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What Are Vowels? Definition and Examples

Updated on November 28, 2022Grammar

Vowels are letters that represent speech sounds where air leaves the mouth without any blockage by the tongue, lips, or throat. The vowels in the alphabet are a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y. All other letters in the English alphabet are consonants, which represent speech sounds where air is blocked somehow before leaving the mouth.

Even though they’re only a few letters, vowels are important in spelling, pronunciation, and grammar. Below we explain all the details and rules you need to know, but first let’s take a deeper look at this question: What are vowels?

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What are vowels?

Letters and speech sounds are divided into two categories: sounds where the air is blocked by the lips, tongue, or throat before leaving the mouth and sounds where the air is not blocked. Consonants represent sounds that are blocked; vowels represent sounds that are not blocked.

While consonant sounds are differentiated by how the air is blocked—such as sticking the tongue behind the front teeth for d and t, or closing the lips for b, m, and p—vowel sounds are differentiated by pitch, accent, volume, and duration.

So what are the vowels? The letters a, e, i, o, u—and sometimes y—are vowels. However, some consonants, like h, r, and w, can also make vowel sounds. In grammar, these letters are still considered consonants and don’t follow the vowel rules.

Vowels play a major role in both spelling and grammar. They also have a direct impact on how consonants are used, such as spelling words with double consonants. Consider the difference between hop and hope—which, as present participles, become hopping and hoping. The presence of the silent e at the end changes the rules for how to conjugate certain words.

When do you need a vowel?

Unlike consonants, every word needs at least one vowel. There are a small number of exceptions, which we explain below, but in general, this is the rule. In fact, the shortest words in the English language are one letter, and they’re both vowels: the article a and the pronoun I.

Moreover, every syllable also needs a vowel sound. If a word has more than one syllable, it then needs more than one vowel.

Short vs. long vowels

Even though there are only five (sometimes six) vowels in the alphabet, they can be combined in a variety of ways to change their sounds, which results in more than a dozen distinct vowel sounds in American English. Without getting too confusing, we can divide these vowel sounds into two categories: short vowels and long vowels.

Short vowels are the standard pronunciation of vowels—usually when there is only one vowel in the word—especially in short words.

  • a as in cat
  • e as in wet
  • i as in big
  • o as in clock
  • u as in but

Long vowels are a little more complex. Generally, they’re created by combining two vowels, where one is typically silent. Often they’re pronounced like the name of the vowel; for example, the long vowel sound in eat is pronounced like the name of letter e.

  • a as in cake
  • e as in street
  • i as in like
  • o as in phone
  • u as in use

These are the basics of vowel pronunciation, but they are also the most common examples. If you can master these vowel sounds, you can master most of the English words you’ll come across, and it will also help your spelling when you write.

Is y a vowel?

When discussing consonants vs. vowels, the letter y causes a lot of confusion. Basically, y can be either a vowel or a consonant, depending on how it’s used.

When y is a consonant, it makes its own distinct sound using the rear of the tongue on the top of the mouth. Think of the pronunciation of words like these:

yellow

boy

gargoyle

However, when y is used as a vowel, it copies either the long or short vowel sound for i or the long vowel sound for e.

my (long i)

shy (long i)

system (short i)

crypt (short i)

lady (long e)

hairy (long e)

Unlike the other consonants, y counts as a vowel; some words only include a y and no other vowels.

Vowel usage

What 5-letter word has the most vowels?

The 5-letter word with the most vowels is Iouea (with a capital i), which uses all the main vowels and no consonants. Iouea is the scientific name for a genus of extinct water sponges.

If you’re asking this question because of Wordle, try adieu, which is an English loan word of 5 letters that contains every vowel except o.

What is assonance?

Assonance is a literary device that uses a series of words with the same vowel sounds. It is the vowel version of consonance, which repeats consonant sounds. Both assonance and consonance are common in works where sound is important, such as poetry, music lyrics, and creative writing. For example, look at this passage from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven”:

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before.

Words like silken, uncertain, and curtain use similar vowel sounds, as do the words terrors, never, and before.

Are there words with no vowels?

There are only a handful of words in English without any proper vowels, and they’re mostly loan words from Welsh. They use a rare vowel form of the letter w that is not usually accepted in English.

  • crwth—a Welsh violin-like instrument
  • cwtch—a hiding place
  • cwm—a hollowed-out area in a mountain

None of these words are common in everyday English, so we advise against using them in your own communication or writing (unless it’s directly related to Wales).

Vowel FAQs

What are vowels?

Vowels are letters representing a speech sound where air leaves the mouth without blockage. In English, the vowels are a, e, i, o, and u, although y can sometimes count as a vowel, too. Vowels are contrasted with consonants, which represent sounds where air is obstructed, such as the closing of the lips for b, m, and p.

What’s the difference between short and long vowels?

The same vowel can make different sounds, depending on whether it’s paired with another vowel. When vowels are used alone in a syllable, they make a short vowel sound, such as the i in big. When vowels are combined with another vowel, typically a silent vowel, they can make a long vowel sound that’s usually pronounced like the letter’s name, such as the ea in eat, which sounds like the name of the letter e.

Is y a vowel?

The letter y can be either a vowel or a consonant, depending on how it’s used. When used as a consonant, such as in yellow or boy, it makes a unique sound using the tongue and the top of the mouth. When it’s used as a vowel, such as in my, system, or lady, it can make either a long i, short i, or long e sound.

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