Debt, rhetoric, style: all these words have a silent 'b','h', and 'e'. In my test paper, this is known as a result of deletion rule. But why doesn't the 'gh' in 'flight' count as deleted?

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    Welcome! 1) Could you edit to show more of how your test (or teaching materials) explain "deletion rule"? At first I was going to say it was misusing the term, but it might be a very broad etymological application. 2) What makes you say that flight doesn't count? Any explanation I can think of the covers the others covers it as well. Nov 22, 2021 at 16:05
  • Thank you for your reply, sir! Deletion rule: A rule that governs the deletion of a sound in a certain phonetic context although it is represented in spelling. This is the definition given by my textbook
    – Agent Chuobao
    Nov 22, 2021 at 16:10
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    Thank you so much for answering! I guess the question itself has its flaws...And I can see some very different definitions on the term 'deletion/elision' on linguistic text book written by Chinese....
    – Agent Chuobao
    Nov 22, 2021 at 16:17
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    Okay, if your material is using the phrase "deletion rule" just to mean "silent letters" then sure, the "gh" in "flight" is deleted. Pronunciation in English is notoriously inconsistent, and only barely follows "rules." One such would be that, with a single vowel and single consonant, you can make the vowel long by adding a silent "e" after the consonant, so that explains the "e" in "style." (But the rule has exceptions especially among direct Greek loan words like Nike.) Nov 22, 2021 at 16:18
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    Perhaps your book is drawing a distinction between words that contain "silent letters" (no one, no matter how carefully enunciating, would normally pronounce them) and elision, which is the practice, especially when speaking quickly or casually, of blending, merging, or omitting letters that would be pronounced when speaking with more articulation. One common case (even more pronounced in Spanish) would be the practice, when faced with a word that ends in a vowel followed by a word beginning with a vowel, to omit the first vowel sound and replace it with the second. Nov 22, 2021 at 16:21

2 Answers 2


Your test paper is mixing up several examples of how a letter can come be written but silent.

The Old English word "dette" had a "b" inserted, by printers who wanted to make a connection to the Latin word. This isn't a deletion of a sound, but an insertion

The "h" in rhetoric was inserted in Latin words derived from Greek, probably to indicate the voiceless alveolar trill in their Greek pronunciation. It moved around a bit and for a while the word in English became "rethorick", but again, Classically trained printers moved the 'h' back to conform to Latin spelling.

The "e" in style is the result of Great Vowel Shift changes in pronunciation.

The gh in "Flight" is the remains of a yogh "fliȝt", which represented a gutteral sound not found in Latin, and variously represented in Germanic languages that borrowed the Latin alphabet, Its silence is the result of changes in pronunciation.

There is no justification is calling the first three "deletion rules" and not the fourth.

This, however, is not the usual meaning of "deletion rule", which is a rule whereby a letter is not pronounced in a certain context. The common example being the "d" in "handbag". It is normal to pronounce the word without "d" if you are speaking at normal pace, but pronounce it if you are speaking slowly.

So if you are not doing this test but are discussing English phonological rules with English linguists, don't call any of your examples "deletion rules", or you will confuse them.

  • Despite my etymological red herrings in the comments, it seems that the test isn't really focusing on etymology but on some kind of distinction in contemporary speech between letters never pronounced and those sometimes ellided. Nov 22, 2021 at 18:05

If the gh letters are deleted, it leaves flit, which has a different vowel sound. So, from a language teaching perspective, I suppose one could say that gh "modifies" the sound of the i, even though g is not pronounced as a consonant.

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