french spelling

Silent Letters: The Secret to Spelling in French Like a Pro

If you’re anywhere along the rewarding journey of learning French vocabulary, you’ve probably realized one thing: There’s something up with French spelling.

There are a lot of silent letters that do not get pronounced. And when I say a lot, I mean on almost every single word of every single sentence.

But some silent letters distinguish the grammatical gender of a noun. Others denote the number or plurality of a noun. And then, of course, there’s verb agreement.

So no, you can’t ignore them! Here’s a guide on how to beat these letters at their game of hide-and-seek.


The Essential Guide to Mastering Silent Letters in French Spellings

So, now that you’ve realized why people kept giving you funny looks when you pronounced some French words, let’s break down the most common silent letters. There are three categories of silent letters in French.

The first category is e muet, and it includes the instances of silent –e. The second category includes two instances of the same letter: h muet and h aspiré (silent h and aspirated h). While both of the h‘s are technically not pronounced in French, they behave in different ways in certain situations. The third and final category is final letters, and this vast category includes sub-categories that I’ll break down later.

E Muet

By far, the mostly common letter that is not pronounced in the French language is –e. Known as a process called élision, French is notorious for throwing this poor letter around—inserting it places that don’t necessarily make sense at first glance, and then ignoring it. It’s like bringing your annoying younger brother to a party because your mom said you had to, and then telling the poor kid to keep quiet while you barricade yourself and your friends in another room.

I digress. In general, an e muet is more likely to occur in an unstressed syllable. They also occur in these nine single-syllable words:

  • Ce (it)
  • De (of)
  • Je (I)
  • Me (me/myself)
  • Le (the)
  • Ne (particle used in the negative construction ne… pas).
  • Que (that)
  • Se (itself)
  • Te (you/yourself)

With those single-syllable words in mind, here are the places where -e is not pronounced and explanations for why.

During a contraction

When a single-syllable word and a word that starts with a vowel are side by side, the e muet gets “dropped” so to speak. This means that the e muet is not pronounced and a contraction occurs (like what happens between do and not in don’t). Check these examples:

  • When ce (it) and est (is) meet, they become c’est (it is).
  • When je (I) and ai (have) meet, they become j’ai (I have).
  • When le (the) and agneau (lamb) meet, they become l’agneau (the lamb).

At the end of a word

Generally, all instances of -e at the end of a word are silent, or at the very least, are pronounced optionally.

For example, the -e at the end of the word autre (other) is normally not pronounced (so the word sounds something like OH-tr). Some speakers will pronounce the -e as a very short schwa (almost like the -a at the end of the English word sofa) if a consonant follows; however, this does not happen if the word autre is followed by a word starting with a vowel (as in the case of autre agneau). This same pronunciation happens with other words like elle (she) and île (island).

H Muet and H Aspire

In French, the letter h is always silent. So, why are there two types of silent h?

The answer has to do with the contraction that I talked about above between single-syllable words and following words starting with a vowel. An h muet will allow the contraction to happen. In the example j’habite, the in habite (live, from habiter – to live) is an h muet, so the -e on je (I) is dropped and the contraction forms.

For h aspiré, this contraction cannot happen. For example, the word hibou (owl) starts with an h aspiré, so when the word le (the) joins it, contraction does not take place. Both words remain separate, like this: le hibou (the owl). But remember, even in these cases, the h is still not pronounced.

Other words that have the h aspiré include the word hache (axe) and the word haine (hate). You can find a list of words that start with h aspiré here.

Final Letters

In French, e and aren’t the only letters that don’t get pronounced. In fact, a lot of word final consonants don’t get pronounced. Check out this list of the most common ones:

  • as in froid (cold) or chaud (hot)
  • G as in sang (blood) or long (long)
  • and n as in balcon (balcony) or parfum (perfume) – These consonants tend to nasalize their preceding vowels.
  • as in beaucoup (much, a lot)
  • as in trois (three) or vous (you)
  • as in salut (salutations)
  • as in deux (two)
  • as in riz (rice)

Other silent letters, however, aren’t inherent to the word itself like the examples above are. What I mean to say is that some silent letters are added due to grammatical agreement, but they are not necessarily pronounced. Check out what I mean.

Subject-verb agreement

In French, subjects and verbs must agree depending on the conjugation of the verb and the person of the noun. For example, if you wanted to conjugate the verb parler (to speak) with the subject il (he), you would have to drop the -er from the infinitive and add -e. This -e, however, is not pronounced. In fact, most of them aren’t. The ending letters that are not pronounced but are added for verbal agreement are bolded.

  • Je parle (I speak).
  • Tu parles (You speak).
  • Il/Elle parl(He/she speaks).
  • Nous parlon(We speak).
  • Vous parlez (You speak).
    • Note: The ez combination at the end of this verb makes the word pronounced like “par-LAY.”
  • Ils/Elles parlent (They speak).

These silent letters get added all the time to almost all verbs undergoing conjugation.

Noun agreement

Nouns and adjectives must also agree depending on gender and number. For example, if I have the word hibou and I want to make it plural, I would add an –x to make hiboux (owls). This letter does not get pronounced, however.

Further, a surprisingly number of nouns will add an –e to make a noun feminine. For example, the masculine word avocat (lawyer) has a silent final t. The feminine version is avocate. Ironically, the added -e is not pronounced, but because it was added, it actually makes the t pronounced in the feminine word. Talk about confusing!

This is actually a common difference between masculine and feminine nouns though, so you’ll get used to it.

Practice Your French Spelling

Annoyed yet? Worry not. I’ve got you covered. Here are three online spell-checkers you can use to check your spelling: Bon Patron, Reverso and JSpell. Further, you can test your spelling ability with fun spelling games like these.

You can also practice your spelling on many French language learning programs and apps, since most will focus on your vocabulary skills. They can provide helpful features to make your French studies more memorable as well.

For example, FluentU uses authentic French videos equipped with interactive subtitles that show any spoken word’s spelling, definition, pronunciation and usage in different contexts. You can then drill vocabulary by making multimedia flashcards or taking personalized quizzes that let you practice writing and speaking words.

Keep an eye out while you’re consuming any French media as well. If, while watching a French TV show or movie, you hear a word that may harbor a silent secret, jot it down and prove your suspicions by looking up its spelling.

Consistent practice will be key to ensuring your spelling success, so review as often as you can. Soon enough, it’ll get easier to predict how to spell any new French word you encounter, regardless of its misleading pronunciation!


And if you think French spelling is hard, just be glad you don’t have to explain English spelling to someone—now that’s tough!

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