A most British English pronunciation rule.

One of the easiest rules to learn when studying British English pronunciation is that of the silent < r >. It really is very simple:

RULE
Only say an < r > when it appears before a vowel sound.
Never say an < r > when it appears before a consonant or at the end of a word.

So in the word ‘fork’, you don’t say the < r > because there is a consonant after it. In the name ‘Charlie’ you don’t say the < r > for the same reason. However in the word ‘grass’ we do say the < r > because there is a vowel sound after it.

Linking /r/

The rule also works to join words together. For example, consider the word ‘mother’. We normally would not say the < r > because it is at the end of the word, however, if a vowel sound begins the next word, we do pronounce it to join the words:

mother_and daughter

the < r > effectively moves on to the beginning of the word ‘and’.

Intrusive /r/

Sometimes, native speakers join words together with an /r/ even if there is no < r > in the spelling, some examples are:

China_and India / My idea_of a joke

This occurs when a schwa appears at the end of a word, followed by another vowel sound, although some speakers would argue that it is not correct to join in this way.

Rhoticity & Accents

The technical term for an accent that does not pronounce < r > sounds in syllable-final positions is ‘Non-Rhotic’, so a lot of British English accents are known as non-rhotic. American English is mainly rhotic – speakers say every written < r >. This is, however, a generalisation, as there are areas of Britain that are rhotic, and areas of America that are non-rhotic.

Problems for Non-native speakers.

Although nearly all students who come to Pronunciation Studio are rhotic in their own language and therefore normally rhotic in English, it is normally something that students can improve quite quickly. In fact the < r > spelling tells us a lot about which vowel sound to pronounce, so it is really our friend. On strong syllables, the < r > after a vowel sound always indicates a long vowel: /ɑ:/ for car, /ɔ:/ for four, /ɜ:/ for bird, /eə/ for where, or /ɪə/ for ‘near’. On a weak syllable it nearly always indicates /ə/ for mother.

Ready to test your knowledge of silent ‘r’? Take the silent ‘r’ class. The lesson includes drills and an exercise, all with audio.

By | 2017-01-31T17:10:38+00:00 May 21st, 2013|Pronunciation|12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Quora November 20, 2015 at 6:33 am - Reply

    Which countries speak American English?

    its a silent r https://pronunciationstudio.com/silent-r-british-pronunciation/

  2. Pronunciation – English trucchi December 11, 2015 at 12:31 pm - Reply

    […] is thanks to pronunciationstudio.com. Click on the link to see the whole […]

  3. abdellah January 8, 2016 at 11:54 pm - Reply

    would you plz tell me what is the sillent letter in ” learn “

    • Karen Cheung January 13, 2016 at 4:35 pm - Reply

      Hello, the silent letter in ‘learn’ is the letter ‘r’. Kind regards, Karen.

  4. Carmen June 24, 2016 at 10:45 pm - Reply

    To leave the ‘silent r’ out is quite difficult for Spanish speakers.

    Thank you

  5. Nikhil July 18, 2016 at 6:12 pm - Reply

    So true. I ‘ve never heard a more “pronounced” pronunciation of R than from Spanish mouths and its quite amusing 🙂

  6. Jim Gore October 19, 2016 at 6:33 pm - Reply

    We Canadians are also rhotic. In fact, I find the silent “r” in some British accents sounds almost like a speech impediment.

  7. Alireza January 4, 2017 at 11:19 am - Reply

    hi. what about the word “Here”? in British, they don’t pronounce “r” but it’s not at the end of the word no is before a consonant

    • Remark February 7, 2017 at 8:31 pm - Reply

      You can’t look at spelling. If you spell the word how you would say it you would get “heer”. This puts the sound at the end of the word, thus making it silent.

  8. Alex Ciprian June 29, 2017 at 1:32 pm - Reply

    Thank you very much for the post. May I ask you what happens with the “r” in the following words (in non-rhotic accents like RP): beware /bɪˈwɛə/, care /kɛə/, dare /dɛə/, there /ðɛə/, share /ʃɛə/, compare /kəmˈpɛə/, careful /ˈkɛəfʊl/, sphere /sfɪə/, figure /ˈfɪɡə/, and so on? In all of these cases the “r” is neither at the end of the word nor before consonant (rules that many BrE teachers teach for silent “r”) – still, it is silent. Are there any rules that can be applied in these cases? What about: very, necessary, arbitrary, and so on – here the “r” is pronounced, but, even though in the middle of the word, there’s no consonant before it (other rule BrE teachers teach for non-silent “r”)? What’s the rule here? What about the words: order, separate and the like? In “order”, for example, the “r” is before a consonant – still, it is silent. On the other hand, in “separate” the “r” is in middle position, but there’s no consonant before it – still, it is pronounced and therefore non-silent. What I am trying to learn is whether (or not) there are 2 separate rules for the “r”: one telling me when the “r” must be pronounced and one telling me when the “r” is silent. Am I missing something here? Thank you!
    As I have spoken with other BrE experts, I would also like to ask you if the following conclusions are accurate enough and could be considered a rule for the pronunciation of the “r” sound (in British RP and non-rhotic accents of English):
    1. “r” is silent in the following words: car, star, sister, mother, word, person, bird (/kɑː/, /stɑː/, /ˈsɪstə/, /ˈmʌðə/, /wɜːd/, /ˈpɜːsn/, /bɜːd/) because it is not followed by a vowel sound.
    2. “r” is pronounced in the following words: read, write, red, Rome, grass, green, very, separate (/riːd/, /raɪt/, /rɛd/, /rəʊm/, /grɑːs/, /griːn/, /ˈvɛri/, /’sepərət/) and also in berry, carry, arrange (ˈ/bɛri/, /ˈkæri/, /əˈreɪnʤ/) because it is followed by a vowel sound.
    Or, to sum up: /r/ (the phoneme, i.e. the sound as in red) occurs only before a vowel phoneme (in British RP and non-rhotic accents of English). In every other case, it is silent. Thank you!

  9. Kate July 27, 2017 at 3:29 pm - Reply

    Total nonsense. I’m a native Brit, and teach in schools. There is very much an r controlled o in the word fork, it is not silent. Silent would employ it has no influence on the pronounciation of the word. If that was so, fork would be pronounced /f/ /o/ /k/, sounding almost like f***.

    • Joseph Hudson July 27, 2017 at 5:10 pm - Reply

      The ‘r’ certainly influences the vowel sound, if it were not there, the sound would probably be /ɒ/, but no /r/ sound is produced in the word in British English, so to this end, it can be considered silent. I certainly agree that if you’re teaching spelling to sound rules, then it’s useful to study the effect ‘r’ has on vowels in stressed syllables like ‘ar’, ‘or’, ‘er’, ‘ir’, ‘ur’ as it is always influential, but I don’t think it should be taught as a pronounced sound.

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