What Are Vowels?

Vowels are letters whose sound is produced by a comparatively open configuration of the vocal tract, with vibration of the vocal cords but without audible friction from the tongue, teeth, lips, etc. In English, the letters A, E, I, O, and U are vowels. The letter Y is a semi-vowel. (The other letters in the alphabet are called consonants.)

Table of Contents

  • Short and Long Vowels
  • Every Syllable Has a Vowel Sound
  • The Most Common Vowel
  • Interesting Words
  • Is Y a Vowel?
  • Why Vowels Are Important
  • Video Lesson
  • Test Time!
What are vowels?

Short and Long Vowels

In English, the sounds of the vowels are group into two pairs: short vowels and long vowels. The short vowels are pronounced as follows:
  • "a" as in
  • "e" as in
  • "i" as in
  • "o" as in
  • "u" as in
The long vowels are pronounced as follows:
  • "a" as in
  • "e" as in
  • "i" as in
  • "o" as in
  • "u" as in
Unfortunately for those learning English, these vowel sounds can be created with lots of different spellings. It is even common for a single vowel to create the sound of a different vowel (e.g., the "a" in "any" creates a short "e" sound). Here are some examples:

Some alternative spellings for the short "e" vowel:
  • many
  • bread
  • said
  • leopard
Some alternative spellings for the long "a" vowel:
  • pain
  • prey
  • pray
  • puree
When teaching vowels, it used to be a common practice to show the short vowels as lowercase letters (aeiuo) and the long vowels are uppercase letters (AEIOU). However, as both sets usually appear as lowercase letters in words, this practice has largely been dropped from teaching materials.

Every Syllable Has a Vowel Sound

Every syllable has a vowel sound. For example, the word "
" has five syllables, and each of those syllables has a vowel. However, not every syllable includes a vowel letter. For example, here are 5 words with no vowels:
  • rhythms
  • spryly
  • sylphy
    (like a "sylph," a slender graceful girl)
  • syzygy
    (the straight-line configuration of three or more celestial bodies)
  • crwth
    (a stringed instrument)
  • cwtch
    (a shed or hiding place)
Of course, all the syllables in these words contain vowel sounds. So, there is a lot to consider when counting the syllables in a word. There are in fact 7 types of syllable.

The Most Common Vowel

The most common vowel in English is the letter E. However, E is not the most common vowel sound. That title belongs to the schwa. The schwa sounds like a short "uh." Rather frustratingly for English learners, the schwa can be represented by any vowel. In these examples, the vowel creating the schwa sound is shown in bold:
vowelvowel as a schwa
The symbol for a schwa is ə (an upside down "e").

Interesting Words

Here are some interesting words with regard to their vowels:
  • The word "Iouea" (a genus of sea sponges) contains all five vowels and no other letters.
  • (Being the name of a genus (i.e., a proper noun), it is written with a capital letter. Also of note, it is the shortest word with four syllables.)
  • The words "abstemious" and facetious contain all five vowels in order.

Is Y a Vowel?

Using the formal definition above, the letter Y in words like "hymn" and "shy" is also a vowel. However, in words like "beyond" and "yes," Y is a consonant because the breath is partly obstructed.

So, is Y a vowel? Well, sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't, which is why it is often called a semi-vowel. The argument for classifying Y as a consonant (which most do) is based on this: When Y is a vowel, it is really just an I. When it is a consonant, it is being itself.

Why Vowels Are Important

Here are two good reasons to think more carefully about vowels.

(Reason 1) Be clear on when to use "an" and "a."

Use "an" (not "a") before a vowel sound. The important word here is sound.

Get the Rule Right!

This is the rule:
  • Use 'an' before a vowel sound.
This is NOT the rule:
  • Use 'an' before a vowel.
Knowing when to use "a" and "an" is all about the sound of the next letter. (It is not about whether the next letter is a vowel or a consonant.). Look at these examples:
  • an apple. correct tick a apple. wrong cross
  • ("An" is correct because "apple" starts with a vowel sound (and a vowel for that matter).)
  • an RTA. correct tick a RTA wrong cross
  • ("An" is correct because "RTA" starts with a vowel sound ("ar"), even though the first letter is not a vowel.)
While we're on this subject, it's worth reminding ourselves that the words "an" and "a" are called the indefinite articles.
  • An unidentified man with a unicorn tattoo rented a house an hour ago. correct tick
  • (Even though they start with the same three letters, "unidentified" and "unicorn" attract different indefinite articles. Similarly, "hour" attracts "an" while "house" attracts "a." Remember that it's all about the sound of the first letter.)
  • Becoming a eunuch wasn't a one-off deal – it was a two-off deal. correct tick
  • ("Eunuch" and "one-off" start with vowels but with consonant sounds.)
Read more using "an" and "a."

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

Assonance is a literary technique created by repeating the same vowel sound in neighboring words. It is used by lyricists and poets to encourage their readers and listeners to consider the near rhyme created by the assonance. (NB: Assonance contrasts with consonance, which is a similar literary technique in which nearby words repeat the same consonant sound.)

Here are some examples of assonance:
  • His fleet feet seem impossible to beat.
  • "A host, of golden daffodils" (Extract from "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" by poet William Wordsworth)
  • "Hear the mellow wedding bells" (Extract from "The Bells" by American writer Edgar Allen Poe)
Here, for comparison, is an example of consonance:
  • I earn my keep by cracking locks or picking pockets.

Key Points

Video Lesson

Here is a 12-minute video summarizing this lesson on vowels. video lesson

Are you a visual learner? Do you prefer video to text? Here is a list of all our grammar videos.

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.