The English vowels are A, E, I, O, & U. (Sometimes Y is a vowel, pronounced as if it were I. Sometimes W substitutes for U, especially in the digraph 'ow.') Each vowel can be pronounced in several ways.This page explains when each sound is commonly used.
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The most common sound for each vowel is its “short” sound:
(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. It 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.
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.
However, they are completely different sounds-- not a longer version of the same sound.
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 exactly 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.)
These contrasts demonstrate the rules (in each column, first short, then long):
Besides the long and short sounds, there are other sounds English vowels can make.
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.
Two vowels written together (digraphs) may be a diphthong, combining the two sounds, (like the oi/oy in boy, point, or ointment). They may instead be pronounced in various other ways, depending on the combination. See Vowel Digraphs for a full explanation.
if a vowel comes before 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:
Quite a few common words spelled with ‘O’ are pronounced with a short ‘U’ sound: of, love, money, other, some, son. (That means some and sum are homophones: they sound the same. So are son and sun.) See the course below for more examples and practice.
Different English dialects pronounce certain vowels differently than the general rules given above. For example, in California and much of the U.S., the ‘a’ in ‘father’ or ‘want’ sounds like the ‘au’ in ‘audio’ or the short ‘o’ in ‘pot’ or ‘hot.’ In many other places that’s not true.
Ate, the past tense of eat, is pronounced with a long 'a' (/eɪ/) in North America, but more often as 'et' (with a short 'e') in British English.
Another example: the /ɜr/ in bird, burn, earth, etc. is generally pronounced /ər/ in the U.S. and some other areas.
Don't worry about these differences. English speakers can almost always understand people speaking other dialects of English. If you live in any area for a while, you'll be able to adjust to them-- and most are not very different.
For the exact pronunciation of any English vowels, consult a good dictionary. Most list the sound symbols they use on one of the front pages. Good online dictionaries like the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary will let you listen to the pronunciation. (This dictionary gives both British and American pronunciations of each word.)
Are you interested in learning more about the relationship between English vowel sounds and spellings?
There have been so many positive comments on this page that I designed a short course about it. I recently improved it and also added a section on words of more than one-syllable, especially some important academic words. Knowing which syllable to stress can make these words much simpler to pronounce (and to spell).
The course can help you recognize more of the words you know when you read them. It will also help you spell better and pronounce new words. Learn more and sign up here.
If there are certain things you especially want to learn about vowel sounds or spelling, you can also leave a comment or question in the box below.
If you would like, you can download a pdf summary on short & long English vowels (as requested in the comments). (It includes color images to help you recognize each sound, as described in the course information above. The course has more details. It also has information & practice on R-controlled vowels and other vowel sounds: au, oi, oo, ou and more.)
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.
English spellings and pronunciations are complicated-- almost crazy! It helps to have a good sense of humor and not worry too much about them. Learn them when you have a chance. If you need to know a pronunciation, check a dictionary! That's the one really safe rule.
* This color vowel chart has more information & links on remembering vowel sounds by using colors.
They all can help you pronounce what you read-- or spell what you can say.