The magical silent ‘e’

We all know that the final ‘e’ is almost always not pronounced, so ‘bite’, ‘ripe’, tape’ and ’shote’ are all monosyllabic words – there is only one vowel. Nevertheless, the ‘e’ at the end of all these words is definitely not useless, as it helps us pronounce these words correctly, and distinguish them from ‘bit’, ‘rip’, ‘tap’ and ’shot’ respectively.

Let’s do a quick survey on monosyllabic words with a final ‘e’ and their counterparts without it.

cat /kæt/ Kate /kt/
rap /ræp/ rape /rp/
tap /tæp/ tape /tp/
den /dεn/ dene /di:n/
gen /dʒεn/ gene /dʒi:n/
met /mεt/ mete /mi:t/
bit /bɪt/ bite /bt/
quit /kwɪt/ quite /kwt/
rip /rɪp/ ripe /rp/
hop /hɒp/ hope /həʊp/
nod /nɒd/ node /nəʊd/
shot ɒt/ shote əʊt/
but /bʌt/ bute /bjut/
cut /kʌt/ cute /kjut/
dun /dʌn/ dune /djun/

As we can observe above, there is in fact a very neat and simple rule governing words that follow the CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) pattern. Namely, if a CVC word does not end with an ‘e’, the vowel is pronounced according to the scheme listed on the left below; and if the word ends with an ‘e’, it follows the scheme on the right:

letter pronunciation letter pronunciation
a /æ/ a /eɪ/
e /ε/ e /i:/
i /ɪ/ i /aɪ/
o /ɒ/ o /əʊ/
u /ʌ/ u /ju/

Remarkably, for a CVCe word, the non-silent vowel has the same pronunciation as the name of vowel letter.

This rule can be further generalize to say that, if a word ends in CVC/CVCe, then the vowel before the silent ‘e’, if it is stressed, is pronounced according to the above scheme. This is true for a good percentage of the words, examples include ‘resume’, ‘began’, ‘educate’, etc.

* A notable exception is when ‘u’ follows an ‘l’ or an ‘r’, it is not pronounced as /ju/ even if it is in a CVCe pattern, cf. dilute, Luke, lune, flute, rune.