John Larrysson Column: The Magic-e

In school we are taught about the silent magic-e on the end of words, like 'crate' and 'late', that make the vowels before them long. There are three types of words with the magic-e.

The original magic e was leftover from the Old English inflections. (Inflections are word ending variations that show a grammatical function, like adding -s/-es for a plural.) These endings were mostly dropped as Old English mixed with other languages, such as Old Norse and Danish, and simplified. The remaining e-endings were pronounced with a (soft vowel) schwa-sound /ə/, but eventually even that was dropped leaving a silent e. Words like 'time', 'tale', and 'before' originally developed with an e-ending; these are words with a historic magic-e.

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The next set of magic-e words are those created by analogy. We learn spelling patterns by analogy. For example, we are taught 'burn/burned', 'walk/walked' and then assume 'swim/swimed', instead of 'swam'. Some words never went through the Old English language change that created the magic-e. The addition of the -e ending was a mistake. People wrote the new spelling and it seemed to make sense. It was copied by others and sometimes the new spelling kept being used centuries later. Examples are 'stone', from the Old English 'stan', 'bride' from 'bryd' and 'home' from 'ham'. These are non-historic magic-e words created by spelling mistakes.

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Sometimes a letter -e was added to the end of a word because it looked prettier. Someone added -e to the end of the Middle English 'els', showing that it was not plural, creating 'else'. The same happened to borrowed Old French words such as 'fals', creating 'false'. Since these two silent-e words are not pronounced with a long vowel they don't fit the "magic e rule". These are silent-e words created by spelling mistakes.

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The third category are the teachers' magic-e words. About 500 years ago was the time of Early Modern English. Some people then were very worried about the state of the English language. They were recovering from the Middle English period when most writing and government work was done in colonial Norman French. Examples include the word 'here', from the Old English 'her', 'cape' from 'capa' and 'bade' from ;These magic-e words were created by teachers trying to reform the language.

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There is a fourth category of words with silent e-endings, but are not magic-e words. These are words recently borrowed from French and Latin with a silent e-ending of their own. Examples include: France, chance, courage, office and barge. They end with an s-sound and no letter -s or a j-sound and no letter -j. At the end they usually have a -ce or -ge ending respectively.

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Looking over the most common English words that end with -e some patterns emerge. Many words with a silent -e are using magic-e. Examples: 'these', 'make', 'people', 'write'... Others usually have non-phonetic vowels. Examples: 'some', 'come', 'false', and 'love'... Some words end with their only vowel and it is often long (or a neutral schwa sound). Examples: 'we', 'me', 'bee', 'so' ('a', 'the')... Not all words ending in a silent -e make a vowel long. It is not an unbreakable rule. It is just a useful pattern that appeared by accident in Old English. Then some words got misspelled to match the pattern. Finally reforming teachers changed the spelling of some words to make English spelling more regular creating the magic-e rule.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.