English Vowels and Syllables Types: Vowel and Consonant Digraphs


The notion of the syllable intuitively seems to be a very simple one. A syllable is a basic unit of written and spoken language. It is a unit consisting of uninterrupted sound that can be used to make up words. For example, the word hotel has two syllables: ho and tel . These will be marked here as in ho/tel .

To find the number of syllables in a word, use the following steps:

  • Count the vowels in the word.
  • Subtract any silent vowels, (like the silent e at the end of a word, or the second vowel when two vowels are together in a syllable)
  • Subtract one vowel from every diphthong (diphthongs only count as one vowel sound.)
  • The number of vowel sounds left is the same as the number of syllables.

The number of syllables that you hear when you pronounce a word is the same as the number of vowel sounds heard. For example:

  • The word came has 2 vowels, but the e is silent, leaving one vowel sound and one syllable.
  • The word outside has 4 vowels, but the e is silent and the ou is a diphthong which counts as only one sound, so this word has only two vowel sounds and therefore, two syllables. There are six different kinds of syllables in English:
  1. Closed Syllables : A closed syllable has one and only one vowel, and it ends in a consonant. Examples include in , ask , truck , sock , stretch , twelfth , and on .
  2. Open Syllables : An open syllable has one and only one vowel, and that vowel occurs at the end of the syllable. Examples include no , she , I , a , and spry .
  3. Silent-E Syllables : A silent-e syllable ends in an e , has one and only one consonant before that e , and has one and only one vowel before that consonant. Examples include ate , ice , tune , slope , strobe , and these .
  4. Vowel Combination Syllables : A vowel combination syllable has a cluster of two or three vowels or a vowel-consonant unit with a sound or sounds particular to that unit. Examples include rain , day , see , veil , pie , piece , noise , toy , cue , and true .
  5. Vowel-R Syllables : A vowel-r syllable is one that includes one and only one vowel followed by an r , or one vowel followed by an r which is followed by a silent e , or a vowel combination followed by an r . Examples include car , or , care , ire , air , and deer .
  6. Consonant-L-E Syllables : In these syllables, a consonant is followed by le . The vowel sound in these syllables is the schwa sound that occurs before the l . Examples include -ble , -cle , -dle , -fle , and -gle .

Rules of reading vowels in four principal types of syllables

Letter / type of reading






1 – alphabetic reading in the open syllable



[ɜʊ] note

[jʊ:] tune

[i:] me

[ai] time

2 – short vowel sound in the closed syllable

[æ] map

[ɒ] not

[ʌ] but

[e] pen

[i] sit, myth

3 – vowel+ r



[ɑ:] park


[ɔ:] fork


[ɜ:] fur

e+r [ɜ:] her


[ɜ:] girl, myrtle

4 – vowel+ r + mute e


[ɛə] parents




u+re [jʊə] pure


[iə] here


[aiə] fire, tyre

The term digraph can be defined as:

  1. A pair of letters representing a single speech sound, such as the ph in a pheasant or the ea in
  2. A single character consisting of two letters runs together and represents a single sound, such as Old English æ .

Digraphs can be of two kinds: consonant digraphs and vowel digraphs.

Rules of reading vowel digraphs

The first group (both of the letters express themselves)

The second group

(we don’t read the letters of digraph.

We use monophthong or


The third group

(one of the letters of digraph has

alphabetic reading)

We read the first letter

We read the second letter

ei ey


vein 1 they

oo at the end

of the word

[ ʊ :]


ai ay


maid day

eu ew

[j ʊ :]


oi oy

[ ɔ i]



oo + cons. (except k)

[ ʊ :]

soon 1

ie ye


tie1 rye


[ ʊ ]

book cook

oa oe ow

[ ɜʊ ]

coat toe low

au aw

[ ɔ :]




ue ui

[j ʊ :]

due2 suit

ou ow

[a ʊ ]



ee ea


meet 3 sea

1 Exception: in some words digraph ei is read as [i:] after letter c receive , ceiling.

1 Except : good and stood [u]; 2 In some words digraph ou is read as [ʌ]: country, cousin, young ; or [u:]: youth, group, soup.

1 Except: believe,


2 Exception: after sounds [r], [l], [dʒ] digraphs ue and ui are read as [u:] –

blue, fruit, juice;

3 Exception: before d and th digraph ea is read as [e] – bread, death.

Exception: after sounds [r], [l],

[dʒ] digraphs eu and ew are read as [u:] – blew, drew, Jew.

As you will see from the table below, the situation is much less straightforward for the realizations of vowel graphemes or digraphs. This table represents an attempt to illustrate the diversity of possible realizations that exist for the various accents of English as spoken by native speakers and is mainly intended to raise your awareness concerning this issue.

It should by no means be seen as exhaustive and will certainly be more accurate in its representation of the potential realizations of British English, although North American, Australian, and New Zealand accents are also covered to some extent, without being referred to explicitly.

Many of the details occurring in this table will be covered in later sections of the course dealing with individual accents of English, but for now, you should at least be aware of the fact that whenever an [ɑ(ː)] realization occurs as a potential option, this ought to be interpreted in a somewhat different way when it refers to either a (Southern) British or an American realization. In the British variant, this ought to be interpreted as having a quality that is distinctly further back than its American ‘counterpart’, which is somewhat nearer to [a(ː)].

We are using the tilde symbol ( ~ ) to indicate a range of pronunciations in more or less the same way as John Wells does in his Accents of English .

In order to establish a systematic reference system in the first place, it is quite useful to start by having a look at letter-to-sound correspondences, only that in this context, we’ll refer to the former as graphemes and represent them in angled brackets ( <> ) and to the latter as phonemes, which we’ll enclose in forwarding slashes ( // ) or sometimes in a square ( [] ) brackets, if we want to talk about particular realizations.

This distinction is particularly important because we, unfortunately, tend to use the same terms, i.e. vowels and consonants, for both letters and sounds, so that occasionally, there may be grounds for misunderstanding. For example, when asked about the vowels of English, most native speakers would automatically respond by saying /eɪ/, /i:/, /aɪ/, /əʊ/, /ju:/, of course meaning the names for <a>, <e>, <i>, <o>, <u>, because of the predominance of written language in our literate society.

But of course, in terms of vowel sounds, this rendition does not actually even cover the simple vowels, which the single grapheme correspondences would seem to suggest. In order to shed some more light on what kinds of relationships exist between graphemes and phonemes, we will therefore look at the different types of letter/sound classes in some detail. Before we begin, though, it is important to bear in mind right from the start that we may not only be dealing with one-to-one correspondences but that there may well also be one-to many-relationships, where a single graphene/phoneme may have multiple realizations and vice versa.

Realization of vowel graphemes and digraphs - (grapheme combinations)









[ɒ~ɑ(ː)] [ə~ɐ]


c a t, b a ss b a se, b a ss b a th, c a r w a ter, w a rm, w a ll w a tch, wh a t a bout, a go, a gain cott a ge, lugg a ge


[eː~eɪ~ʌɪ] [ɛː~ɜː~ɛə]



m ai n, str ay , b ai t

ai r, f ai r capt ai n, fount ai n s ai d, s ay s, ag ai n





f au n, pr aw n l au gh s au sage


[ɪ~e~ɛ] [ɜː~ɜ˞~ɛː] [ə~ə˞]

e merald, b e t

em e rge

lett e r


/eɪ~iː/ [eː~eɪ~ɛː]

ea t, b ea t, t ea st ea k



ee l, m ee t, s ee




r ei gn, f ei n Ei leen



ew e, eu phemism, f ew





i nterest, t i p f i ve, f i re, p i rate b i rd, th i rd






p ie , tr ie f ie nd fr ie nd d ie t, qu ie t



not io n, pass io n, fash io n


[ɒ~ɑ(ː)] [əʊ~oː~ɒ]

o ption, p o t o mega, o ver, potat o t o re, t o rn





oa r, b oa rd c oa rticulation




Sh oe t oe


/ɔɪ/ /əʊʷɪ/

n oi se, h oi st, b oy , bu oy c oi ncidence






oo ze, m oo n, sh oo f oo t, b oo k p oo r c oo peration


[ɔː~oː] [ɔː~oː~ʊə]



f ou r t ou r

ou t, sh ou t, c ow

t ow






u ser, u sual p u t p u tt f u r, c u rl


/uː/ /uʷə/


S ue , que ue Cr ue l f ue l







fr ui t, cr ui se n ui sance b ui ld, g ui ld g ui de, q ui te fl ui d



b uy , g uy


[aɪ~ɒɪ] [aɪə~aɪə˞~aː]



cr y , fr y , tr y t y re cr y stal y esterday, y earn

Below is a table of possible consonant graphemes or grapheme combinations (digraphs). Where a potential doubling of graphemes may be possible without causing gemination (i.e. a double articulation) of the phoneme, the second graphene is given in round brackets; at other times the round brackets indicate additional optional elements.

Realization of consonant graphemes and grapheme combinations (digraphs)






b ill, trou b le, sha bb y, ta bb y, ta b


/t/ /bt/

de bt , dou bt o bt ain





c at, cho c olate, ma c spa c e spe c ial, o c ean




a cc urate, o cc ur a cc ept






ch eck, ma tch ma ch ine, musta ch e ch aos, Ba ch ya ch t



chi ck en, ba ck , thi ck



/dʒ/, /dj/

d umb, mi dd le, ba d gra d ual, resi d ual


/f/ /v/

f ind, co ff ee, dwar f , shel f o f





g ive, g uest, lu gg age, ba g G eor g e, engor g e, hu g e, ur g e rou g e, bei g e






gh ost cou gh , lau gh ei gh t, bou gh hiccou gh




si gn , forei gn si gn al, si gn ature




h ome, be h ind h our, Sha h





J ohn, j oke, ma j ority j abot hallelu j ah



k ilo, mar k et, mar k




kn ight, kn ee, kn ow ac kn owledge, wea kn ess




l eft, bu ll et, she l f, gir l , fu ll ha l f, ca l f, ca l m, wa l k, cou l d



m orning, c omm a, roo m




e mb lem, tu mb le la mb , cli mb , to mb





da mn , hy mn mn emonic hy mn al, gy mn asium, o mn iscient



n ame, ma nn er, mea n



/ŋg/, /ŋk/


si ng er, lo ng

fi ng er, a nx iety, thi nk er, i nq uire sti ng y



p lan, co pp er, tem p le, ma p


/f/ /ph/, /p/

ph otography, ph ysical Cla ph am








hy pn osis pn eumatic u ps et ps ychology a pt itude pt erodactyl




q uestion che q ue




/ə/ or lengthening of preceding vowel

r ed, mi rr or rh ythm

cent r e, tende r , mirro r , co r e






s ound, ma s ter, mo ss , clo s e mea s les, clo s e

s ugar, s ure mea s ure





de sc ribe de sc ent, mu sc le lu sc ious


/ʃ/ /sh/

sh ore, fa sh ion, fla sh gra sh opper


/s/ /sw/

sw ord

sw ine, sw indle, sw at



t op, bi tt er, ha t





th eme, bo th , mon th ly th e, th ese, bro th er

apar th eid



v an, mo v ing, cur v e



w ater


/h/ /w/

wh o, wh ole

wh ere, wh en, wh y, wh at





bo x , mi x ture e x act, e x ist X erox,

x enophobia, x ylophone



y ellow, y oghurt, y oke



z one, da zz le, bu zz