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The silent letter ‘e’ in English: Why is it there? Posted by on Dec 9, 2014 in English Grammar

You may have noticed that a number of English words end in the letter ‘e,’ but this letter ‘e’ is almost never pronounced – it is silent. So, why is it there? Does it serve a function, if so, what? Today, if you read on, you are going to find out why this silent ‘e’ exists and you will also learn some special rules for pronouncing English words that end with a silent ‘e’.

The letter e.

Image by loneyvs on Flickr.com.

First, try to think of any words you know that end with a silent ‘e.’ Below is a short list of some words I have thought of.

age
cute
code
evoke
hate
hope
grace
squeeze
wine

…and there are so many more!

Not all the English words that end with a silent ‘e’ do so for the same reason, but here are some of the major reasons words in English end with a silent ‘e’:

The silent ‘e’ tells us how to pronounce other letters in the word, i.e. it helps with pronunciation.

A silent ‘e’ at the end of a one or two syllable word tells you to use a long vowel sound for the earlier vowel(s) in the word. A long vowel sound is the sound a vowel makes when you say its name, like when you are reciting the alphabet, a-b-c-d-e-f-g…; that is saying a letter’s name. For example: Say the word ‘wine’ and listen to how the ‘i’ sounds.  Now say the word ‘win’ and listen to how the ‘i’ sounds.  The ‘i’ in ‘wine’ is a long vowel sound and the ‘i’ in ‘win’ is a short vowel sound.  So, one of the things the silent ‘e’ at the end of a word does is indicate long vowel sounds for preceding vowels.

The silent ‘e’ also indicates when to us softer sounding consonants in some words. For example: Say the words ‘grace’ and ‘age,’ the consonants ‘c’ and ‘g’ have a softer sound than they do in words like ‘cat’ and ‘go.’ The silent ‘e’ is an indication to you to use these softer sounding consonants in words.

Sometimes the silent ‘e’ is needed at the end of a word to make a syllable, i.e. it helps words follow the rules.

Every syllable, in every English word, needs to have a vowel in it. Adding a silent ‘e’ to the end of a word helps some words follow this rule. For example: Without the silent ‘e,’ the word “handle” (broken down into two syllables, han-dle) would violate this basic rule of English grammar. Here is a nice side note, this English language rule has no exceptions – all syllables in English need to have a vowel in them!

Lastly, the silent ‘e’ also stops some singular words from looking like plural words, i.e. it helps with esthetics and understanding.

Usually plural forms of words in English end in ‘s,’ there are certainly words in English that end in ‘s’ that are not plural, but there would be a lot more of these if there were no silent ‘e.’ For example: Look at the word ‘moose.’ If there were no ‘e’ at the end of this word it would be ‘moos,’ and you might think this word was a plural word if you didn’t already know what it means. Note: The silent ‘e’ at the end of ‘moose’ does not indicate the use of a long vowel sound because the preceding vowel is double ‘oo,’ not just ‘o’.
In the end the main reason we have for the existence of the silent ‘e’ in English is that it is trying to be helpful!

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About the Author: Gabriele

Hi there! I am one of Transparent Language's ESL bloggers. I am a 32-year-old native English speaker who was born and raised in the United States. I am living in Washington, DC now, but I have lived all over the US and also spent many years living and working abroad. I started teaching English as a second language in 2005 after completing a Master's in Applied Linguists and a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults' (CELTA). Since that time I have taught ESL in the United States at the community college and university level. I have also gone on to pursue my doctorate in psychology and now I also teach courses in psychology. I like to stay connected to ESL learners around the world through Transparent Languages ESL Blog. Please ask questions and leave comments on the blog and I will be sure to answer them.


Comments:

  1. wordy smith:

    Rule: E is not pronounced at the end of words, but rather elongates the sound of the vowel before it.

    Examples: Hope, gave, site, grave, bite, hide, drive, write