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I am an English teacher who has never really learned the complex rules of teaching pronunciation. Many learners here in Spain have difficulties deciding whether an "i" in a word is long or short. Unfortunately, even the basic general rule of "it's a long 'i' if it's a short word with a silent 'e' at the end" doesn't work, as we came across "live" and "give"... and the multisyllable "practice/practise".

I can't seem to find a pattern (emphatise vs expertise, and sign vs signature and signal came up).

Can anyone point me in the direction of a relatively simple explanation?

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    I don't think there is one - you just have to learn the pronunciation of each word, I'm afraid. Live as a verb rhymes with give, but as an adjective (as in live animals) it rhymes with drive. – Kate Bunting Apr 21 at 8:06
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    A lot of very common words are exceptions to the general rules - like "give", "done", "are", "have" - but this doesn't change the fact that the patterns are there and often a good guide to how to pronounce 90% of monosyllables, and these rules form the basis of how a native speaker will guess the pronunciation - for example, if we've never come across the word "mive" or "gline" or "brile" before (I made these up), we'll give it a long (diphthongised) i. Polysyllablic words are more difficult - I'm sure there are rules and patterns, but less easy to generalise. – rjpond Apr 21 at 8:25
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    "Expertise" is a relatively recent borrowing from French ("machine" is also from French) so the "i" is /i:/ (which isn't short, but isn't diphthongised either). – rjpond Apr 21 at 8:32
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    For polysyllables you have to look at both stress patterns ( ell.stackexchange.com/questions/56396/… ) and trisyllabic laxing ( ell.stackexchange.com/questions/265605/… ). There are some words that can be pronounced either way though ("missile", "tactile" - for these two examples BrE favours the diphthong, AmE the monophthong, but I think there are some words where the preference is the other way round). – rjpond Apr 21 at 9:03
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    emphatise? Did you mean empathize? Or maybe emphasize? – Kevin Apr 21 at 16:43
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There isn't a relatively simple explanation, I'm afraid. As you've pointed out, there are more exceptions-to-rules than than there are rules; however, there are some general guidelines that might help you:

  • before double consonants

    before double consonants, 'i' is usually short regardless of its position in a word: as in bitten, hidden, miffed, bigger, piggy, ribbon, nibble, chill, pillow, immune, simmer, dinner, innocent, snippet, hippo, irregular, irrelevant, miss, bliss, issue etc (the only exception I can think of is 'dissect' which can be pronounced either with a short 'i' or long)

  • in prefixes

    'i' in common prefixes such as in- (im-, il-, ir-), infra-, inter-, intra-, hemi-, dis- etc is pronounced short (exc. bi- and di-)

  • before the suffix -tion

    before the suffix -tion (in simple words, ition words), it's almost always short as in competition, condition, inhibition, exhibition, recognition, transition, addition etc

  • in ity and ible

    in ity and ible, it's usually short (either /ɪ/ or /ə/) as in ability, activity, elasticity, sexuality, visible, edible, eligible, tangible, divisible etc but there may be exceptions

  • in the suffix -ise/-ize

    the 'i' in the suffix -ise/-ize is almost always long as in realise, actualise, mesmerise, hypnotise, formalise, italicise, memorise etc. Also, as @rjpond pointed out in a comment: "Expertise" is a relatively recent borrowing from French ("machine" is also from French) so the "i" is /i:/ (which isn't short, but isn't diphthongised either).

  • in ic and ical words

    before ic and ical, 'i' is almost always short as in classic, lunatic, logic, ironic, fanatic, genetic, classical, historical, physical, mechanical, etc

  • before digraphs

    a digraph is 'a combination of two letters representing one sound' (Lexico). For example, the ck in 'back' or the ph in 'physics' or the ng in 'ring'. Before consonant digraphs (and consonant trigraphs), 'i' is usually short as in stick, brick, ring, king, fish, lavish, ridge, bridge rich, sandwich, witch, pitch etc

  • in -ing

    in the inflectional suffix -ing, 'i' is almost always short as in making, raining, killing, selling, feeling, hiding, watering, hitting, sitting, calling etc

  • words ending in ign

    words ending in ign usually have the long 'i' sound as in sign, consign, malign, design, resign, align, assign, benign etc.

  • before gh words

    before gh, 'i' is usually pronounced long 'i' as in sight, fight, might, high, sigh, height, slight, night, bright, right etc (ex. 'weight' which is pronounced with /eɪ/)

  • before nd and ld

    before nd and ld, 'i' is sometimes long as in wind (v.), kind, blind, mind, mild, child, find etc (for w[ɪ]nd vs w[aɪ]nd, read this answer)

  • before silent e

    words ending in iCe ('i' being letter 'i', 'C' another consonant, 'e' the silent e) are usually, not always, pronounced with a long 'i' as in hide, site, kite, white, wife, oblige, like, spike, bike, file, tile, while, time, prime, line, fine, pipe, gripe, size etc. Exceptions: recipe, clandestine, astatine and routine (long 'e': /iː/), urine (can also be pronounced with long 'i'), iodine (it can also be pronounced with long i), ive-words below etc

  • words ending in ive

    ive words are tricky. Most words having the prefix -ive have short 'i': relative, conservative, fricative, figurative, active, argumentative etc. By contrast, live (adj), dive, drive, five, revive, alive etc are pronounced with a long 'i'

  • CiC words

    words in which 'i' is flanked by two other consonants is usually pronounced short as in signal, signature, sit, fit, kit, hit, lit, spit etc (ex. title, vital)


There are also other exceptions such as:

  • finite - infinite, migrant - immigrant, divine - divinity
  • It's pronunciation varies when it occurs in combination with another vowel.
  • Before rC (r + another consonant) it's usually /ɜː/ in British English and /ɝ/ in American English: bird, skirt, shirt, dirt, firm, irk, quirk etc

There are no hard and fast rules. Sorry.


(Long 'i' is /aɪ/ as in bite, short 'i' is /ɪ/ as in bit.)

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    That looks like a pretty comprehensive list! Not that I'd have any idea if you missed out a few fairly common cases. Did you put it together yourself, or find it in some reference work? – FumbleFingers Apr 21 at 14:53
  • @FumbleFingers: I did it all by myself except for the ‘before gh’; I got that idea from somewhere I don't remember now. There are many more guidelines such as TSL (divine - divinity group) and stress (finite - infinite) (rjpond's comment) etc., but it would further confuse the OP. – Void Apr 21 at 15:03
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    Well, it certainly looks like an excellent "reference page" to me! I've been on this site for over 8 years now, and this is only the 12th post that seems worth me "bookmarking" it (within the site UI, not my browser) in case I might want to redirect future related queries here. – FumbleFingers Apr 21 at 15:30
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    Of possible note, the double consonant rule actually applies to other vowels as well as ‘i’ (though the exact change it induces is not always consistent). It’s one of a handful of easy to point out aspects of English’s Germanic heritage. Most other Germanic languages also signal ‘shortening’ of a the preceding vowel with a doubled consonant. – Austin Hemmelgarn Apr 21 at 18:04
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    @Void Yes, I've only ever heard "hemi" and "demi" with monophthongal vowels in BrE. "Multi" is another that always has a monophthong in BrE, but often a diphthong /aɪ/ in AmE. – rjpond Apr 22 at 7:16
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Grammar is music theory for language. Music doesn't sound good because it follows music theory, music theory is written about music that sounds good. There is no such thing as a "rule" for language, because languages are highly specific in unpredictable ways. Languages have evolved by people making sounds at each other until telepathy was achieved, because the language centres of our brains are hardwired to be able to generate and understand human languages. You can't write that down as "rules". Even if you could, none would ever be short enough to recall with the subconscious instancy required for native speed speech.

Teaching someone a formula for language will not help them acquire that language. I never learnt the grammar "rule" behind why one of the two phrases "the green big tree" and "the big green tree" is incorrect, I can just feel it. I know instantly by looking at them, and can't force myself to think otherwise.

The way for your students to acquire whether it's a short or long I is the exact same way they'll acquire anything else - comprehensible input. They need to listen to native level speakers more, and pay active attention to the things about which they're confused.

On a note more specific to this exact example, how a word is pronounced is based on accent. Think of the different ways a hillbilly and an East Londoner would pronounce "hill".

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  • 'There is no such thing as a "rule" for language, because languages are highly specific in unpredictable ways' – Most languages that are written with an alphabet have strict pronunciation rules, and knowing the spelling allows you to determine the pronunciation something like 99% of the time. English is unusual (and perhaps unique) in being an alphabetic language that has only a vague correspondence between spelling and pronunciation. – Tanner Swett Apr 22 at 15:17
  • It's also well-established that when people are learning to read, it is much better to teach them explicit rules about how characters are pronounced than to merely provide them large amounts of comprehensible input. But I admit that in this case (how to pronounce the English letter I), studying and memorizing lots and lots of rules may not be an efficient way to learn. – Tanner Swett Apr 22 at 15:18
  • "Most languages that are written with an alphabet have strict pronunciation rules" the portion you quoted was about language as a whole, not just spelling. Also you're conflating learning with acquiring. You can learn that a "dog" is a four legged animal with fur that barks, but that's not going to help you understand a spoken sentence about a dog. When you acquire language, you can't NOT understand it, it becomes meaning before you even listen to it. – Adam Barnes Apr 23 at 4:24
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The spelling patterns of words can indicate to us whether a word is more likely to be pronounced /ɪ/ or /iː/, as listed by @Toby Speight above.

Some students can learn by memorising rules and to others it will make no difference. For students like this, they will need to actively practice /iː/ and /ɪ/ words separately in sentences. This will eventually build the capacity of your ear and tongue to tell the difference. The goal is to get used to the difference so that you intuitively know it.

It's the only way that works for students who can't remember or apply rules. I have made two audio practise lessons on this topic:

Learn /iː/ lesson: https://jadejoddle.com/english-accent-practice/

Learn /ɪ/ lesson: https://jadejoddle.com/english-accent-practice-audio/

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