What Are Vowels?

by Craig Shrives

Vowels

The letters A, E, I, O, and U are called vowels. The other letters in the alphabet are called consonants.

More about 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.
A vowel is classified as "a speech sound produced by a comparatively open configuration of the vocal tract, with vibration of the vocal cords but without audible friction". So what? Well, using this definition, 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.

A vowel sound (but not necessarily a vowel in the actual spelling) will be present in a syllable.

Is Y a Vowel?

So, is Y a vowel? 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's really just an I. When it's a consonant, it's being itself.

vowels and consonants

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 "bat"
  • "e" as in "bed"
  • "i" as in "bit"
  • "o" as in "bog"
  • "u" as in "but"
The long vowels are pronounced as follows:
  • "a" as in "haze"
  • "e" as in "he"
  • "i" as in "hi"
  • "o" as in "hope"
  • "u" as in "human"
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 more 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
NB: 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.
A Personal Message

To all those teaching spelling, I doff my cap. Spelling in English is a nightmare.

(This is the only personal message on Grammar Monster.)

Try our drag-and-drop test on the types of syllable.

Why Should I Care about Vowels?

On the assumption you can spell, here are two more good reasons to think more carefully about vowels.

(Reason 1) Be clear on when to use "an" and "a" (it can get quirky!)

Use "an" (not "a") before a vowel sound. The important word here is sound. (The ruling is not use "an" before a vowel.)
  • an apple. a apple.
  • ("An" is correct because apple starts with a vowel sound (and a vowel for that matter).)
  • an RTA. a RTA
  • ("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.
  • (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.
  • (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)
Read more about assonance.

Here, for comparison, is an example of consonance:
  • I earn my keep by cracking locks or picking a pockets.
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 consonants? What is assonance? What is consonance? Using "an" or "a" with consonants Drag-and-drop test on the types of syllable Glossary of grammatical terms