Long and Short English Vowels

The English vowels are A, E, I, O, & U. (Sometimes Y is a vowel, pronounced as if it were I, and sometimes W substitutes for U.) Each can be pronounced in several ways.This page explains when each sound is commonly used. (It's also available now as a 4-page pdf to download and print, as requested in the page comments.)

Short Vowels

 The most common sound for each vowel is its “short” sound:

  •  ă, pronounced /æ/ as in apple, pan, or mat,
  •  ĕ, pronounced /ɛ/ as in elephant, pen, or met,
  •  ĭ, pronounced /ɪ/ as in insect, pin, or mitt,
  •  ŏ, pronounced /ɒ/ as in ostrich, upon, or motto,
  •  and ŭ, pronounced /ʌ/ as in umbrella, pun, or mutt.

 (The International Phonetic Alphabet symbol for each sound is inside the backslashes://. You do not need to understand the IPA symbols; just look for an example word you know how to pronounce. For those who want more, this Wikipedia article gives a fairly simple demonstration of the IPA as used in English, with links to more detailed information.)

When syllables end in a vowel and then consonant (as in the examples above), the vowel is usually short. If there is more than one consonant, the vowel is almost always short.

This becomes important as a way to keep the same vowel sound when adding -ed to put a verb into the past tense. We often double an ending consonant to keep a short vowel short. For example, the past tense of 'stop' is 'stopped.' Otherwise the silent 'e' rule below (which also applies when followed by 'd') would give it a long 'o' sound like soap or hope. See the Simple Past Tense explanation of spelling changes.

Long Vowels

The alphabet sounds (when the vowel “says its name”) are called “long vowels.”

We call them ‘long’ because we hold them longer than the short sounds, but they are completely different sounds-- not a longer version of the same sound.

  • Long A (ā ), pronounced /eɪ/ as in ate or mate,

  • Long E (ē ), pronounced /iː/ as in eat or meat (or meet or mete-- all pronounced the same),
  • Long I (ī), pronounced /aɪ/ as in mite or might,
  • Long O (ō), pronounced /oʊ/ as in oats, mote or moat, and
  • Long U (ū), pronounced /juː/ in mute.

Silent ‘E’ Rule: When a vowel and consonant are followed by an ‘e’, the ‘e’ is almost always silent, but it causes the preceding vowel to be long. (Examples: ate, plane, Pete, bite, nine, rope, note, cube, flute.)

Other Long Vowels: A vowel at the end of a syllable is almost always long. Examples: I, we, he, she, go, try, potato and tomato.(Some English speakers use a short ‘a’ in the 2nd syllable, while others use a long ‘a,’ but both ‘o’s are long for everyone.)

-Igh and -ight are usually long I (and silent GH): bright, fight, high, light, might, night, right, sigh, sight, tight.

Often the first letter of the vowel combinations, especially ‘ai’, ‘ay’, ‘ea’ (sometimes-- see Digraphs, below), ‘ee’, & ‘oa,’ will be long & the second will be silent. (An old rhyme for children says “when 2 vowels go walking, the first does the talking.”) So ’plain’ sounds just like ‘plane,' ‘meat’ and ‘meet’ like ‘mete,’ etc.

However, there are many exceptions. (See the link to English Vowel Digraphs, at the bottom of this page, for the most common ones.)

Common Examples Of Short And Long Vowels

These contrasts demonstrate the rules (in each column, first short, then long):

A: short

back

snack

fad

mad

Sam

E: short

bed

Ben

men

ten

I: short

lick

hid

slid

dim

Tim

O: short

rob

hop

mop

U: short

cub

tub

hug

A: long

bake

snake

fade

made/maid

same

E: long

bead

bean

mean

teen

I: long

like

hide

slide

dime

time

O: long

robe

hope

mope

U: long

cube

tube

huge

A: short

can

plan

tap

at

cat

E: short

bet

met

pet

set

I: short

fin

shin

bit

lit

sit

O: short

cot

not

rot

U: short

cut

flutter

mutter

A: long

cane

plain/plane

tape

ate

Kate

E: long

beat/beet

mete/meat/meet

Pete

seat

I: long

fine

shine

bite

light/lite

sight/site

O: long

coat

note

rote/wrote

U: long

cute

flute

mute

A: short

back

snack

fad

mad

Sam

can

plan

tap

at

E: short

bed

Ben

men

ten

bet

set

I: short

lick

hid

slid

dim

fin

lit

sit

O: short

rob

hop

mop

cot

not

U: short

cub

tub

hug

cut

A: long

bake

snake

fade

made/maid

same

cane

plain/plane

tape

ate

E: long

bead

bean

mean

teen

beat/beet

seat

I: long

like

hide

slide

dime

fine

light/lite

sight/site

O: long

robe

hope

mope

coat

note

U: long

cube

tube

huge

cute

Other English Vowel Sounds

Besides the long and short sounds, there are other vowel sounds.

Any vowel in an unaccented syllable has a neutral or“schwa”/ə/ sound: Examples: the ‘a’ in above, or approve, the ‘e’ in accident, camera or mathematics, the ‘i’ in family or officer, the ‘o’ in freedom or purpose, or the ‘u’ in industry or succeed.

Also, if a vowel is followed by R, it changes in quality, and is neither long nor short. (ER, IR, and UR are often -- though not always--the same sound.)

Examples with phonetic symbols:

  • /ɑr/ -- arm, car, charge, dark, farm, start
  • /ɛər/-- air, bare/bear, hair, there
  • /ɪər/-- beer, ear, hear/here, near
  • /ɜr/ -- bird, fur, herd, earth, service, sir, turn, urgent
  • /ər/ -- baker, doctor, letter, summer
  • /ɔr/ -- for, important, north

Sometimes in English a vowel is pronounced with a sound that usually goes with a different letter. For example, in my California dialect, the ‘a’ in ‘father’ or ‘want’ is pronounced very much like the ‘au’ in ‘audio’ or the short ‘o’ in ‘pot’ or ‘hot.’ That’s not true for all English speakers, however. Also, some common words use ‘o’ for a short ‘u’ sound: of, love, money, other, some, son.

(For the exact pronunciation of any word, consult a good dictionary. Most list the sound symbols they use on one of the front pages.)

See English Vowel Digraphs for recognizing and pronouncing two-letter vowel combinations. See ESL Phonics for examples of the most common pronunciations of consonants as well as vowels, including 'Y' used as either a vowel or a consonant. (See also Consonant Digraph Sounds for pronouncing combinations of consonants.)

Because English has adopted words (and often some of their sounds), from so many other languages, none of these rules is always true. However, these English vowel rules will help you guess at the pronunciation of words you read. For that reason they may also help you guess their meaning, if you have heard them but not read them before. They should also help make English spelling a little easier.

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