What Are 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 are consonants. (A, E, I, O, and U are vowels.)

Table of Contents

  • How Consonants Are Formed
  • Why Consonants Are Important
  • Interesting Words with Only Consonants
  • Test Time!
vowels and consonants

How Consonants Are Formed

Here are some examples of how consonants are formed by obstructing the breath in the vocal tract.
  • 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
If you make any consonant sound, you will notice some obstruction of the breath from the lungs. This is how consonants differ from vowels. Vowels are formed with an open configuration of the vocal tract. In other words, when pronouncing a vowel, there is vibration of the vocal cords but no audible friction.

A consonant can be combined with a vowel to form a syllable.

Why Consonants Are Important

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. correct tick
  • (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. correct tick
  • ("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. wrong cross
  • She was injured in an RTA. correct tick
  • (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. correct tick
  • (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.

Key Points

Interesting Words with Only 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."
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This page was written by Craig Shrives.