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Many words have the silent 'e' on the end. How can I tell whether I should pronounce the 'e' or not? Is there a rule for this?

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Most of the time, when you see a word end in this pattern:

  • -VCe

where V represents a vowel, C represents a consonant, and e represents an ending e, then the e will be silent.

Here are a few exceptions:

  • recipe, simile, hyperbole

but such exceptions are very rare compared to the large number of words that follow the general guideline.

Also, when words have endings such as -ple, -cle, and -dle, those letters typically form a syllable at the end, as in sample, icicle, and candle.

If you are unsure about a word, though, you can check the pronunciation guide of any dictionary.

Edit: The answer I have provided here is at a basic level. The "e" in words such as hope, fade, and wine is sometimes referred to (particularly at a more elementary level) as a "silent e" that changes the sound of the vowel. However, at a more advanced level, linguists would differentiate between the "e" in gave, which changes the sound of the "a", and the "e" in give, which does not, concluding that the latter "e" is really the silent one, and the former "e" is not truly silent, because it affects the pronunciation of the word. Really, this comes down to the matter of what the O.P. means by "when should I pronounce the ‘e’?" If the word "pronounce" in that context means "add an extra syllable" (as in epitome), then my answer here would apply. However, if to "pronounce" in that context means "to change (or not change) the sound of the vowel" (as in have vs. hive), then Matt's answer below would be more applicable.

One book gets around this potential ambiguity by used the term "magic e", but then uses the term "Silent E" in its description:

The MAGIC E When E is at the end of a word it is silent, but the vowel before it changes to a long vowel (the name of the letter). The pattern of the word is usually Consonant-Vowel-Consonant-Silent E.

  • I'm not sure if linguists or others in related technical fields would call the "e" in -VCe "silent e". If they do I would regard it as unfortunate. Because rather than being silent it is part of the spelling of the vowel sounds. In these sounds the written vowel "wraps" the consonant so that the "a" and "e" in "pane" work together to produce the same sound as in "pain" rather than the sound in "pan". It seems less wrong to me to call the "e" in "since" a silent e, but it is still working in combination with the "c". This is quite different from say the silent "k" in "knock". – hippietrail Feb 4 '13 at 2:13
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    @hippietrail: It would be foolish to argue with you, because we are both "right". The answer I gave is at a more basic level, but the point you make is valid, and I've amended my response to account for it. I suppose this really highlights how it serves an O.P. well to elaborate in their question, and use specific examples when possible. Had a few sample words been given in the question, it would have been easy to understand exactly what the O.P. meant by "pronounce the ‘e’ or not." – J.R. Feb 4 '13 at 9:53
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There aren't any particularly hard and fast rules in English. Normally an 'e' at the end of a word is not "truly silent", but rather modifies the sound of the final constanant:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_e

 Without silent e   With silent e   IPA transcription
 slat               slate           /slæt/ → /sleɪt/
 met                mete            /mɛt/ → /miːt/
 grip               gripe           /ɡrɪp/ → /ɡraɪp/
 cod                code            /kɒd/ → /koʊd/
 run                rune            /rʌn/ → /ruːn/

There are some words in the English language where the 'e' is "truly silent", i.e. the word is read as if the 'e' at the end were not there at all. These words are typically derived from French words or expressions:

 promenade
 Femme Fatale
 minute
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    I think all of those words are silent e words, to include chime, crime, wine, game, and fine. – J.R. Feb 3 '13 at 3:15
  • I've rephrased the post to make it clearer the difference between a "silent e" and a "truly silent e". – Matt Feb 3 '13 at 3:31
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    Lest there be any confusion, neither a "silent e" nor a "truly silent e" make any sound. However, under this terminology, a "silent e" changes the sound of a preceding vowel (such as in the examples you provide), while a "truly silent e" does not (as in have, mouse, or geese). – J.R. Feb 3 '13 at 3:39
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    Not relevant to silent e per se, but definitely to pronunciation, minute has two different pronunciations depending on whether it's a noun (time, stress on the first syllable) or an adjective (size, stress on the second syllable); the final e does not affect this distinction. These differences are just things that need to be committed to memory, as so much else in English. – barbara beeton Feb 3 '13 at 13:23
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I don't think there is any general rule that can be applied in every case; you just have to know which words have silent letters.

A silent e is often employed to modify the pronunciation of the preceding vowel, functioning much like a diacritic would in many other languages. For example, in at and ate, the a is pronounced differently. In cases like this, the silent letter serves to disambiguate written words and indicate pronunciation.

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