A Guide to Silent Letters in French
Spelling words with silent letters is one of the biggest challenges when learning the French language. Correctly pronouncing words with silent letters in French is a strong indicator that you’re nailing your French accent. If not, this pronunciation guide to silent letters in French will help you understand the basics of the French language pronunciation.
In this post, you’ll learn:
- Silent letters in French
- The essentials of silent letters in French
- An infographic with silent letters
- French letter silent E
- French letter silent H
- Silent consonants in French
- Pronounced final consonants
- Silent letters and liaisons
- Common questions about silent letters in French
Silent Letters in French
Knowing when to pronounce the silent letters (lettres muettes) in French is essentially the golden rule of learning to pronounce words in the French language. You can try to guess (or probably not). Plus, even if you try, you really won’t get much for it because there are so many silent letters in the French language.
In fact, the French language favors the occurrence of silent letters at the end of words, and, consequently, silent-letter endings are often a major source of inconsistency in the French orthography (source this research article).
Now, this might give you the impression that you’ll never quite master French. That’s not true. Instead, it’s better to start from the beginning to understand the basic rules for learning how to pronounce silent letters in French words.
To go beyond this quick pronunciation guide to silent letters in French, check the guide to learn French pronunciation.
The essentials of silent letters in French
One of the most essential steps, as explained in this pronunciation guide to silent letters, is to remember the following rules in order to improve your French pronunciation. First, let’s break down the most common silent letters and the essential rules around them. There are three types of silent letters in French:
- Silent E
- Silent H
- Final consonants
Yes, French spelling can be confusing. The spelling of words doesn’t always correspond exactly to what the speakers actually pronounce. Tu vois? Tu comprends?
Common silent letters in French
In French, the letters -e and -h are commonly silent in a large number of words. To make it easier, I made the following videos to explain the basics of each of these silent letters in the French language.
Silent letters and plural
In Plural, most French words have an -s added to the end of the word but this last -s is not pronounced.
Example: une étoile (a star), des étoiles (stars). The -s is muted.
In Plural some French words add an -x, the last -x is not pronounced.
Example: un hibou (owl), des hiboux (owls). The -x is muted.
Silent final consonants in French
The basic rule of French pronunciation is that the final consonant is not pronounced, but there are many exceptions.
Some consonants are pronounced: -c, -r, -f, -l, -k, -q, and -b.
You can remember the most recurrent ones by recalling the word CaReFuL. Indeed the letters -k ,-q and -b are rare at the end of a word.
Example: un sac (bag), un chef (chief), de l’or (gold), un fil (wire).
As we must account for every idle word, so must we account for every idle silence. Benjamin Franklin
An infographic with silent letters in French
French letter silent E
In French, -e is the most common silent letter that you will encounter. It is also the only vowel that isn’t always pronounced. When the letter –e placed at the end of a word is after a consonant, it is not pronounced. For example, the -e at the end of the word voiture (car) is normally not pronounced.
There is an important exception that you should know. If it is a small word, the -e is not silent. For example:
- te (you, yourself)
- le (the)
- de (of)
- se (itself)
- ce (it)
- je (I)
- ne (particle used in the negative construction ne…pas)
- que (that)
French letter silent H
The letter -h is usually found at the beginning of a word in French. For instance, the word hibou.
The letter -h is not silent if it is part of a letter combination like ch or ph at the beginning of a word in French.
Find out more about the pronunciation of the letter h: h muet and h aspiré in French.
Silent consonants in French
Silent consonants are common in French. Almost every letter can be silent except j and v. But I’ll give some rules to better understand when a consonant is pronounced or silent. In this section, we’ll ignore digraphs such as ch, gn, ph. And we’ll not talk about the nasal consonants m and n. These nasal consonants when final or preceding a consonant ordinarily nasalize a preceding vowel but are not themselves pronounced.
Let’s start with the silent consonants and then I’ll give some exceptions.
Words ending with nc and ng
The final consonant in the following words is silent in French:
- blanc: white
- long: long
There are some exceptions. For example, the final consonant -c in the word donc is not silent. It is pronounced in French.
Words ending with p
When a word ends with the French consonant -p, the -p is not pronounced, and once again it is a silent letter in French. For example:
- beaucoup: a lot
- trop: too many
Words ending with d and t
The letters -d and -t are silent letters at the end of French verbs:
- on part: we leave
- elle attend: she waits
Similarly, -d and -t are silent at the end of the singular nouns:
- le nord: north
- un concert: a concert
Final -ent is silent as a third-person plural verb ending, though it is pronounced in other cases:
- ils achètent: they buy
- les amis vendent: the friends sell
There are some exceptions that you need to know. The letters -d and -t are pronounced at the end of the following French words:
- ouest: west
- sud: south
- est: east
Words ending with s or with x
In French, -s and -x are silent letters at the end of a word. Here are some cases:
- The articles: les, des, etc.
- The pronouns: nous, vous, eux, etc.
- The verbs: je vis (I live), tu veux ( you want), etc.
- Singular nouns: le choix (the choice), le temps (the time), etc.
As mentioned earlier, never pronounce the plural markers:
- Les enfants: the children
- Les pommes: apples
However, there are some words that end with the letter -s and in which the letter -s is pronounced. Here are some examples:
- le bus: the bus
- un ours: the bear
- un fils: a son
Note that the letter -l is not pronounced in the word fils: fils is pronounced /fis/.
Words ending with z
The letter -z is silent in French at the end of a verb such as:
- mangez: eat
- vous allez: you’re going
It is also the case in the following prepositions and adverbs like in the word “assez” (enough). And in the singular nouns such as in “le riz” (rice). There are some expectations where the letter -z is pronounced at the end of a word, for example, le gaz.
To learn more about the rules around the pronunciation of the letter S in French go check out the associated article When does S Sound like Z in French?
Words borrowed from English
In words borrowed from English, a final consonant is usually pronounced:
- le parking
- le meeting
Watch this video to discover the cases where the consonant is pronounced and the cases where the consonant is a silent letter.
When to pronounce final consonants in French
You’ll notice that all of these words have one syllable (occasionally two). This generalization has a few exceptions, but I find it helpful to remember the word CareFuL. Please check the pronunciation in a dictionary for words ending with -c, -r, -f or -l if you’re not sure.
Words ending with the letter c
The letter -c is pronounced in words like:
- avec: with
- le sac: the bag
But it isn’t pronounced in words like:
- porc: pork
- estomac: stomach
Words ending with the letter r
The letter -r is pronounced in words like:
- cher: expensive
- partir: to leave
However, in final -er is usually pronounced /e/
- chanter: to sing
- premier: first
Words ending with the letter f
The letter –f is pronounced in the following French words:
- neuf: nine
- soif: thirst
But it isn’t pronounced in:
- nerf: nerve
Words ending with the letter l
The letter -l is pronounced at the end of the following words:
- avril: April
- nul: nul
As for the exceptions, you should know that the final -l is usually silent after the letter -i like in:
- gentil: nice
- outil: tool
Silent letters and liaisons
Final consonants that might be silent in other contexts (finally or before another consonant) may seem to reappear in pronunciation in liaison.
For example, the letter -s in “elles” is pronounced as follows when making the liaison in French: Elles arrivent is pronounced like elle.Z.arrivent.
Note that any consonant followed by the letters -e or -es are pronounced at the end of a word. The letter -e itself is usually not pronounced, it only signals the pronunciation of the preceding consonant.
For example: Petite is pronounced /petit/: little.
Of course, there are always exceptions but if you remember just this, for now, it will be amazing! So yes, there is a way to conquer those crazy French silent letters that I briefly describe in this article.
Looking for a course to learn French online? Get started today with our online French courses where I teach silent letters and go deeper into the details of various French lessons.
Some common questions about silent letters
What Is The Origin Of Silent Letters In French?
These letters were once pronounced in the Old French and then have been abandoned as the language evolved. Many of the letters of the alphabet are pronounced the same way in French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. This is proof that the original Latin pronunciation has survived.
When the French silent letters are useful?
The French silent letters are useful in the following contexts:
- Some silent letters distinguish the gender of a noun grammatically.
- Others denote the number or plurality of a noun.
- And then, of course, there’s verb agreement.
It is important to remember that silent letters allow us to:
- Determine the etymology of a word.
- Understand the meaning of a word even if two words have the same pronunciation. For instance: poids (weight) and pois (pea).
What are some tips to find whether a word has a silent letter?
Here are two key principles to follow to find out if there is a silent letter at the end of a French word.
- Pick a word from the same family and try pronouncing it. Take for example the word chat (cat) and chaton (kitten). So you can guess there is a -t at the end of the word chat.
- Find out the feminine word. For instance, the word gris (grey) ==> grise (grey). You can easily guess that there is a silent -s at the end of the word gris.
How common are silent letters in French?
One recent research estimated that 28% of French words end with a silent letter. And this doesn’t take into account all the silent letters at the beginning or in the middle of French words.
What are the most common silent letter in French?
In French, the letter e and h are the most common silent letters that you will encounter. We study this in-depth in the Effortless French pronunciation course as it is an important topic at the core of French pronunciation.
Thanks for reading!