“The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent.’” — Alfred Brendel

On the other hand, if you say “listen” out loud, you’ll notice that the “t” in it is silent. But “listen” is hardly an outlier when it comes to a silent letter. According to Ursula Duboarky, author of “The Word Snoop,” about 60 % of English words contain at least one silent letter, either at the beginning, somewhere in the middle or at the end. No words to waste, so let’s jump right into our alphabetic look at silent letters.

You’ll find a silent “a” a lot when you check the “aesthetic” as you “tread” the “bread aisle” in the supermarket.

“B” can be silent from womb to tomb, and other times it follows an “m.” Or when it precedes a “t,” as in “doubt” and “subtle” and “debt,” which comes from the Latin word “debitum.

After an “s” is when “c” is silent, as in “science,” “scissors” and  “muscle,” and also in “acquire” and “indict.”

If you ever were to talk about your “handsome Wednesday handkerchief” as you “pledge” a “hedge” to your garden club, you’d say nary a “d” out loud.


Our second vowel, “e,” keeps quiet frequently, including when it covers for “v” at the end of a word, as in “sleeve,” “leave” and “give,” imagine that.

As for when the letter “f” is silent, I’ll plead the fifth on that one. (For those of you who pronounce both “f’s” in “fifth,” Merriam-Webster actually lists “fith” as the preferred pronunciation of the word.)

The “g” clams up when it’s followed by an “n”  (gnarl, gnaw, gnat, sign and gnu) or an “h” (high, though, through and sigh).

The “h,” on the other hand, hushes up when it follows a “w’” (who, what, where, when, why) and at the beginning of certain words, including “heir,” “hour” and “honest,” and when it follows a “g” as in “light,” “bright” and “bough.”

If you conduct your “business” in a “suit” (“which in a decent orthographic system would be spelled ‘soot,’” according to Merriam-Webster), you’ll notice the “i” is silent.

Since there’s no good segue to “the ‘j’ in ‘marijuana’ is silent,” I’ll just stick it in here.


Did you ever notice that if you remove the silent “k” from “knee,” “knight,” “knit” and “knob,” they’re all still words? (“Nob” is a British person of high social position).

If a colonel could walk by a palm with half a calf, you’d see that “l” is silent when it follows certain vowels.

“M” keeps quiet in “mnemonic.” I also found a sign on the internet that warns “Be careful when following the masses. Sometimes the M is silent.”

Like “b,” “n” is not pronounced when it follows an “m,” as in “autumn,” “column,” “solemn” and  “limn” (to describe or highlight something).

OK, “o” is silent a lot when “enough” “rough” and “tough” “people” know that a “leopard” can put you in “jeopardy.”

“P” goes unspoken when it precedes “n” (pneumatic, pneumonia) or “s” (psalm, psychology) or in “pterodactyl.”


“Q,” on the other hand, minds its P’s and Q’s only in “lacquer.”

“R” is silent in “February” and “forecastle” (the forward part of a ship; pronounced “fok-sel”).

“S” is hushed in “aisle,” “isle,” “island” and “debris.”

And “t” remains mum if you “whistle” in the “castle” while you watch the “ballet.”

“U” keeps quiet after a “g” (dialogue, guard, guess and tongue). By the way, when I typed “catalogue,” my computer suggested the spelling “catalog” because my “document local is set to American English.” Who knew?

The letter “v” is silent only when . . . uh . . . I got nuthin. . .  The general understanding is that “v” is the only letter not found to be silent in any word in our language, but I will stand by my contention that the “v” is silent in “savvy” — the second “v” that is.


As we know, “w” is silent when it comes before “r” — think “write,” “wrong” and “wrangle” — but it can also hush itself in other words including: “Who” cut this “whole” watermelon in “two” with a “sword”? “Answer” me!

“X” goes unspoken in the French loanwords “faux” and “faux pas,” and changes its pronunciation completely in “xylophone” and drugs including “Xanax” and “Xarelto.”

The folks at Merriam-Webster argue that “beyond” would be just fine without its “y.”

And finally, “z” knows enough to keep quiet as I sneak off to my “rendezvous” at “chez” cafe.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: