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The graphemes

Of written English – a quart in a pint pot

In written English there are about 500 relations between letters and sounds, known as ‘graphemes’, many with only one or two examples, some, like a, the, add and bury, in common words. The exact number of graphemes depends on how they are counted. The list here is my own. There are bound to be cases I have missed. If anyone finds such a case, I would be most grateful to know, and will correct the listing here accordingly and credit the informant. But the number is systematically understated by proponents of ‘Systematic Synthetic Phonics‘. 

This doesn’t mean that there are no systematic relations between letters and the sounds they represent, as there is in dog, cat, mat, rug, log, leg, bit, sit, sip, lap, run, yet, wit, and so on. But there are only so many of these words. And with a and the falling outside this schema, it is impossible to write or tell a story or even describe a simple picture strictly within this schema. It is disingenuous to pretend that the relation in English graphemes is a simple one.

It is a significant task to learn to spell words correctly and recognise them easily, fast and accurately. To minimise the aggravation and pain, to maximise motivation and fun, and to get the job done as quickly as possible, it is well to be honest about the scope of the task. There is no logic in disingenuity.


There are variations both in how words are pronounced from one variety of English to another and in how they are spelt mainly between Britain and America. The listing here will not satisfy everyone. Hopefully, it is reasonably correct for most varieties of current London English.

Content words and ‘functors’

Some graphemes, like the E in me, he, she and we, only occur in ‘functors’, the words and parts of words which mainly express relations between different parts of the sentence or, as in these cases, refer only in the case of a particular speech act or written context.

Only functors have contracted forms like n’t for not, often changing the sound of the word next to them, as in can’t and don’t.

In content or lexical words, many graphemes only occur in particular positions in the syllable, like KN at the beginning in knot, like GUE at the end in plague, or like MM in the middle in hammer.

Sensitivity or awareness

Speech and speakers are sensitive to functor / lexical contrast in various ways. Stammers mainly occur on content words. Speech errors mainly relate different content words or different parts of content words to one another. And the natural processes of everyday speech are almost entirely specific to particular sorts of content words or functors. So the changing of the D of good into a B next to the M of morning in “Good morning” as GOOB MORNING is specific to the right and left edges within what are known as ‘noun phrases’. Unlike content words, functors contract, as in wouldn’t or wouldn’, change their vowel as in the in the elephant, add a consonant as an elephant, lose a consonant as in a pinta milk, and vary according to the preceding sound in the case of S.


English doubles consonants in four ways:

  • At the ends of three words, egg, ebb and add;
  • Where in the formation of Latin from a Roman dialect about 3,000 years ago, prefixes like ad, meaning to, became part of the stem with the D in this case assimilating to the first consonant of the stem, becoming N in announce, C in account, and so on;
  • Where the negative marker, un, is used as a prefix before a word beginning with N, like necessary, forming unnecessary, pronounced with both instances of N (unlike innate from the Latin);
  • After a short stressed vowel immediately before an unstressed vowel, as in followhammer, sorry, kettle, supple, dribble, giggle, where the doubled consonant is doing two jobs, ending one syllable, as what is known as the ‘coda’ and beginning another, as what is known as the ‘onset’.

The second and fourth of these have many thousands of exemplars, to be taught in any number of ways.

H on its own and in affricates, digraphs, and Wh

H is used in four main ways:

  • As a ‘sound’ on its own, a moment of friction before a following vowel, realised by the positioning of the tongue without any voicing (by the vocal cords), effectively a voiceless vowel;
  • As the second element in the digraphs TH and SH, related closely to T and S, but single voiceless fricatives like F;
  • As the final element in the voiceless affricate in chew, church and itch;
  • As the second element in Wh unpronounced in what, where, when, whether, which, and pronounced at the expense of W in who, and in lexical white, whisper, whale.

The voiced affricate is written as J in joy and raj and GE in George.

The voiced congener of SH never occurs at the beginning of the word, and only in loan words, as Z in azure and GE in beige.

The International Phonetic Alphabet

In the late 19th century, scholars from France, Germany and England got together to devise what became the supposedly Interational Phonetic Alphabet or IPA (not really international with different styles in Europe and Norh America). All native speakers of prestigious varieties of their respective languages, the original proponents of the IPA decided to base it on points of commoality like p, b, t, d, m, n. They thus turned their backs on the more radical ‘Visible Speech’ developed 30 years earlier by the Scot, Alexander Melville Bell. In the aftermath of war with Russia, Bell’s original motivation was international peace. 30 years later, war was looming again. Britain, Belgium, France and Germany, all had colonies in Africa. Britain had the largest share. The other powers all wanted to enlarge their respective shares. The only uncertainty was who would side with who. The founders of the IPA were very aware of these undercurrents, all wanting their own language to become the IPA standard. In the end they settled on a compromise. The English variety which the IPA inventors assumed as a standard of English was what later came to be known in Britain as ‘Received Pronunciation’ or RP.

The English short vowel problem

For English, a logically insoluble problem arises with respect the six short vowels in RP hip, hen, hut, hut, hot, and put, with only five single letters to express them. There is no non-arbitrary way of expressing the contrast between the vowels in hut and put without going beyond the one letter schema, as in foot. This confounds the distinction between the vowels in foot and food. For the IPA, the historic U grapheme in put was adapted as a standard and an entirely new grapheme was invented for the vowel in RP hut – an upside down V.

The special cases – the functors

The forms listed here include some of the commonest words and parts of words of English, generally unstressed, other than in special cases of contrastive stress.

the (the), a (an) – Articles, or in modern theories, ‘determiners’ – uniquely varying according to whether the next sound is a vowel.

– S    As a marker of the third person singular in verbs and of the plural in nouns and names, pronounced as S where the preceding sound is voiceless, as in pats, as Z where the preceding sound is voiced, as in pads, and as IZ where the preceding sound or part of a sound is S, SH, CH or J, as in passes, bashes, patches, or badges.

who , where, what, which, when, why, whether, how – Question words, always at the beginning of a clause or sentence in English when the force is truly to elicit information.

whoever, wherever, whatever, whichever, whenever, whyever, however – All derived from question words.

here, there  –  Fitting into English in a number of different ways,

I, you, he, she, we, they  –  Personal pronouns used as the subjects of sentences or in the ‘nominative’  case, all with long vowels, and in the cases of I, he, she, and we, represented by a single vowel letter, otherwise not used in this way in English.

me, him, us, them  –  Personal pronouns used as the objects of sentences or in the ‘accusativc’  case.

my, your, his, her, our, their, its  –  Personal pronouns used as possessives or in the ‘genitivc’  case.

myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself  –  Either as reflexives or intenmsifiers – singular forms.

ourselves, yourselves, themselves  –  Either as reflexives or intenmsifiers – plural forms.

somebody, everybody, anybody, nobody

someone, everyone, anyone, no one

be, is, are, was, were, been, being  –  The most irregular verb in English with four forms by suppletion.

do, does, did, done, doing  –  With the vowel changing in two forms.

go, goes, went, gone, going  –  With the past tense by suppletion, in went

have, has, had, having  –  With minor irregularity in two cases.

ought  –  Modal (orignally past tense of owe)

will, shall  –  Regular in their root forms. I’ll, you’ll, he’ll. she’ll. it’ll, we’ll, they’ll – Regular uses of a contracted form with just a bare consonant.

I’ve, you’ve, we’ve, they’ve  –  Regular uses of a contracted form of have, with just a V sound

he’s, she’s, it’s  –  Regular uses of contracted third person singular  is with just a bare S or Z sound,  varying according to whether the preceding element is ‘voiced’, as necessarily where this is the vowel EE, or ‘unvoiced’, as by the consonant, T.

we’re, you’re. they’re  –  Regular uses of contracted third person plural are with just a bare R pronounced mostly as schwa

I’d, you’d, we’d, they’d – Regular uses of contracted would or had with just a bare D

couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t, mustn’t, (oughtn’t) – The last marginal – Regular uses of a form with just two bare consonants.

ain’t, can’t, don’t, won’t, shan’t – Regular uses of a form with just two bare consonants changing the vowel of the stem.

each, any, many, some, all – Quantifiers.

each 0ther – Anaphor

of  –  As in “A pound of butter”, where clearly there is no sense of possession, where the relation is just grammatical

than  –  in Comparative expressions like “better than me”

that, that  –  Traditionally known as ‘demonstrative pronouns’

for, that, if  –  Invariably unstressed onjunctions as in “For you to go would be nice” or “It would be nice if you went” or “I see that you went”. If has a single F letter unlike the lexical words whiff, sniff.

as–  In “As keen as mustard”

Word building – ‘morphology’

Many forms used in numerous ways like –er in slipper, rugger, painter, heater

The morphology is traditionally divided into inflectional forms like the S in paints, some irregular like best and worse and derivational forms like the –er in painter, many reflecting the history of the language with loans from many other languages.


-S, -ES  –  In endings or ‘suffixes’ denoting plurality in nouns or the third person in verbs, where an E is added after S, SH, CH, or J and the CS varies with Z, according to whether the last element is voiceless, with S. as in pats, or voiced with Z, in pads, or with IZ or EZ (according to the variety of English) in passes, buzzes, bashes, patches or badges.

-ED  –  In painted, pained, with the voicing varying between T and D according to the preceding sound, and an E inserted where the previous sound is T or D, but formerly an E inserted in other cases as in modern wicked and wretched.

ING  –  In what is commonly called a participle, with no exceptions, being, doing, painting

ISE  –  In verbs – organise

–ARY  –  In adjectives, stationary

–IVE  –  In adjectives – restive

–IBLE  –  In adjectives – possible

–LESS  –  In adjectives– fearless, heartless

–ABLE  –  In adjectives – probable, doable, likable

–AL  –   In adjectives – musical, criminal

-OUS – In adjectives – dangerous

–SOME   –  In adjectives – awesome

–LY   –  In adjectives – lovely, ghostly

–FUL.  –  In adjectives – aweful, beautjful

–FULLY   –   In adverbs – awefully, beautjfully

–ER  –    In ‘comparative’ forms – better, harder, cleverer

–EST  –     In ‘superlative’ forms – unstressed as a suffix (not in best) – hardest, cleverest

–IFY  –    In verbs –beautify

–NESS  –    In nouns – cleverness

–OR  –    In nouns – actor, author

–ERY  –    In nouns – stationery

–ITY  –    In nouns – sanity

–IST  –     In nouns – centrist

–ISM  –    In nouns – conservatism

–AC  –    In nouns – maniac

–OLOGY   –    In nouns – psychology

–IC  –    In nouns and adjectives – electric, comic

–IUM   –   medium (singular) media (plural)

–ION   –   criterion (singular) criteria (plural)


UN  –  unwilling

NON  –  non-urgent

IN  –  unhospitable

ANTI  –  anticlockwise

COUNTER  –  counter-clockwise

Content (lexical) words

Short vowels


I    –    bit

Y    –   funny, physics

EY   –   honey

U   –   busy

A   –   menace

UI   –   build

 –   creation, bullet, recipe, enough, courteous

EI   –   foreign


  –   end

IE  –   friend

EI  –  leisure

U  –   bury

EA  –   head, measure

A   –   ate, Thames

AI   –   said

EO  –   Geoffrey


A  –   am


O  –   odd

OU  –   cough

A   –   want


U   –   under

O   –   son, Monday, one, done, money, worry

OO  –   blood

OU  –   couple, tough, rough

OO (short)

OO   –   foot, good, hood

 –   put

OUL   –   could

ER (‘Schwa’)

ER  –   letter

OR  –   actor

A  –   hangar, general, agenda

UR  –   Saturday

URE   –   treasure, measure

YR   –   martyr

YR   –   rigour

RE   –   theatre, metre

E(N)   –   mitten

O(N)   –   mutton

–(L)E –  little

E   –   model

I   –   gerbil

O   –   bottom, pilot, chameleon, octogenarian

 –   pirate, modal

U   –   awful, genius

OU(S)   –   glorious, enormous

AI   –   villain

OUGH   –   borough

AH   –   cheatah

–(SM)   –   prism, chasm, catechism

Long vowels


E   –  he, she, we

EE   –  eel, fee, lee

EA   –  eat

E(CE)   –  scene, scheme, complete, these

(C)EI   –  conceive

IE   –  field

EY   –  key

AY   –  quay

I   –  ski

IT  –  esprit

EO   –  people

OE   –  amoeba

AE   –  paediatrics, aeon


AR   –  arm, farm, harm, far

A   –  father

EAR   –  heart

AL   –  halve,

AA(R)   –  bazaar

A(RRE)  –  bizarre

A(RRH)  –  catarrh

AH   –  blah


OR  –  or, fort, tort

OOR  –  door, floor

AR  –  war

OAR  –  oar, boar

OUR  –  mourn, bourne (from Celtic vestige in Bournemouth)

ORE  –  more, shore, sore

OR(NE)   –  borne

AW  –  saw

ALL  –  all, ball, call, tall

ALK  –  walk, talk

AU  –  haul

OUGH(T)  –  ought, fought, wrought, bought

AUGH(T)  –  taught

AW(E)  –  awe

OO (long)

OO  –  food, voodoo, gobbledigook

OU  –  you

O –  who, do

WO  –  two

U(CE)  –  rude, ruse

OUGH  –  through

U  –  flu, gnu

UI(CE)  –  juice, sluice

OE  –  canoe


U(CE)  –  tune, puke, duke, duty

EW   –  new, few, dew

EWE   –  ewe

EAU   –  beautiful

EUE   –  queue

UGH   –  Hugh

U(GN)   –  impugn

EU   –   Zeus

UE   –   sue, revenue



I ( C E)  –  ice, mine, bite, mime, pike, write (before single consonant and E)

I ( C Y)  –  icy, dicy (before single C and Y)

IE  –  die, pie, tie

YE.  –  rye

I  –  Simon, Jedi

I (LD)  –  child, wild

I (ND)  –  find, mind, bind, blind, wind

Y  –  fly, sly, try, cry, pry, shy (after L or R in cluster or SH)

I(DLE)  –  idle

IGH  –  high, slight, 

I(GN)  –  sign

EIGH  –  height

EI   –  either

Y(KE)   –  dyke

UY  –  buy, guy

I(SLE)   –  isle

I(S)  –  island

AI(SLE)   –  aisle

AI   –  Menai

AY   –  MacKay

EYE  –  eye


EYE  –  name, fame, dame, rate, gate, crane

EYE  –  aim, rain, drain, bait

EYE  –  say, day, pay, lay

EYE  –  lazy, hazy

EA  –  great

AE  –  sundae

AIGH(T)  –  straight

EIGH(T)  –  eight, weight

EY  –  grey, survey

AO(L)  –  gaol

AU(GE)  –  gauge

EY  –  duvet

´E  –  café


EY  –  toe, doe, roe

O  –  no, so

OA  –  boat,  float

OW  –  know, row, bow

OU  –  soul

OUGH  –  though

OT  –  depot

EAU  –  chateau, eau de Cologne

OWE  –  owe

OH  –  oh


OU  –  out

OW  –  now

OUGH  –  plough


OI  –  oil, join, boil

OY  –  boy, toy, coy

UOY  –  buoy


ER  –  her

ERR  –  err

UR  –  hurt, urge

URR  –  purr, burr

IR  –  sir, fir, dirge

OR  –  worse, worst

OUR  –  scourge

EAR  –  earn, learn

OL  –  colonel




B  –  bee, job, habit

BB  –  ebb (in the coda)

BB   – rabbit, hobby, jabber (ambisyllabic – in the coda of one syllable and the onset of the next)

BB   – abbreviation (with historic prefix)


D –  die, red, body

DD –  add (in the coda)

DD –  addendum (with the coda of a historic prefix)

DD   – eddy, adder, rudder (ambisyllabic – in the coda of one syllable and the onset of the next)


G  –  get, gorilla, leg, sugar

GG –  egg  (in the coda)

GG   – lugger, rugger (ambisyllabic – in the coda of one syllable and the onset of the next)

GG   – aggravation (with historic prefix)

GU  –  guess, guerilla

GUE –  rogue

GH –  spaghetti, dinghy


P   –  pit, tip, copy

PP   –  happy  (ambisyllabic – in the coda of one syllable and the onset of the next)

PP   –  apply, application, appoint (with historic prefix)


T   –   toe, hat, pity

TT   –   putt (in the coda)

TT   –  otter (ambisyllabic – in the coda of one syllable and the onset of the next)

TT   –  attribute, attend (with historic prefix)

TH   –   Thomas

BT   –   debt, subtle

PT   –   ptarmigan, receipt,

CT   –   endict

CHT   –   yacht


K   –  kettle, sky, junket, kangaroo, look, kayak

C   –  cat, scare, acorn, treacle, icicle, comic, mic, chocolate,

CK   –  lick, bullock (in the coda)

CK   –  tickle, rocket, lucky (ambisyllabic – in the coda of one syllable and the onset of the next)

CC   –  account, accommodate (with the codas of historic prefixes)

CC  –  tobacco (ambisyllabic – in the coda of one syllable and the onset of the next)

CH   –  character, school, chamelion, orchid, schizophrenia. monarch

QU   –  quiche, quay

CHT   –  cheque, antique, appliqué



CH   –  chew, touch, touchy

TCH   –  catch, catchy

C   –  ciao,

CZ   –  Czech

CC   –  Gucci


J   –  John, jew, Jerusalem, Raj

DG(E)   –  badge, badger

DJ   –  adjust, adjective

GE   –  George, Geoffrey, age, strange, vegetable,

GI   –  gin, gestate, Reginald



V   –  van, river

VE   –  give

VV(Y)  –  skivvy  (ambisyllabic – in the coda of one syllable and the onset of the next)

F   –  of


Z  –  zoo

ZZ  –   jazz (in the coda)

ZZ  –  buzzer (ambisyllabic – in the coda of one syllable and the onset of the next)

ZE  –  size, blaze

SE   –  please

S   –   peas

S  –  easy, business, prism (before voiced segment, I, N, M)

CZ  –  czar

X  –  xylophone


GE  –   rouge, largesse

S(URE)  –  treasure, measure, leisure

Z(URE)  – seizure

J  –  jeté

S(UAL)  – casualty

ZH  –  Zhukov


F  –  fair, roof, if

F(E)  –  safe, chafe, life

FF  –  whiff  (in the coda)

FF  –  toffee, coffee (ambisyllabic – in the coda of one syllable and the onset of the next)

F(T)  –  often

GH  –  laugh, tough, rough

PH  –  photograph, Ralph, zephyr


S  – sock, bus, Paris

SS  – mess, fuss, pass  (in the coda)

SS  – assume, assortment  (with historic prefix)

SS  – missile, fossil. (ambisyllabic – in the coda of one syllable and the onset of the next)

S(TLE)  – rustle, bustle, thistle, castle

C  – ceiling, democracy (before I or EE vowel)

(C)C  – accept

C(E)  –   face, race, nice, neice

S(E)  –  house

S(T)  –  listen

SC  –  science

SCH  –  schism

SW  –  sword

PS  –  psalm

Ç. –  façade


SH   –   shop, rush, cushion

SS   –   mission. (ambisyllabic – in the coda of one syllable and the onset of the next)

SCH   –   schedule

CH  –   chassis

CH (E)   –   cache

CH(I)   –   machine

SH   –   vicious

TI   –   essential, ratio

C (E)   –   sluice


TH   –  think, three, bath, pithy, smithy


TH   –  feather, bothy (ambisyllabic – in the coda of one syllable and the onset of the next)

TH   –  bathe



H   –   hat, hotel

WH   –  who, whole



M   –   man, ham

MM   –   hammer (ambisyllabic – in the coda of one syllable and the onset of the next)

MM –   accommodate, committee (with historic prefixes)

MN   –   damn

MB   –   climb

MM   –   immediate, Emmanuel (before stressed syllable)

(CH) M   –   drachm

(G) M   –   phlegm

(IS) M   –   prism


N   –   nine, den, honey

NN   –   innate, innoculate (with a historic prefix)

NN   –   Finn (in the coda)

NN   –   funnel, tunnel. dinner, tenner (ambisyllabic – in the coda of one syllable and the onset of the next)

KN   –   know (in the onset)

GN   –   gnat, foreign, reign

PN   –   pneumatic

MN   –   mnemonic


NG   –   wing (in the coda)

NG   –   finger (N in the coda, G in the onset)

NK   –   plank (in the coda)

NK   –   monkey (N in the coda, K in the onset)


NN   –   unnatural (first N in the coda of negative morphemes,e, second N in the onset of the first sullable of the root)

NN   –   announce, annunciation (with historic prefix)



L   –   lip, elbow, although, awful,  polymath (in the coda)

L  –   feel, foil, file,  foal, howl, fail,  fuel (in the coda)

LL  –   fill, bull, pull (in the coda)

LL   –   all, allow, kill, fully (ambisyllabic – in the coda of one syllable and the onset of the next)

LL   –   alliteration, illiterate (with historic prefixes)


R   –  ray, scary

RR   – arrow (ambisyllabic – in the coda of one syllable and the onset of the next)

WR   – wrong (in the onset)

RH   – rhythm (in the onset)

RTH   – diarrhoea, haemorrhage (in the onset)

Semi-vowels – glides


W   – wet  (in the onset)

WH   – white, whisper, whale  (in the onset)


Y   – yell, you  (in the onset)

Vowel consonant combinations

With R


ARE   – share  (in the rime)

AYER   – prayer  (in the rime)

AYOR   – mayor  (in the rime)

EAR   – wear, tear, bear  (in the rime)

AIR   – air  (in the rime)

AER   – aeroplane  (in the rime of one syllable with the R in the onset of the next)


EAR   – ear, tear, fear  (in the rime)

EAR   – weary (in the rime of one syllable with the R in the onset of the next)


OOR   –  poor  (in the rime)

UER   –  truer  (in the rime)


IRE   –  fire, dire, mire  (in the rime)

YRE   –  tyre  (in the rime)


OIR   –  coir  (in the rime)


OUR   –  our, hour  (in the rime)

OWER   –  cower, bower  (in the rime)


OWER   –  lower  (in the rime)

Other vowel consonant combinations


X   –   exam (G in the coda of one syllable, Z in the onset of the next)


X   –  ox,  cox, fox, mix  (in the coda)

XE   –  axe  (in the coda)

XC   –  exciting, excellent  (K in the coda of one syllable, S in the onset of the next)

CC   –  accept  (K in the coda of one syllable, S in the onset of the next)


QU  –  quick, queen, quiet  (in the onset)


GW  – Gwendolyn  (in the onset)

GU  – iguana  (in the onset)


DU  – due  (in the onset)

DEW  – dew  (in the onset)


TU  – tune  (in the onset)

TEW  – Tewkesbury  (in the onset)


QU(E)U  – queue  (in the onset)

CU(CE) –  cue, cufe  (in the onset)

One unstressed syllable

TION –  station, nation, ration, completion, revolution (after the stressed vowel)

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