E-nglish Consonants

by Hugh M. Lewis


English consonants present special challenges for the non-English speaker, and the irregularities of spelling often entail that the sounds heard are not the same as the letters that are written. This presents a special problem for those students who have few good natural speech models and are learning English primarily from printed textbooks.

Consonants sometimes come in complex consonantal clusters, in blends, pairs and even more complex combinations that produce unusual sounds that are especially difficult for foreign speakers to master. Other times, consonants are seen in spelling but are not heard in pronunciation.

In general, consonants may have a voiced or unvoiced quality, and they may be either hard or soft. Consonantal sounds are distinguished based on the position they occur in a word, whether in initial or front, mid, or medial, and ultimate or final positions.

Single Consonant Sounds

Consonant Blends

Beginning Consonantal Blends

Initial Consonantal Digraphs

Hard & Soft Initial Consonants

Silent Initial Consonants

Voiced and Unvoiced initial "th"

Complex Initial Consonantal Clusters

Ending Consonantal Blends

Final Consonantal Digraphs

Complex Ending Consonantal Clusters

Special English Consonantal Pairs

 The Irregular "t"-Sound

Single Consonant Sounds

b be, big, number, probably, tub, adverb

c can, call because, second back, electric

c (s-sound) cent, circus process, Pacific .

d do, different study, Indiana good, around

f for, few after, before himself, leaf

g go, garden again, figure, dog, flog

g (j-sound) gem, general danger, original change, huge, fudge

h he, happy behind, ahoy .

j just, jump adjective, majesty .

k kind, kiss market, monkey bank, book

l little, laugh only, children little, girl, vowel

m mind, memory number, sample from, reform

n not, next answer, centennial oven, own

p point, possible open, example map, sleep

q quarter, quintessential sequence, equipment .

r run, round large, storage hour, flair

s sometimes, sentential answer, question perhaps, across

s (z sound) no initial sound music, busy is, does

t too, take city, sentence put, doubt

v very, vowel ever, several stove, dive

w work, will sandwich, Halloween .

x no initial sound mixture, maximum complex, sex

x (z-sound) xylophone, Xanadu no middle sound no final sound

y yes, your beyond, canyon .

z zoo, zipper crazy, magazine fuzz, jazz


Note that some single consonants (s-sound c, h, j, q, w and y) have no final sounds.

The z-sound "s" and the regular "x" have no initial sounds.

The z-sound "x" is the most rare sound and only occurs in initial position in a few words.

The "q" always occurs with a "u" and is heard as "kw."

The "v" in final position is always spelled with an ultimate "e."

A useful exercise is to have students working in groups find as many words as they can for each of the sounds, and to have each of the groups present their words to the rest of the class.

Consonant Blends

Consonant blends are pairs or larger clusters of consonants that produce new sounds. These new sounds are often difficult to produce orally, and can be confusing in word recognition.

Three sets of vowel blends that are quite common include an initial consonant with the letters "r" or "l" following; as in the following examples:

blend climb flip plump

brand cream crimp print

and the letter "s" as in "swing," "spring," "sloop", "stoop"

These are referred to as the r-family, l-family and s-family pairs. There are other families as well--try the t-family and the p-family.

Beginning Consonantal Blends

The consonants below that occur in initial position are always followed by a vowel:

H, J, L, M, N, Q, R, V, X, Y, Z

The letter "q" is unusual because it is always followed by a "u"

What follows are the consonant blends possible for each initial consonant

 B bl br blubber, branch

C cr cl, crunch, clown

D dr dw draw, dwindle

F fl fr flew, fry

G gl gr, glance, great

K kr krill

P pl pr, plural, preen

R rh rhomboid

S sl st sw, slip, string, swallow

T tr tw, trestle, twirl

W wr, wring

Initial Consonantal Digraphs

Digraphs are two letters that create a new sound:

ch--character, chore



sh--shove, shoulder

th--though, them

wh--whether, whimsical

Hard & Soft Initial Consonants

The "c" and "g" sounds occurring in initial position sometimes carry a hard sound and sometimes a soft sound.


A hard "c" sounds like "k" as in car, cut, clear, character, cancer

Compare this to the hard guttural "g" as in gar, gut, glare, going, gamble

A soft "c" sounds like the sibilant "s" as in Caesar, certificate, Cincinnati


Compare this to the soft "g" sound that sounds like a "j" as in "gypsy," "gypsum," "gem" "gymnasium," "gist" or "general"


In general, if the vowel or vowel pair following the initial c or c-blend or an initial g or g-blend, is an "a, o, u" then the c sound is "hard," but if the following vowel or vowel blend has a sound that is "i" or "e" then it is soft.


Please note that there are definite exceptions to this rule governing the g sounds. For instance, say the following words:





Silent Initial Consonants

Sound out each of the following words, and pick out the silent initial consonant.











A good exercise is to give students a surprise spelling test with these words, and to see by tally how many students got spelled the words correctly based on their sound only.

Voiced and Unvoiced initial "th"

A voiced sound is one that employs the vocal chords in its production. Have students hold their throats to feel the vibration of their chords when the say the following voiced "th" words. See if they can feel their chords when the say the unvoiced words.

Basic determining articles and pronouns in English share with many other words a voiced or unvoiced "th" sound that is frequently difficult for foreign speakers to clearly pronounce or distinguish.

Voiced "th" words Unvoiced "th" words

these thought

this think

those thank

that thorough

them throw

the thorn


Complex Initial Consonantal Clusters

Initial consonantal clusters that are complex sets of three consonants include the following:

phl phlegm phlogiston

sch school, schooner

scr scream scrunch

shr shrill shriek shrove

spl splash splinter

spr spring sprinkle

str string strangle struggle

thr three throw


Ending Consonantal Blends

Consonantal blends that occur in the end of words include the following pairs:

lb bulb

ld build, guild, field

lm film, realm, helm

lt built, quilt, kilt

mb dumb, crumb

nd bend, fend

ng ring, bring

nk prank, swank

nt rent, bent, sent

ph graph, staph

rt smart, part, dart

rn born, sworn

rd rend, mend, fend, trend

rl twirl, sworl, marl

st tryst, gist, mist, fist, twist

th with, teeth

xt betwixt

Final Consonantal Digraphs

Digraphs are two letters that create a different single sound:

ch sandwich

ck--back, duck


gh---though, high

ng--ring, thing


sh wish, fish


Complex Ending Consonantal Clusters

There are a few common complex consonantal clusters that frequently occur at the end of words, these include the following:


ght ought, thought, bought

nch bench, wrench, cinch

tch witch, stitch, glitch

nch inch, cinch, bench

lph Ralph, Alphabet

lth stealth, wealth

thm rhythm

Special English Consonantal Pairs


The consonantal pair "ph" usually has an "f" sound:



The consonantal pair "gh" sometimes has an "f" sound:



But sometimes it is silent, as:




The "ch" sound in English sometimes has a sound as in

chair, chairman, chancellor, sandwich,

Sometimes it has a hard "k" sound as in:

chemist, chiropractor

And sometimes it has a "sh" sound as in:

chef, chevron

Note, that the "tch" cluster always has the "ch" sound as in

witch, stitch, itch, batch, match, catch


English also sometimes has a special class of complex clusters that have an "le" sound at the end, consider the following:










These are in fact two syllable words in which the consonantal cluster joins the last syllable. Consider the following words:



These are in fact two separate consonantal clusters that join together between syllables.

Finally, the same consonant sometimes occurs reduplicated in pairs, in which case the first consonant is heard, and the second is either a glide or not heard at all. Consider the following:











 The Irregular "t"-Sound

Note that sometimes "t" has an irregular "sh" sound, as for instance the following:

tion--nation, attention


tious--fictitious, rambunctious



Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/14/05