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English orthography is the alphabetic spelling system used by the English language. English orthography, like other alphabetic orthographies, uses a set of rules that generally governs how speech sounds are represented in writing.

English has relatively complicated spelling rules when compared to other languages with alphabetic orthographies. Because of the complex history of the English language, nearly every sound can be legitimately spelled in more than one way, and many spellings can be pronounced in more than one way.


Function of the letters

Note: In the following discussion, only one or two common pronunciations of American and British English varieties are used in this article for each word cited. Other regional pronunciations may be possible for some words, but indicating all possible regional variants in the article is impractical.


Phonemic representation

Like most alphabetic systems, letters in English orthography may represent a particular sound. For example, the word cat (pronounced /ˈkæt/) consists of three letters ‹c›, ‹a›, and ‹t›, in which ‹c› represents the sound /k/, ‹a› the sound /æ/, and ‹t› the sound /t/.

Single letters or multiple sequences of letters may provide this function. Thus, the single letter ‹c› in the word cat represents the single sound /k/. In the word ship (pronounced /ˈʃɪp/), the digraph ‹sh› (two letters) represents the sound /ʃ/. In the word ditch, the three letters ‹tch› represent the sound /tʃ/.

Less commonly, a single letter can represent multiple sounds voiced in succession. The most common example is the letter ‹x› which normally represents the consonant cluster /ks/ (for example, in the word ex-wife, pronounced /ˌɛksˈwaɪf/).

The same letter (or sequence of letters) may indicate different sounds 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/. At the beginning of syllables (i.e. the syllable onset), the digraph ‹gh› represents the sound /ɡ/, such as in the word ghost (pronounced /ˈɡoʊst/). Conversely, the digraph ‹gh› never represents the sound /f/ in syllable onsets and almost never represents the sound /ɡ/ in syllable codas (Pittsburgh is an exception). (Incidentally, this shows that ghoti does not follow English spelling rules to sound like fish.)

Word origin

Another type of spelling characteristic is related to word origin. For example, when representing a vowel, the letter ‹y› in non-word-final positions 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 (pronounced /ˈmɪθ/) is of Greek origin, while pith (pronounced /ˈpɪθ/) is a Germanic word. Other examples include ‹th› representing /t/ (which is usually represented by ‹t›), ‹ph› representing /f/ (which is usually represented by ‹f›), and ‹ch› representing /k/ (which is usually represented by ‹c› or ‹k›) — the use of these spellings for these sounds often mark words that have been borrowed from Greek.

Some, 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 Rollins (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.

Generally, the ability to trace meaning through orthography is far more important than the sound, as English, like many other languages, has many homophones.

Homophone differentiation

Spelling may also be used to distinguish between homophones (words with the same pronunciation but different meanings). For example, the words hour and our are pronounced identically in some dialects (as /ˈaʊ(ə)r/). However, they are distinguished from each other orthographically by the addition of the letter ‹h›. Another example is the pair of homophones plain and plane, where both are pronounced /ˈpleɪn/ but are marked with two different orthographic representations of the vowel /eɪ/.[1]

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). This is particularly advantageous in writing since, unlike in the spoken language, the reader often has no recourse to ask for clarification. Nevertheless, homophones that are unresolved by spelling still exist (for example, the word bay has at least five fundamentally different meanings).

Some proponents of spelling reform view homophones as undesirable and would prefer that they be eliminated. Doing so, however, would increase orthographic ambiguities that would need to be resolved via the linguistic context.

Marking sound changes in other letters

Another function of English letters is to provide information about other aspects of pronunciation or the word itself. Rollins (2004) uses the term "markers" for letters with this function. Letters may mark different types of information. One type of marking is that of a different pronunciation of another letter within the word. An example of this is letter ‹e› in the word cottage (pronounced /ˈkɒtɨdʒ/). Here ‹e› indicates that the preceding ‹g› should represent the sound /dʒ/. This contrasts with the more common value of ‹g› in word-final position as the sound /ɡ/, such as in tag (pronounced /ˈtæɡ/).

A particular letter may have more than one pronunciation-marking role. Besides the marking of word-final ‹g› as indicating /dʒ/ as in cottage, the letter ‹e› may also mark an altered pronunciation for other vowels. 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/.

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/.

Functionless letters

Some letters have no linguistic function. In Old and Middle English [v] was an allophone of /f/ occurring between vowels. The deletion of historical final schwas at the end of words such as give and have phonemicized /v/, but the now-silent ‹e› remained at the end of most /v/-final words . Words spelled with final ‹v› such as rev and Slav remain comparatively rare.

Multiple functionality

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/).

Underlying representation

Like many other alphabetic orthographies, English spelling does not represent non-contrastive phonetic sounds (that is, sub-phonemic sounds). The fact that the letter ‹t› is pronounced with aspiration [tʰ] at the beginning of words 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.[2]

[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.[3]

In these cases, a given morpheme (i.e. a component of a word) is represented with a single spelling despite the fact that it is pronounced differently (i.e. has different surface representations) in different environments. An example is the past tense suffix -‹ed›, which may be pronounced variously as /t/, /d/, or /ɨd/ (for example, dip /ˈdɪp/, dipped /ˈdɪpt/, boom /ˈbuːm/, boomed /ˈbuːmd/, loot /ˈluːt/, looted /ˈluːtɨd/). Because these different pronunciations of -‹ed› can be predicted by a few phonological rules, only a single spelling is needed in the orthography.

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, a feature of the indo-european language group:

Spelling Pronunciation
photograph /ˈfoʊtəɡrɑːf/
photographer /fɵˈtɒɡrəfər/

It could be argued that the underlying representation of photo is a single phonological form, such as /ˈfoʊtəɡrɑːf/. Since the (surface) pronunciation of the vowels can be predicted by phonological rules according to the different stress patterns, the orthography only needs to have one spelling that corresponds to the underlying form. Other examples of this type include words with the -‹ity› suffix (as in agile vs agility, acid vs acidity, divine vs divinity, sane vs sanity, etc.). (See also: Trisyllabic laxing.)

Another example includes words like sign (pronounced /ˈsaɪn/) and bomb (pronounced /ˈbɒm/) where the "silent" letters ‹g› and ‹b›, respectively, seem to be "inert" letters with no functional role. However, there are the related words signature and bombard in which the so-called "silent" letters are pronounced /ˈsɪɡnətʃər/ and /bɒmˈbɑrd/, respectively. Here it could be argued that the underlying representation of sign and bomb is |saɪɡn| and |bɒmb| or |bɑmb|, 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 realized 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 /ˈfɑːst/ and fasten /ˈfɑːsən/, and the ‹h› in heir /ˈɛər/ and inherit /ɪnˈhɛrɨt/.

Another example includes words like mean (pronounced /ˈmiːn/) and meant (pronounced /ˈmɛnt/). 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 /ˈtɪks/ and pigs /ˈpɪɡz/) while -‹es› is usually pronounced /ɨz/ (e.g. boxes /ˈbɒksɨz/). 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 /ɨ/ 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.[4] 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 linguistic knowledge 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.[5]


English includes 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 French borrowings – even accused by some of being foreign phrases used where English alternatives would suffice – but today their French origin is largely forgotten. The strongest tendency to retain the accent is in words that are atypical of English morphology and therefore still perceived as slightly foreign. For example, café and pâté both have a pronounced final e, which would be "silent" by the normal English pronunciation rules. In a few cases, there are regional differences: for instance, the first accent on résumé has generally disappeared in the U.S., but is retained in the UK.

Further examples of words typically retaining diacritics when used in English are: appliqué, attaché, blasé, bric-à-brac, brötchen,[6] 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, coup d'état, crème brûlée, pièce de résistance, raison d'être, über (übermensch), vis-à-vis.

It was formerly common in 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). It is, however, still common in 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.


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.


The English spelling system, compared to the systems used in many other languages, is quite irregular and complex. Although French presents a similar degree of difficulty when encoding (writing), English is more difficult when decoding (reading)[citation needed]. For example, in French the English long oo sound (as in ‘food’), can be spelt ‘ou’, ‘ous’, ‘out’ and ‘oux’ (ou, nous, tout, choux) but the pronunciation of those graphemes is always the same. In English, the long oo sound can be spelt with ‘oo’ and with 'u', 'u-e', 'ui', 'ue', 'o', 'oe', 'o-e', 'o-b', 'ou', 'ough' and 'ew' (food - truth, rude, fruit, blue, to, shoe, move, tomb, group, through, flew), but 9 of the 11 alternative graphemes have other pronunciations as well: rub, build, go, toe, drove, comb, out, rough, sew.

Masha Bell has identified 69 English graphemes which have more than one sound:

And – apron, any, father; came – camera, cafe; wait – plait; stays – says; always – algebra; tall – shall; autumn - laugh, mauve;
careare; a deliberate act - to deliberate.

Centre – Celtic; success – soccer; chop – choir, chorus, chute; acquire – lacquer.

End – English; he – the; mean - meant, break; earearly, heart, bear; tree - matinee; here – there, were; even – seven;
veil - ceiling, eider, leisure; weight – height; people - leopard, leotard; beauty – beau; tablet – chalet; few – sew; they – monkey.

Gem – get; ginger – girl; signature – sign; gym – gynaecologist.

House – hour.

Ink – kind; define –engine, machine; field - friend, sieve; limb – climb.

Mnemonic - amnesia.

On - only, once; go – do; road – broad; bone – done, gone; toes – does, shoes; roll – doll; tombola - bomb, comb, tomb;
boot - foot, brooch; sound - soup, couple; bough - rough, through, trough; bought – drought; should – shoulder; sour - four, journey;
despot – depot; how - low.

Queen – bouquet.

Sun – sure; scent - luscious, mollusc; rose – mouse; possible – possession.

This – thing; picture – mature.

Cup – push; build – fruit, ruin.

Was – wag; what – who; won - woman, women, womb; word – worn .

Box - xylophone, anxious.

Type – typical; daddy – apply.

Zip – azure.

The 119 words which show alternative pronunciations for 69 English graphemes in the listing above give just one example of each alternative sound. Some graphemes have a variant sound in many common words. The Sight Words page at [2] shows 2024 common English words in which some graphemes do not have their dominant sound (e.g. bleak - break, breakfast, great, threat).

No other European orthography allows such frequent use of identical letters for different sounds. English has never had any formal regulating authority for spelling, like the Spanish Real Academia Española, Italian Accademia della Crusca or the French Académie française. This is perhaps the reason why the English spelling system has become so irregular.

English has 44 sounds, consisting of 20 vowels and 24 consonants, as exemplified in the following words and graphemes:
19 vowels as in at, aim, fair, cart, autumn, end, eel, term, it, tie, on, toe, oil, too, fort, up, due, out, could
and the unstressed, barely audible half vowel (or schwa) as in 'flatten, decide, abandon;
and the 24 consonants b, ch, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, ng, p, r, s, sh, t, v, w, y, z, voiced th (this), unvoiced th (think), and zh (as in vision).

Because several English sounds have more than one regular spelling, depending on their position in a word (cute, cue), the letters which follow it (cat, kept) or the sounds which precede it (seek, peck), the basic English spelling system comprises 91 rules (or patterns) as exemplified in the following words:
Cat; plate, play; air; car; sauce, saw; bed;
c/at/ot/ut, crab/clap, kite/kept, comic, pick, seek, risk; chat, catch;
dog; end; eel, funny; herb; fish; garden; house; ink; bite, by; jug, gentle, bridge, oblige;
lips; man; nose, ring;
pot, want, quarrel; bone, old, toe; coin, toy; food; good; order, wart, quarter, more;
out, now; pin; quick; rug;
sun, face, idiocy; shop, station, cautious, facial, musician;
tap, delicate; this, thing; cup; cube, cue;
van, have, river;
window; fix; yes; zip, wise; vision, treasure,
8 endings (doable, fatal, single, ordinary, flatten, presence, present, other)
and 2 prefixes (decide, invite)
and the consonant doubling rule (bitter - biter).

If English spelling was regular, it would use just the above 91 spelling rules. It is made irregular by the unpredictable use of a further 94 graphemes, as shown in the words below, 69 of which are used to spell more than one sound, as already listed above. Eighty English spelling patterns have, between them, 281 alternative spellings:
Cat - plait, meringue.
Plate - wait, weight, straight, great, vein, reign, table, apron, dahlia, champagne, fete; play - they, weigh, ballet, cafe, matinee.
Air - care, bear, aerial, their, there, questionnaire.
Carare +(in standard UK English the a in 'bath' has the same sound).
Sauce - caught, bought, always, tall, crawl; saw - (In standard UK English or, four, more end with the same sound).
C/at/ot/ut - character, kangaroo, queue; crab/ clap - chrome, lilac - stomach, anorak, neck - cheque.
Chat - picture, clutch - much.
Dad - blonde.
End - head, any, said, Wednesday, friend, leisure, leopard, bury; her - turn, bird, learn, journey.
Eel - eat, even, ceiling, field, police, people, me, key, ski, debris, quay; jolly - trolley, budgie, corgi.
Fish - photo, stuff, rough.
Garden - ghastly, guard.
House – who.
Ink - mystery, pretty, sieve, women, busy, build.
Bite - might, style, mild, kind, eider, height, climb, island, indict, sign; my - high, pie, rye, buy, I, eye.
Jelly, jig – gentle, ginger; fidget - digit.
Kite/ kept - chemistry, seek - unique, risk - disc, mosque.
Lips - llama.
Mum - dumb, autumn.
Nose - knot, gone, gnome, mnemonic.
On - cough, sausage; want – wont; quarrel - quod.
Mole - bowl, roll, soul, boast, most, goes, mauve; old - mould; toe - go, dough, sew, cocoa, pharaoh, depot, oh.
Oil - oyster; toy - buoy.
Food - rude, shrewd, move, group, fruit, truth, tomb, manoeuvre, blue, do, shoe, through.
Good - would, put, woman, courier.
Order – board, court; wart, quart – worn, quorn; more - soar, door, four, abhor; war - swore.
Out - town; now - thou, plough.
Quick - acquire, choir.
Rug - rhubarb, write.
Sun - centre, scene; face - case; fancy - fantasy.
Shop - chute, sure, moustache, liquorice; ignition - mission, pension, suspicion, fashion; ambitious - delicious, luscious; facial - spatial.
Tap, pet - pterodactyl, two, debt; delicate - democrat.
Up - front, some, couple, blood.
Cute - you, newt, neutral, suit, beauty, Tuesday, nuclear; cue - few, view, menu.
Give - spiv; river - chivvy.
Window - which.
Fix - accept, except, exhibit.
Yak - use.
Zip - xylophone; rose - froze.
Measure - azure.
Endings and prefixes:
loveable - credible;
vertical - novel, anvil, petrol;
ordinary - machinery, inventory, century, carpentry;
fasten - abandon, truncheon, orphan, goblin, certain; absence - balance; absent - defiant;
father - author, armour, nectar, centre, injure;
decide - divide; indulge - endure.
Consonant doubling: regular / missing / surplus (e.g. merry / very / serrated).

Attempts to regularize or reform the language, including spelling reform, have usually met with failure. The only significant exceptions were the reforms of Noah Webster which resulted in many of the differences between British and American spelling, such as center/centre, and dialog/dialogue. (Other differences, such as -ize/-ise in realize/realise etc, came about separately; 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 24–27 (depending on dialect) separate consonant phonemes and, depending on dialect, anywhere from fourteen to twenty vowels. However, there are only 26 letters in the modern English alphabet, so there cannot be 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 interdental fricative and the voiceless interdental fricative) (see Pronunciation of English th), and the voiceless alveolar fricative 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 by the use of many different graphemes for some of its sounds, such as the long oo, ee and oe sounds (too, true, shoe, flew, through; sleeve, leave, even, seize, siege; stole, coal, bowl, roll, old, mould), and the use of identical graphemes for spelling different sounds (over, oven, move).

Furthermore, English makes no attempt to Anglicise the spellings of most recent loanwords, but preserves the foreign spellings, even when they employ exotic conventions like the Polish cz in Czech or the Old Norse fj in fjord (although New Zealand English exclusively spells it fiord). In fact, 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 shee, which is similar to the Norwegian pronunciation, but the increasing popularity of the sport after the middle of the 20th century helped the sk pronunciation replace it.[citation needed]

Of course, such a philosophy can be taken too far. For instance, there was also a period when the spelling 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 Ioriginally 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 Norse word igland, which is the true origin of the English word. The letter p in ptarmigan has no etymological justification whatsoever. Some are just randomly changed: for example, score used to be spelled skor.[citation needed]

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,[citation needed] 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. It has been argued that this influence probably started with the introduction of many Italian words into English during the Renaissance, in fields like music, from which come the words andante, viola, forte, etc.[citation needed]

Commercial advertisers have also had an effect on English spelling. In attempts to differentiate their products from others,[citation needed] they introduce 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: affectionate 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.

As examples of the idiosyncratic nature of English spelling, the combination ou can be pronounced in at least six different ways: /ə/ in famous, /ɜː/ in journey, /aʊ/ in loud, /ʊ/ in should, /uː/ in you, /ʊə/ in tour; and the vowel sound /iː/ in me can be spelt in at least ten different ways: paediatric, me, seat, seem, ceiling, people, chimney, machine, siege, phoenix. (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.[citation needed] A further example is the modern pronunciation of tissue.


Inconsistencies and irregularities in English 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 place names. Third, some prescriptivists have had partial success in their attempts to normalize the English language, forcing a change in spelling but not in pronunciation.

The regular spelling system of Old English was swept away by the Norman Conquest, and English itself was eclipsed 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 for reasons of prestige and familiarity kept their French spellings. The spelling of Middle English, such as in the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer, is very irregular and inconsistent, with the same word being spelled differently, sometimes even in the same sentence. However, these were generally much better guides to pronunciation than modern English spelling can honestly claim.

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.

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 merely 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.[7] 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.[7]

By the time dictionaries were introduced in the mid 1600s, the spelling system of English started to stabilize, and by the 1800s, most words had set spellings.

"Ough" words

The most notorious group of letters in the English language, ough, is commonly pronounced 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 is in fact a word in its own right; it is an exclamation of disgust similar to ugh.

  • though: /oʊ/ as in toe; (other examples: dough)
  • tough: /ʌf/ as in cuff; (other examples: rough, enough)
  • cough: /ɒf/ as in off; (other examples: Gough (name))
  • hiccough (a now uncommon variant of hiccup): /ʌp/ as in up; (unique)
  • plough: /aʊ/ as in cow; (other examples: sough, drought, and the name Doughty)
  • through: /uː/ as in threw;
  • nought: /ɔː/ as in caught. (other examples: ought, sought, thought, brought

T A Francis (talk) 13:29, 13 March 2010 (UTC)

Spelling patterns

Spelling to sound correspondences


In a generative approach to English spelling, Rollins (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.)

General American
Letter Lax Tense Heavy Tense-R
a /æ/
e /ɛ/
i /ɪ/
o /ɑ/
for, fore
u /ʌ/
u /ʊ/
Received Pronunciation (British)
Letter Lax Tense Heavy Tense-R
a /æ/
e /ɛ/
i /ɪ/
o /ɒ/
for, fore
u /ʌ/
u /ʊ/

For instance, the letter a can represent the lax vowel /æ/, tense /eɪ/, heavy /ɑ(ː)/, or tense-r /ɛ(ə)/. 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 /ɑr/, 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, Rollins (2004) has a reduced vowel category (representing the sounds /ə, ɪ/) and a miscellaneous category (representing the sounds /ɔɪ, aʊ, aɪ, aʊ/ 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 Wikipedia:IPA for English.

Spelling Major value
Examples of major value Minor values
Examples of minor value Exceptions
a before multiple
consonants or in
word-final syllables
/æ/ cat, acrobat, banned /iː/ karaoke
/eɪ/ bass
/ɑː/ father, grant, after
a...e /eɪ/ violate, grace
a before single
non-word-final syllables)
/eɪ/ dating, lumbago /ɛ/
many, any
a (unstressed syllables) /ə/ another, about
aa /ɑː/ baa /eɪ/ quaalude
ae /iː/ encyclopaedia /ɛ/ aesthetic /eɪ/ reggae
/aɪ/ maestro
ai, ai...e /eɪ/ bait, cocaine /æ/ plaid
/ɪ/ bargain
/ɛ/ said
/aɪ/ shanghaied
ao /eɪ/ gaol
au /ɔː/ taut, author /eɪ/ gauge
/oʊ/ mauve
/ɔ/ sausage
aw /ɔː/ jaw
ay, aye /eɪ/ day /aɪ/ kayak, aye /iː/ quay/ɛ/ says
e before single
non-word-final syllables)
/iː/ receding /eɪ/ ukelele, cafe
e before multiple
consonants or in
word-final syllables
/ɛ/ get, better /ɪ/ pretty
word-final e /iː/ be, he
e...e /iː/ cede, gene /eɪ/ crepe
ea /iː/ beach, eating /ɛ/ bread, healthy /eɪ/ great
ea...e /iː/ please /ɛ/ cleanse
eau /oʊ/ beau /ɔ/ bureaucracy
ee /iː/ bee, feed /eɪ/ matinee
ei, ei...e /eɪ/ eight, veil /iː/
deceive, seize
heist, height
/ɪ/ counterfeit
/ɛ/ heifer
eo /ɛ/ leopard, jeopardy /iː/ people /oʊ/ yeoman
/ɪə/ leotard
ew /juː/ dew /oʊ/ sew
ey /eɪ/ grey, obey /iː/ key, geyser, Ceylon
eye /aɪ/ eye
i before single
non-word-final syllables)
/aɪ/ shining /æ/ meringue
i before multiple
consonants or in
word-final syllables
/ɪ/ bit, hitting
word-final i /iː/ ski
i...e /aɪ/ shine, guide /iː/ machine
/ɪ/ give, medicine
ie /aɪ/ die, tie /iː/ field /ɪ/ sieve
/ɛ/ friend
ie...e /iː/ hygiene
ieu /juː/ lieu, adieu
o before multiple
consonants or in
word-final syllables
/ɔ/ dot /ʌ/ son /ʊ/ wolf
o before single
non-word-final syllables)
/oʊ/ omen, potent /ɒ/ body /ɪ/ women
word-final o /oʊ/ banjo, go /uː/ to, who, two
o...e /oʊ/ doze /uː/ move, lose /ʌ/ come
oa /oʊ/ boat /ɔː/ broad
oe /oʊ/ toe, foe /iː/
shoe, canoe
/ʌ/ does
/ɪ/ oedema
/ɛ/ foetid
oeu /uː/ manoeuvre
oi /waɪ/ choir
oo before k,d /ʊ/ look, wood /uː/ spook
oo elsewhere /uː/ tool /ʌ/ blood /oʊ/ brooch
ou /aʊ/ out /uː/ soup, you, through /ʊ/ courier, should
/oʊ/ soul
/ʌ/ touch, enough
/ɔ/ cough
ow /aʊ/ cow /oʊ/ yellow, know, rainbow
u before multiple
consonants or in
word-final syllables
/ʌ/ butter, dump /ʊ/ put, full
u before single
non-word-final syllables)
/uː/ luminous /ɪ/ busy
/ɛ/ bury
u...e /juː/ or /uː/ flute
ue /uː/ blue
ui /uː/ fruit /ɪ/ build
uy, uye /aɪ/ buy, guyed
y /ɪ/ myth, cryptic /ə/ beryl
-y /iː/ city, happy
y...e /aɪ/ type
-ye /aɪ/ bye



  • 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, eg j- in jumper and ajar. A hyphen before the letter indicates that it cannot be at the beginning of a word, eg -ck in sick and ticket.
  • More specific rules take precedence over more general ones, eg "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.
  • This relies highly on knowledge of where the stress in a word is, but English has no consistent way of showing stress.
Spelling Major value (IPA) Examples of major value Other values Examples of other values
b, -bb /b/ bit, rabbit, obtain Ø bdellium, debtor
c before e, i or y /s/ cellar, city, cyst,
face, prince, nicer
cello, vermicelli
special, liquorice
Celts, chicer
c /k/ cat, cross
-cc before e or i /ks/ accept, eccentric, occidental /k/
soccer, recce, siccing
bocce, breccia, cappuccino
-cc /k/ account, accrue, occur, yucca
ch /tʃ/ chase, chin, attached, chore /k/
chasm, chimera, ached, chord
chaise, machine, cached, parachute
-ck /k/ tack, ticket
cn- /n/ cnidarian
ct- /t/ ctenoid
ct /kt/ victim /t/ victual
d, -dd /d/ dive, ladder /dʒ/
graduate, gradual (both also /dj/ in RP)
Wednesday, handsome
-dg before e, i, or y /dʒ/ ledger
f, -ff /f/ fine, off /v/ of
g before e, i or y /dʒ/ gentle, magic, gyrate,
page, college
get, give, girl, begin
collage, gigue
g, -gg /ɡ/ go, great, stagger /dʒ/ suggest, exaggerate
gh- /ɡ/ ghost, ghastly
-gh Ø dough, high /f/
/x/ or /k/
/g/ or /x/
laugh, enough
-ght /t/ right, daughter, bought /ft/ draught, laughter
-gm /m/ diaphragm, phlegm
gn- /n/ gnome, gnaw
-gn /n/ signing, impugned /gn/ signify, repugnant
h /h/ he, alcohol Ø vehicle, honest, hono(u)r, piranha
h- after ex Ø exhibit, exhaust /h/ exhale
j- /dʒ/ jump, ajar /j/
k, -kk /k/ key, bake, trekking
kn- /n/ knee, knock
l, /l/ line, valve, bulk Ø halve, balk
-ll- /l/ valley /j/ tortilla
m, -mm /m/ mine, hammer
-mb /m/ climbed, comber, numbing /mb/ imbed, somber, number
mn- /n/ mnemonic
-mn /m/ hymn, autumn, condemner /mn/ hymnal, alumni, chimney
n, -nn /n/ nice, funny
-n before /k/ /ŋ/ link, plonk, anchor
-ng /ŋ/ long, kingly,
hanger, singer, clingy
anger, finger, England
danger, ginger, dingy
p, -pp /p/ pill, happy, soup, corpse, script Ø coup, corps, receipt
(p)ph /f/ photograph, sapphire /v/ Stephen
pn- /n/ pneumonia, pneumatic
ps- /s/ psyche, psalm, pshaw /ps/ psst
pt- /t/ ptomaine, ptarmigan
q /k/ Iraq
r-, -rr /r/ ray, parrot
rh, -rrh /r/ rhyme, diarrhoea
-r, -rr, -rrh
when followed
by a consonant
Ø in non-rhotic
dialects such as RP,
/r/ in rhotic
dialects such as GA
bar, bare, catarrh
s, -ss /s/ song, ask, message. misled /z/
scissors, dessert, dissolve, Islam
sugar, tissue, agression
islet, aisle
-s- between vowels /z/ rose, prison /s/ house, base
word-final -s morpheme
after a voiceless sound
/s/ pets, shops
word-final -s morpheme
after a voiced sound
/z/ beds, magazines
sc- before e, i or y /s/ scene, scepter, scissors, scythe /sk/
sceptic, scirrhus
sch- /sk/ school, scheme, schizo /ʃ/
schist, schedule (also /sk/)
sh /ʃ/ shin
t, -tt /t/ ten, bitter,
chaste, wallet
ratio, Martian
question, bastion
castle, chasten, ballet
-tch /tʃ/ batch, kitchen
th /θ/ or /ð/ thin, them,
authors, bothers
thyme, Thames
outhouse, potherb
v, -vv /v/ vine, savvy
w /w/ sward, swerve, wale Ø
sword, answer, gunwale
wh- before o /h/ who, whole /w/ whopping, whorl
wh- /w/ (/hw/ in dialects
with this phoneme)
wr- /r/ wrong
x- /z/ xylophone
-xc before e or i /ks/ excellent, excited
-xc /ksk/ excuse
-x /ks/ box /ɡz/
y- /j/ yes
z, -zz /z/ zoo, pizzazz /ts/ schizo, pizzas

Combinations of consonant and vowel letters

Spelling Major value
Examples of major value Minor values
Examples of minor value Exceptions
word-final -age suffix /ɪdʒ/ damage, bondage
ah /ɑː/ blah
al /æl/ pal, talcum, algae, alp /ɔːl/ bald, falcon
alf /ɑːf/ (RP)
/æf/ (GA)
calf, half /æl/ alfalfa, malfeasance /ɔlf/ palfrey
alk /ɔːk/ walk, chalking, talkative /ælk/ alkaline, grimalkin /ɔlk/ balkanise
all /ɔːl/
call, fallout, smaller
shall, callus, fallow
wallet, swallow
allow, dialled
/ɛl/ (GA) marshmallow, pall-mall
alm /ɑːm/ calm, almond, palmistry /ælm/
dalmatian, salmonella
almanac, almost
/æm/ salmon
/(ə)lm/ signalman
alt /ɒlt/ (RP)
/ɔlt/ (GA)
alter, malt, salty, basalt /ælt/
alto, shalt, saltation
altar, although, asphalt
/ɑl/ gestalt (GA)
/(ə)lt/ royalty, penalty
aoh, oh /oʊ/ pharaoh, oh
unstressed ci- before a vowel /ʃ/ special, gracious /si/ species
-cqu /kw/ acquaint, acquire /k/ lacquer, racquet
word-final -ed morpheme
after /t/ or /d/*
/ɪd/ waited
word-final -ed morpheme
after a voiceless sound*
/t/ topped, surfed /ɛd/ biped, unfed
word-final -ed morpheme
after a voiced sound*
/d/ climbed, failed, ordered /ɛd/ imbed, misled, infrared
eh /eɪ/ eh
word-final -es morpheme** /ɪz/ washes, boxes
unstressed ex- before a vowel or h /ɪɡz/ exist, examine, exhaust /ɛks/ exhale
unstressed -ften /fən/ soften, often
gu- before e or i /ɡ/ guest, guide /ɡw/ linguistics
word-final -gue /ɡ/ catalogue, plague, colleague /ɡju/ argue, redargue, ague, Montague /ɡweɪ/ segue
word-final -le after a consonant /əl/ little, table
-(a)isle /aɪəl/ aisle, isle, enisle, lisle, Carlisle
word-final -ngue /ŋ/ tongue /ŋɡeɪ/ dengue(+/ŋɡi/), distingué, merengue,
old /oʊld/ blindfold, older, bold /əld/ scaffold, kobold (also /ɒld/
olk /oʊk/ yolk, folk
oll /ɒl/ doll, follow, collect, holler /oʊl/ roll, stroller, polling, tollway
olm /ɒlm/ olm, dolmen /oʊlm/ enrolment, holmium /oʊm/ holm (oak)
qu- /kw/ queen, quick /k/ liquor, mosquito
word-final -que /k/ mosque, bisque /keɪ/ risque /kjuː/ barbeque
word-final -re after a consonant /ər/ metre, fibre
unstressed sci- before a vowel /ʃ/ conscience /si/ omniscient (RP)
-scle /səl/ corpuscle, muscle
unstressed -si before a vowel /ʃ/ expansion /ʒ/ division, illusion /zi/ physiology, busier, cesium
/si/ tarsier, flimsiest
unstressed -ssi before a vowel /ʃ/ mission /si/ potassium, dossier
unstressed -sten /sən/ listen, fasten /stən/ tungsten, Austen, existent
unstressed -stle /səl/ whistle, rustle
unstressed -sure /ʒər/ leisure, treasure
unstressed -ti before a vowel /ʃ/ nation, ambitious /ʒ/ equation /ti/ patio, /taɪ/ cation
unstressed -ture /tʃər/ nature, picture
word-initial wa- /wɒ/ watch, want, warrior /æ/ wacky
word-initial wor- /wɜr/ work, worse
word-initial war- /wɔːr/ warning, warts /ɛər/ wares, wary
unstressed -zure /ʒər/ seizure, azure

* There is no way to tell if it is the morpheme or an integral part of the word. Compare snaked and naked.

** Same as above; compare the two pronunciations of axes.

Small text indicates rare words. Loans words: SP for Spanish, FR for French.

Sound to spelling correspondences

The following table shows for each sound, the various spelling patterns used to denote it. The symbol "…" stands for an intervening consonant. The letter sequences are in order of frequency with the most common first. Some of these patterns are very rare or unique, such as au for the [æ] sound in laugh (some accents). In some cases, the spellings shown are found in only one known English word (such as "mh" for /m/, or "yrrh" for /ɜr/).

IPA Spelling Examples
/p/ p, pp, ph, pe, gh pill, happy, Phuket, tape, hiccough
/b/ b, bb, bh, p (in some dialects) bit, rabbit, Bhutan
/t/ t, tt, ed, pt, th, ct ten, bitter, topped, pterodactyl, thyme, ctenoid
/d/ d, dd, ed, dh, th (in some dialects) dive, ladder, failed, dharma, them
/ɡ/ g, gg, gue, gh go, stagger, catalogue, ghost
/k/ c, k, ck, ch, cc, qu, q, cq, cu, que, kk, kh cat, key, tack, chord, account, liquor, Iraq, acquaint, biscuit, mosque, trekker, khan
/m/ m, mm, mb, mn, mh, gm, chm mine, hammer, climb, hymn, mho, diaphragm, drachm
/n/ n, nn, kn, gn, pn, nh, cn, mn, ng (in some dialects) nice, funny, knee, gnome, pneumonia, piranha, cnidarian, mnemonic, fighting
/ŋ/ ng, n, ngue, ngh sing, link, tongue, Singh
/r/ r, rr, wr, rh, rrh ray, parrot, wrong, rhyme, diarrh(o)ea
/f/ f, ph, ff, gh, pph, u, th (in some dialects) fine, physical, off, laugh, sapphire, lieutenant (Br), thin
/v/ v, vv, f, ph vine, savvy, of, Stephen
/θ/ th, chth, phth, tth thin, chthonic, phthisis, Matthew
/ð/ th them, breathe
/s/ s, c, ss, sc, st, ps, sch (in some dialects), cc, se, ce, z (in some dialects) song, city, mess, scene, listen, psychology, schism, flaccid, horse, juice, citizen
/z/ s, z, x, zz, ss, ze, c (in some dialects) has, zoo, xylophone, fuzz, scissors, breeze, electricity
/ʃ/ sh, ti, ci, ssi, si, ss, ch, s, sci, ce, sch, sc shin, nation, special, mission, expansion, tissue, machine, sugar, conscience, ocean, schmooze, crescendo
/ʒ/ si, s, g, z, j, zh, ti, sh (in some dialects) division, leisure, genre, seizure, jeté, Zhytomyr, equation, Pershing
/tʃ/ ch, t, tch, ti, c, cz, tsch chin, nature, batch, bastion (some accents), cello, Czech, Deutschmark
/dʒ/ g, j, dg, dge, d, di, gi, ge, dj, gg magic, jump, ledger, bridge, graduate, soldier, Belgian, dungeon, Djibouti, exaggerate
/h/ h, wh, j, ch he, who, fajita, chutzpah
/j/ y, i, j, ll yes, onion, hallelujah, tortilla
/l/ l, ll, lh line, hallo, Lhasa
/w/ w, u, o, ou, wh (in most dialects) we, queen, choir, Ouija board, what
/hw/ wh (in some dialects) wheel
IPA Spelling Examples
/iː/ e, ea, ee, e…e, ae, ei, i…e, ie, eo, oe, ie...e, ay, ey, i, y, oi, ue, ey, a be, beach, bee, cede, Caesar, deceit, machine, field, people, amoeba, hygiene, quay, key, ski, city, chamois, Portuguese, geyser (Br), karaoke
/ɪ/ i, y, ui, e, ee, ie, o, u, a, ei, ee, ia, ea, i...e, ai, ey, oe bit, myth, build, pretty, been (some accents), sieve, women, busy, damage, counterfeit, carriage, mileage, medicine, bargain, Ceylon, oedema
/uː/ oo, u, o, u…e, ou, ew, ue, o…e, ui, eu, oeu, oe, ough, wo, ioux, ieu, ault, oup, w tool, luminous, who, flute, soup, jewel, true, lose, fruit, maneuver (US), manoeuvre (Br), canoe, through, two, Sioux, lieutenant (US), Sault Sainte Marie, coup, cwm
/ʊ/ oo, u, o, oo...e, or, ou, oul look, full, wolf, gooseberry, worsted, courier, should
/eɪ/ a, a…e, aa, ae, ai, ai...e, aig, aigh, al, ao, au, ay, e (é), e...e, ea, eg, ei, ei...e, eig, eigh, ee (ée), eh, er, es, et, ey, ez, ie, oeh bass, rate, quaalude, reggae, rain, cocaine, arraign, straight, Ralph (Br, gaol (Br), gauge, pay, ukulele (café), crepe, steak, thegn, veil, beige, reign, eight, matinee (soirée), eh, dossier, demesne, ballet, obey, chez, lingerie (US), boehmite
/ə/ a, e, o, u, ai, ou, eig, y, ah, ough, gh, ae, oi another, anthem, awesome, atrium, mountain, callous, foreign, beryl, Messiah, borough (Br), Edinburgh, Michael, porpoise
/oʊ/ o, o…e, oa, ow, ou, oe, oo, eau, oh, ew, au, aoh, ough, eo so, bone, boat, know, soul, foe, brooch, beau, oh, sew, mauve, pharaoh, furlough, yeoman
/ɛ/ e, ea, a, ae, ai, ay, ea…e, ei, eo, ie, ieu, u, ue, oe met, weather, many, aesthetic, said, says, cleanse, heifer, jeopardy, friend, lieutenant (Br), bury, guess, foetid
/æ/ a, ai, al, au, i hand, plaid, salmon, laugh (some accents), meringue
/ʌ/ u, o, o…e, oe, ou, oo, wo sun, son, come, does, touch, flood, twopennce
/ɔː/ a, au, aw, ough, augh, o, oa, oo, al, uo, u, ao fall, author, jaw, bought, caught, cord, broad, door, walk, fluorine (Br), sure (some accents), extraordinary
/ɒ/ o, a, eau, ach, au, ou lock, watch, bureaucracy, yacht, sausage, cough
/ɑː/ a, ah, aa, i father, blah, baa, lingerie (US)
/aɪ/ ae, ai, aie, aille, ais, ay, aye, ei, eigh, ey, eye, i, i…e, ia, ie, ic, ig, igh, is, oi, ui, uy, uye, y, y...e, ye maestro, krait, shanghaied, canaille (RP), aisle, kayak, aye, heist, height, geyser (US), eye, mic, fine, diaper, tie, indict, sign, high, isle, choir, guide, buy, guyed, tryst, type, bye
/ɔɪ/ oi, oy, awy, uoy oy…e, eu foil, toy, lawyer, buoy, gargoyle, Freudian
/aʊ/ ou, ow, ough, au, ao out, now, bough, tau, Laos
/ɑr/ aar, ar, are, arre, ear, er, our, uar bazaar, car, are, bizarre, heart, sergeant, our (some accents), guard
/ɛər/ aar, aer, air, aire, ar, are, ayer, ayor, ayr, ear, eir, er, ere, err, erre, ey're, e'er Aaron, aerial, hair, millionaire, ware, vary, prayer, mayor, Ayr, bear, heir, stationery (some accents), where, err (variant), parterre, they're, e'er
/ɪər/ ear, eer, eir, eor, ere, ers, e're, ier, iere, ir, ire ear, beer, weir, theory (US), here, revers, we're, pier, premiere, menhir, Zaire
/ɜr/ er, or, ur, ir, yr, our, ear, err, eur, yrrh, ar, oeu, olo, uer fern, worst, turn, thirst, myrtle, journey, earth, err, amateur, myrrh, grammar, hors d'oeuvre, colonel, Guernsey
/juː/ u, u…e, eu, ue, iew, eau, ieu, ueue, ui, ewe, ew music*, use, feud, cue, view, beautiful*, adieu*, queue, nuisance*, ewe, few, * in some dialects, see Yod dropping

See also


  1. ^ 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: plane used to be pronounced /ˈpleːn/, but the /eː/ sound merged with the /eɪ/ sound in plain, making plain and plane homonyms.
  2. ^ Rollins 2004: 16-19; Chomsky & Halle 1968; Chomsky 1970
  3. ^ Chomsky & Halle 1968:54
  4. ^ Chomsky 1970:294; Rollins 2004:17
  5. ^ Rollins 2004:17-19
  6. ^ Included in Webster's Third New International Dictionary,1981
  7. ^ a b Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Twisted Story of English Spelling, by David Wolman. Collins, ISBN 9780061369254. [1]


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