The Grammarphobia Blog

Vowel play

Q: We used to recite a rhyme in the first grade (during the 50s in southwest PA). It had to do with vowels and went “A, E, I, O, U, sometimes Y and W.” I thought of it the other day while listening to you in the car from the DC area via satellite radio. W? I am at a loss to come up with examples of W being used as a vowel.

A: You asked about “w” as a vowel, but let me comment about both “w” and “y.” In my book Woe Is I, I used a little sentence to illustrate how “w” and “y” can sometimes act as vowels: “Few boys own many cows.”

The letters “w” and “y” are officially consonants, but they have characteristics of both consonants and vowels. (In fact, some people refer to them as semi-vowels.) Even when they are clearly acting as consonants, these letters are diphthongs, combinations of at least two vowel sounds. Take the words “wet” and “yet.” The initial letters are clearly consonants, but the actual sounds of these words are “oo-EHT” and “ee-EHT”; the “w” and “y” sound something like “oo-EH” and “ee-EH.”

When “w” appears in conjunction with a vowel (“awe,” “ewe,” “owe,” “own,” “sew,” “raw,” “how”, and others), it often acts as a vowel; the same happens with “y” in words like “toy” and “style.”

Keep listening, and keep your mind on the road!

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