What Are Consonants? (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives

Consonants

A consonant is a letter of the alphabet that represents a basic speech sound produced by obstructing the breath in the vocal tract. All the letters in the alphabet apart from A, E, I, O, and U (called vowels) are known as consonants.

For example:
  • T is pronounced using the tongue (front part)
  • K is pronounced using the tongue (back part)
  • B is pronounced with the lips
  • H is pronounced in the throat
  • F is pronounced by forcing air through a narrow gap
  • M is pronounced using the nasal passage
A consonant can be combined with a vowel to form a syllable.

More about Consonants

With seven consonants, rhythms is the longest word without any vowels. There are three words with six consonants and no vowels:
  • He moved very spryly.
  • (Spryly means in a nimble or agile manner.)
  • She is sylphy.
  • (Sylphy means like a sylph (a slender graceful girl).)
  • Eclipses occur at times of syzygy.
  • (Syzygy is the straight-line configuration of three or more celestial bodies.)
Some might argue that these words do contain vowels because they include Y, which is often called a semi-vowel. (There is more on this on the vowels page.)

With no "vowels," we have crwth (a stringed instrument) and cwtch (a shed, cuddle, or hiding place). But, both of these words derive from Welsh, which typically treats W like the U in cut.

vowels and consonants

Why Should I Care about Consonants?

There are two good reasons to care about consonants.

(Reason 1) Use a and an correctly.

Use "a" (not "an") before a consonant sound. Note the word sound. (The ruling is not use "a" before a consonant.)
  • It was a unique experience to receive an unequivocal answer.
  • (Even though "unique" and "unequivocal" start with the same letter (the same two letters in fact), "unique" starts with a consonant sound (Y) while "unequivocal" starts with a vowel sound. Remember that you must use "a" (not "an") before a consonant sound.)
  • Becoming a eunuch wasn't a one-off deal – it was a two-off deal.
  • ("Eunuch" and "one-off" both start with vowels but with consonant sounds.)
Read more about "an" and "a" on the page about indefinite articles.

Be particularly careful with abbreviations.
  • She was injured in a RTA.
  • She was injured in an RTA.
  • (The letter "R" is a consonant, but the initialism RTA is pronounced ar-tee-ay, i.e., it starts with a vowel sound. Therefore, "an" is correct.)
  • A MAFF official came to stuff an MRSA outbreak.
  • (The acronym MAFF attracts "a" because it is pronounced maf, i.e., it starts with a consonant sound. However, the initialism MRSA attracts "an" because it is pronounced em-ar-ess-ay, i.e., it starts with a vowel sound.)
Read more about using "an" and "a" with abbreviations.

(Reason 2) Use consonance to add rhythm and musicality to your writing.

Consonance is a literary technique created by repeating the same consonant sound in neighboring words. It is used by poets and lyricists to compel their audiences to consider the near rhyme created by consonance. Consonance is not the same as alliteration, which sees neighboring words all starting with the same letter or sound.
  • I earn my keep by cracking locks or picking a pockets.
  • She swung her fist in angst against the beast.
  • The new logo says boorish and English but also stylish.
Read more about consonance.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What are vowels? What are syllables? Using an and a Drag-and-drop test on the types of syllable Glossary of grammatical terms