier (GA)
|unstressed -ture||/tʃər/||nature, picture|
The following table shows for each sound the various spelling patterns used to denote it, starting with the prototypical pattern(s) followed by others in alphabetical order. Some of these patterns are very rare or unique (such as "gh" for /p/, "ph" for /v/, "i" for /ɑː/). The symbol "…" stands for an intervening consonant.
In order of the IPA consonant tables
|/m/||m, mm, chm, gm, lm, mb, mbe, me, mh, mme, mn, tm||mine, hammer, drachm, phlegm, salmon, climb, combe, forme, mho, femme, autumn, tmesipteris|
|/n/||n, nn, cn, dn, gn, gne, kn, ln, mn, mp, nd, ne, ng, nh, nne, nt, pn, sne||nice, inn, cnidarian, Wednesday, gnome, coigne, knee, Lincoln, mnemonic, comptroller, handsome, borne, studdingsail, piranha, tonne, topgallant-sail, pneumonia, mesne|
|/ŋ/||ng, n, nc, nd, ngh, ngue||sing, link, charabanc, handkerchief, dinghy (GA), tongue|
|/p/||p, pp, gh, pe, ph, ppe||pill, apps, hiccough, thorpe, diphthong (UK)*, shoppe|
|/b/||b, bb, be, bh, pb, (p)||bit, ebb, barbe, bhang, cupboard, (thespian (US)**)|
|/t/||t, tt, bt, cht, ct, d, ed, ght, pt, te, th, tte, tw||ten, sett, doubt, yacht, victual, iced, dressed, lighter, pterodactyl, forte, thyme, cigarette, two|
|/d/||d, dd, de, dh, ed, ld, t, tt (in some dialects)||dive, odd, bdellium, horde, dharma, abandoned, solder, kindergarten (GA), (flatter)|
|/k/||c, k, cc, cch, ch, ck, cq, cqu, cque, cu, ke, kh, kk, lk, q, qu, que, x||cat, key, account, zucchini, chord, tack, acquire, lacquer, sacque, biscuit, burke, khaki, trekker, polka-dotted, quorum, liquor, mosque, excitement|
|/ɡ/||g, gg, ckg, gge, gh, gu, gue||gig, egg, blackguard, pogge, ghost, guard, catalogue|
|/s/||s, ss, c, cc, ce, ps, sc, sce, sch (in some dialects), se, sse, st, sth, sw, ts, tsw, tz, z||song, mess, city, flaccid, ounce, psalm, scene, coalesce, (schism), horse, finesse, listen, asthma (RP), sword, tsunami, boatswain, waltz (RP), quartz|
|/z/||z, zz, cz, s, sc, se, sp, ss, sth, ts, tz, x, ze, c (in some dialects)||zoo, fuzz, czar, has, crescent (UK)***, tease, raspberry, dissolve, asthma (GA), tsarina, tzar, xylophone, breeze, (electricity)|
|/ʃ/||sh, c, ce, ch, che, chi, chsi, ci, s, sc, sch, sci, she, shh, shi, si, ss, ssi, ti||shin, speciality, ocean, machine, quiche, marchioness, fuchsia, special, sugar, crescendo, schmooze, conscience, galoshe, shh, cushion, expansion, tissue, mission, nation|
|/ʒ/||g, ge, j, s, si, ti, z, zh, zi||genre, beige, bijou, leisure, division, equation, seizure, zhoosh, brazier|
|/f/||f, ff, fe, ffe, gh, lf, ph, phe, pph, v, ve, (u)||fine, chaff, carafe, gaffe, laugh, half, physical, ouphe, sapphire, sovkhoz, fivepence, (lieutenant (RP))|
|/v/||v, vv, f, lve, ph, ve, w||vine, savvy, of, halve, Stephen, have, weltanschauung|
|/θ/||th, the, chth, phth, tth||thin, absinthe, chthonic, phthisis, Matthew|
|/ð/||th, the, y||them, breathe, ye (mock archaic)|
|/j/||y, i, j, ll, r||yes, onion, hallelujah, tortilla, February †|
|/x/||ch (in Scottish English), gh (in Irish English)||loch, lough|
|/h/||h, wh, j, ch, x||he, who, fajita, chutzpah, Quixote|
|/ɾ/||In some dialects (see flapping): tt, dd, t, d||better, daddy, united, Cody|
|/r/||r, rr, l, re, rh, rre, rrh, rt, wr||fur, burr, colonel, forewarn, rhyme, murre, myrrh, mortgage, wrong|
|/l/||l, ll, le, lh, lle, ln (In some dialects)||line, shall, aisle, pelham, gazelle, (kiln)|
|/w/||w, ww, u, o, ou, we, wh (in most dialects)||we, glowworm, persuade, choir, Ouija board, awesome, what|
|/ʍ/||wh (in some dialects)||which|
|/tʃ/||ch, tch, c, cc, che, chi, cz, t, tche, te, th, ti, ts, tsch, tsh, tz, tzs, tzsch||chop, batch, cello, bocce, niche (GA), falchion, Czech, nature, escutcheon, righteous, posthumous (GA), bastion (GA), britska (US), putsch, Wiltshire, britz(s)ka (US), Nietzschean|
|/dʒ/||g, j, ch, d, dg, dge, di, dj, ge, gg, gi, jj, t||magic, jump, sandwich (RP), graduate, judgment, bridge, soldier, adjust, barge, veggies, Belgian, hajj, congratulate (US)††|
|/ks/||x, xx, cast, cc, chs, cks, cques, cs, cz, kes, ks, lks, ques, xc, xe, xs, xsc, xsw||sax, doxxing, forecastle, accent, tachs, backs, sacques, sacs, eczema, burkes, yaks, caulks, toques, excel, axe, exsert, exscind, coxswain|
|/ǀ/||tsk, tut||tsk, tut|
Sorted more or less from close to open sounds in the vowel diagram.
|/iː/||e, e...e, i, i...e, a, ae, ay, ea, ee, ei, eo, ey, eye, ie, ie...e, is, ix, oe, oi, ue, ui, uy, y||be, cede, ski, machine, bologna, algae, quay, beach, bee, deceit, people, key, volleyed, field, hygiene, debris, prix, amoeba, chamois, dengue, beguine, guyot, city|
|/ɪ/||i, y, a, a...e, ai, e, ea, ee, ei, i...e, ia, ie, ii, o, oe, u, u...e, ui||bit, myth, orange, chocolate, bargain, pretty, mileage, breeches, counterfeit, medicine, carriage, sieve, shiitake, women, oedema, busy, minute (RP), build|
|/uː/||u, u...e, oo, eew, eu, ew, ieu, ioux, o, o...e, oe, oeu, ooe, ou, ough, ougha, oup, ue, ui, uo, w, wo||tutu, flute, too, sleuth, leeward, yew, lieu, Sioux, to, lose, shoe, manoeuvre, cooed, soup, through, brougham, coup, true, fruit, buoy (GA), cwm, two|
|/ʊ/||oo, u, o, or, ou, oul, w||look, full, wolf, worsted, courier, should, cwtch|
|/eɪ/||a, a...e, aa, ae, ai, ai...e, aig, aigh, ais, al, alf, ao, au, ay, aye, e (é), e...e, ea, eg, ee (ée), eh, ei, ei...e, eig, eigh, eighe, er, ere, es, et, ete, ey, eye, ez, ie, oeh, ue, uet||bass, rate, quaalude, reggae, rain, cocaine, arraign, straight, palais, Ralph (Br.), halfpenny, gaol, gauge, hay, played, ukulele (café), crepe, steak, matinee (soirée), thegn, eh, veil, beige, reign, eight, weighed, dossier, espaliered, demesne, ballet, crocheted, they, obeyed, chez, lingerie (GA), boehmite (GA), merengue, bouquet|
|/ə/||a, e, i, o, u, y, a...e, ae, ah, ai, anc, au, ea, eau, eh, ei, eig, eo, eou, eu, gh, ie, o...e, oa, oe, oh, oi, oo, op, ou, ough, u...e, ua, ue, ui, uo||tuna, oven, pencil, icon, opus, beryl, gunwale, anaerobe, Messiah, mountain, blancmange, aurora, Eleanor, bureaucrat, keffiyeh, mullein, foreign, truncheon, timeous, amateur (RP), burgh, mischievous (GA), awesome, starboard, biocoenosis, matzoh, porpoise, whipoorwill, topgallant, callous, borough (RP), minute (GA), piquant, guerillla, circuit (GA), languor|
|o, o...e, aoh, au, aux, eau, eaue, eo, ew, oa, oe, oh, oo, ore, ot, ou, ough, oughe, ow, owe, w||so, bone, pharaoh, mauve, faux, beau, plateaued, yeoman, sew, boat, foe, oh, brooch, forecastle, depot, soul, though, furloughed, know, owe, pwn|
|/ɛ/||e, a, ae, ai, ay, e...e, ea, ee, eh, ei, eo, ie, ieu, oe, u, ue, ee (one pronunciation)||met, many, aesthetic, said, says, there, deaf, threepence, feh, heifer, jeopardy, friend, lieutenant (RP), foetid, bury, guess|
|/æ/||a, aa, ag, ah, ai, al, ar, au, ea, ei, i||hand, Aaron, seraglio (GA), Fahrenheit, plaid, salmon, sarsaparilla (GA), laugh (GA), poleax, enceinte, meringue|
|/ʌ/||u, o, o...e, oe, oo, ou, uddi, wo, au (some dialects), ee (one pronunciation)||sun, son, come, does, flood, touch, studdingsail, twopence, (because), (threepence)|
|/ɔː/||o, a, al, au, au...e, augh, aughe, aw, awe, eo, oa, oh, oo, oss, ou, ough, u, uo||flora, bald, talk, author, cause, caught, overslaughed, jaw, awe, ealdorman, broad, bohrium, flooring, crossjack, pouring, bought, surest (RP), fluoridate (RP)|
|/ɔː(r)/ †||or, ore, aor, ar, aur, aure, hors, oar, oare, oor, oore, our, oure, owar, ure||or, fore, extraordinary, war, dinosaur, roquelaure, hors d'oeuvre, oar, soared, bohrium, door, floored, four, poured, toward (GA), sure (RP)|
|/ɒ/||a, o, ach, au, eau, oh, ou, ow||watch, lock, yacht, sausage, leprechaun (GA), bureaucracy, john, cough, acknowledge|
|/ɑː/||a, a...e, aa, aae, aah, aahe, ag, ah, au, e, ea, i, o||father, garage, salaam, baaed, aah, aahed, seraglio (RP), blah, aunt (RP), sergeant, heart, lingerie (GA), lot (GA)|
|/ɑː(r)/ †||ar, aar, alla, are, arr, arre, arrh, ear, er, uar, our (some dialects)||car, bazaar, topgallant-sail, are, parr, bizarre, catarrh, heart, sergeant, guard, (our)|
|/aɪ/||i...e, ae, ai, aie, aille, ais, ay, aye, ei, eigh, ey, eye, i, ia, ic, ie, ig, igh, ighe, is, oi, oy, ui, uy, uye, y, y...e, ye||fine, maestro, krait, shanghaied, canaille (RP), aisle, kayak, aye, heist, height, geyser (GA), eye, mic, diaper, indict, tie, sign, high, sighed, isle, choir, coyote (GA), guide, buy, guyed, tryst, type, bye|
|/ɔɪ/||oi, oy, awy, eu, oll, oye, uoy, uoye||avoid, toy, lawyer, Freudian, cholla, enjoyed, buoyant, buoyed (RP)|
|/aʊ/||ou, ow, ao, aow, aowe, au, ough, oughe, owe, (eo)||out, now, cacao, miaow, miaowed, gauss, bough, ploughed, vowed, (Macleod)|
|/ɛə(r)/||are, aer, air, aire, ar, ayer, ayor, ayre, e'er, eah, ear, eir, eor, er, ere, err, erre, ert, ey're, eyr||bare, aerial, hair, millionaire, scarce, prayer, mayor, fayre, ne'er, yeah, bear, heir, ceorl, moderne, where, err (variant), parterre, couvert, they're, eyra|
|/ɪə(r)/||ere, aer, e're, ea, ear, eare, eer, eere, eir, eor, er, ers, eyr, ier, iere, ir, oea||here, chimaera, we're, idea (RP), ear, feared, beer, peered, weird, theory (RP), series, revers, eyrie, pier, premiere, souvenir, diarrhoea (RP)|
|/ɜː(r)/||er, ir, ur, ear, ere, err, erre, eur, eure, irr, irre, oeu, olo, or, ore, our, ueur, urr, urre, yr, yrrh||defer, fir, fur, earl, were, err, interred, voyeur, chauffeured (GA), birr, stirred, hors d'oeuvre, colonel, worst, wore, adjourn, liqueur, purr, murre, myrtle, myrrh|
|/juː/||u, u...e, ew, eau, eo, eu, ewe, ieu, iew, ou, ue, ueue, ui, ut, uu||music, use, few, beauty, feodary, feud, ewe, adieu, view, ampoule, cue, queue, nuisance, debut, vacuum|
† Identical to previous vowel in non-rhotic dialects like RP.
- False etymology
- Spelling bee
- List of English homographs
- The Chaos – a poem by Gerard Nolst Trenité demonstrating the irregularities of English spelling
- Variant spelling
- American and British English spelling differences
- Spelling of disc
- Phonetic orthographic systems
- English scripts
- English alphabet (Latin script)
- American manual alphabet
- Two-handed manual alphabets
- English braille
- American braille
- New York Point
- Shavian alphabet
- Words in English
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- Chomsky & Halle 1968:54
- The vowel of the suffixes -⟨ed⟩ and -⟨es⟩ may belong to the phoneme of either /ɪ/ or /ə/ depending on dialect, and ⟨ᵻ⟩ is a shorthand for "either /ɪ/ or /ə/". This usage of the symbol is borrowed from the Oxford English Dictionary.
- Chomsky 1970:294; Rollings 2004:17
- Rollings 2004:17–19
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- Included in Webster's Third New International Dictionary,1981
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- According to Longman, 77% of Americans pronounce "suggest" as //
- or /hw/ in Hiberno-English and Southern American English
- /wr/ in Scottish
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- Hou tu pranownse Inglish describes rules which predict a word's pronunciation from its spelling with 85% accuracy
- Free spelling information and Free spelling lessons in QuickTime movie format at The Phonics Page.