E instable

Schwa

The letter e can be tricky in French, as it has several different pronunciations and is the only vowel that can take any of the four French accents. In addition, in many words the letter e is potentially silent, a characteristic which has three French names:

  1. e caduc
  2. e instable
  3. e muet

Though e muet is the most common term, e instable is the most accurate. The e instable is not always silent: in some words and constructions its pronunciation is optional, while in others it is required. When it is silent, the dropping of the sound is called élision or amuïssement, from the verbs élider and amuïr. There are very specific rules about when élision is required and when it is forbidden.

Characteristics of e instable

  • Always unaccented, so é, è, ê, and ë are never instable
  • Every e instable is unaccented, but not every unaccented e is instable
  • When pronounced, the e instable sounds more or less like the oo in good: listen
  • May lead to assimilation
  • Phonetic symbol is the schwa: [ə]*

There are two keys to understanding the e instable:

  1. Identifying the e instable
  2. Knowing when the e instable can or must be pronounced vs when it must be silent

At the end of words

An unaccented e in the final syllable of any given word is nearly always instable.** This includes both single-syllable words as well as words with any number of syllables in which the e is followed by one or more silent letters. Whether élision is required, optional, or forbidden depends on the first letter of the word that follows the e instable.

In front of…Par exemple…
* ce
* de
* je
* jusque
* le
* me
* ne
* que
* se
* te
Vowel or h muet: required élision and contraction de + ici
me + aime
se + habiller
d’ici
m’aime
s’habiller
Consonant: Optional élision ce monde
le bateau
tu ne sais pas
[s(ə) mɔ̃d]
[l(ə) ba to]
[ty n(ə) sɛ pa]
H aspiré: Forbidden élision je halète
il te hait
Exceptions: When le is at the end of an affirmative command or je is used in inversion, the e is not instable: it must be pronounced: trouve-le, puis-je
— — —
* lorsque
* puisque
Vowel or h muet: Required élision but contraction only with pronouns. With other parts of speech, enchaînement is required.
  lorsque + on
puisque + à
lorsqu’on
puisque à
Consonant: optional élision lorsque vous
puisque nous
[lɔr sk(ə) vu]
[pɥi sk(ə) nu]
H aspiré: forbidden élision lorsque Hélène [lɔr skə e lɛn]
— — —
* presque Vowel or h muet: élision is required, but only contracts with île. With any other word, enchaînement is required.
  presqu’île
presque ici
 
Consonant: optional élision presque fini [prɛ sk(ə) fi ni]
— — —
* elle
* numbers
Vowel or h muet: required élision and enchaînement une amie
elle est
[y na mi]
[ɛ lɛ]
Consonant: optional élision quatre fois
elle travaille
[ka tr(ə) fwa]
[ɛ l(ə) tra vaj]
H aspiré: forbidden élision onze homards
elle hante
[ɔ̃ zə ɔ mar]
[ɛ lə ɑ̃nt]
 
Verb conjugations
E instable is found in all verb conjugations that end in -e, -es, or -ent, such as present and subjunctive conjugations of regular -er verbs and the subjunctive of other kinds of verbs.
* aime, aimes, aiment
* discute, discutes, discutent
* parte, partes, partent

etc.

Vowel or h muet: élision is required.
 1) When the verb ends in e, the consonant that precedes it requires enchaînement. J’aime étudier [ʒɛ me ty dje]
 2) When the verb ends in s or t, there is potential for a liaison. Tu discutes un livre. [di skyt (z)œ̃]
Consonant or h aspiré: élision is optional. Ils partent tôt [il par t(ə) to]
— — —
Adjectives and nouns
In any adjective or noun ending in a consonant plus -e or -es, the e is instable
* fille, filles
* pomme, pommes
* rouge, rouges
* verte, vertes

etc.

When the adjective or noun is singular
 1) Before vowel or h muet: élision is required and the preceding consonant requires enchaînement. rouge et noir [ru ʒe nwar]
 2) In front of a consonant or h aspiré: élision is optional. fille sportive [fi j(ə) spɔr tiv]
When the adjective or noun is plural
 1) Before vowel or h muet: élision is optional and there is potential for a liaison. tristes amours [tri st(ə) za mur]
 2) In front of a consonant or h aspiré: élision is optional. pommes jaunes [pɔ m(ə) ʒon]

Inside words

The e instable is much less common inside words. It may be found

1) Between two individual consonant sounds   devoirs | acheter | logement
2) Between a consonant and a consonant plus liquid consonant (l or r)   secrétaire | reflet | mercredi
3) In the re– prefix preceding ss   ressembler | ressentir | ressource
4) In these three words:   dehors | dessous | dessus

No e instable

While the red e in some of these words is spelled phonetically with a schwa, it must always be pronounced: it is not instable.

1) At the beginning of a word   encadré | et
2) In front of a double consonant (except in 3 and 4, above)   dessert | belle | parterre
3) In front of two different non-liquid consonants   restaurant | spectacle
4) Between two consecutive consonants and a consonant.   triplement | appartenir
5) In an infinitive ending   aller | parler

  Notes

* The [ə] sound is always spelled "e," with two exceptions:

  1. ai in all two-syllable conjugations of faire: faisant, nous faisons, etc.
  2. on in monsieur

** The main exception to this is in the infinitives of -er verbs.

Situational Pronunciation

Optional elision is dependent on the register of language and the linguistic construction the e instable is found within. These rules are fairly advanced, so if you’re a beginner, skip this section for now.

Generally speaking, optional elision is a personal choice: pronouncing all the optional e instables makes your speech a little more formal, not pronouncing them makes it more informal. But other factors also need to be taken into account.

Poetry

In poetry, elision is forbidden, as all optional elisions are included in the syllable count.

Rhythm

In the first syllable of a rhythmic group, the e instable must be pronounced (except when there are consecutive elisions, see below).

Devez-vous partir ?   [də ve vu par tir]
Refais tes devoirs.   [rə fɛ tɛ d(ə)vwar]

Multiple Elisions

When consecutive words have e instables, they can’t both be dropped. Instead, the pronunciation must alternate: one e instable of each pair must be pronounced.

Fais ce que tu veux. Fais c'que tu veux.   [fɛ s(ə) kə ty vœ]
Ne me le revends pas. N'me l'revends pas.   [n(ə) mə l(ə) rə vɑ̃ pa]

 Related lessons

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French e instable - silent e
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