Silent Letters

French silent letters
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Lettres muettes

French has a lot of silent letters, which can make pronunciation and spelling exasperating—at least until you learn the rules and patterns to these sneaky non-sounds.

Silent letters can be divided into three groups

  1. E muet
  2. H (aspiré and muet)
  3. Final consonants

Rumor has it that most final consonants are silent, but that tricky word "most" is where the problems start. Students learn the mnemonic CaReFuL to remember the supposedly four consonants which are typically pronounced at the end of a word, while all others are typically silent. However, it’s not quite that simple.

Usually pronounced consonants

There are in fact nine French consonants that are usually pronounced at the end of a word:

Usually pronounced Exceptional patterns   Some individual exceptions
B     le plomb
C nasal vowel + c
   un banc, blanc
  un estomac, le porc, un tabac
F     un nerf, une clef, œufs
G nasal vowel + g – see nasal consonants, below
L vowel + -il
   à l’appareil, un œil
  gentil, outil
M nasal pronunciation
   nom, parfum
R suffixes -er and -ier
   boulanger, premier
-er verbs
   assumer, sonner

Usually silent consonants

Six consonants are usually silent at the end of a word; however, they may be subject to liaison.

Usually silent Exceptional patterns   Some individual exceptions
D Proper names
   Alfred, David
P     un cap, un slip
S     un autobus, un fils, le tennis
T -ct ending
   direct, strict
  brut, huit, ouest
-pt ending
   concept, sept
X     Aix, un index, six
Z     le gaz

  Many of the exceptions are either proper names or words borrowed from other languages.

Nasal consonants

The letter N and the combination NG are nearly always nasal at the end of a word, meaning that they are not pronounced as consonants, but rather nasalize the vowel that precedes them.

Usually nasal   Exceptions   Notes
N   abdomen, amen
NG   ing suffix
   footing, riesling
  The g at the end of –ing isn’t pronounced [g] but it’s not a simple nasal either – learn more.

 Related lessons

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French silent letters

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2 Responses

  1. nick 2 June 2017 / 15:03

    In the case of B and G , those are loan words from other languages. And for K and Q , they are the same sound as C thats why in linguistics we represent that sound with a K in IPA. So, really, CaRFuL still holds true.

    • lkl 3 July 2017 / 11:46

      The CaReFuL rule is about those four letters, not those four sounds. And loan words matter too, plus what about M? Like I said, it’s just not that simple.

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