The Grammarphobia Blog

When “e” is seen but not heard

Q: A patron at the library where I work wants to know why some words (“pronounce” and “like,” for example) retain their silent “e” when adjectivized.

A: The word “pronounce” keeps its silent “e” in “pronounceable” for the same reason that many other words ending in “ce” do. When a suffix is added, the presence of the “e” influences the pronunciation of the preceding “c”—keeping it soft instead of hard.

If that “e” were dropped, we’d end up with “pronouncable.” In English, the letter combination “ca” is pronounced with a hard “c” (as in “cable”) instead of a soft one (as in “certain”). The middle syllable would be NOWNK instead of NOWNSE.

Same with “peaceable” and “noticeable.” If they were spelled “peacable” and “noticable,” one would be tempted to pronounce each “c” like a “k.”

This is also true of words ending in “ge,” like “marriage.” If the adjective were spelled “marriagable,” the “g” would look as if it were hard (as in “girl”) instead of soft (as in “judge”). The letter combination “ga” is hard but “ge” at the end is usually soft, as in “garage.”

So with many words ending in “ce” and “ge,” the silent “e” is generally retained in a suffixed form to keep the consonant soft—in other words, to keep the sound as “s” instead of “k,” or as “j” instead of a hard “g.”

In the case of “like” and many other words that end in a silent “e,” the “e” is often a signal that the preceding vowel is long instead of short. We’ve written about this phenomenon before on our blog.

For example, “dim” has a short “i” but “dime” has a long one; “hat” has a short “a,” but “hate” has a long one; “lob” has a short “o,” but “lobe” has a long one.

And with many of these words, the silent “e” is retained in a suffixed form to keep the vowel from changing (“hateful” instead of “hatful,” for example).

With “like,” there are two accepted spellings of the adjective form: “likeable” is more common in Britain and “likable” is more common in the US, but both are correct.

The British spelling makes more sense to us, since “likable” looks as though it should be pronounced LICK-able. Besides, the silent “e” is retained in other suffixed forms: “likely,” “likelihood,” “likeness,” “likewise.”

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