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(There are others, such as table, paste, and baste.) The rule I've heard is that a vowel is made long when succeeded by a consonant and then another vowel. Some words treat double consonants as a single consonant for this rule - hence able has a long "a".

Why is this, and is there a rule governing such words?

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Do you mean a long "a" is in the word "pay"? Never really thought of that as "long". And I can't see how there could be a firm rule for this when you consider, for example, haste vs caste. – Snubian Aug 4 '11 at 1:13
You're probably right that there's some general guiding rule, but the fact is that there's no way in English to determine how something is pronounced just from how it's spelled. We don't exactly have a consistent language. – Jeremy Aug 4 '11 at 1:30
up vote 4 down vote accepted

In the case of haste, the general rule is that an E at the end of the word makes the preceding A (before 1 or 2 consonants) long. Paste has a long A, but past has a short A. Baste and waste have long A's, but fast, last, mast, and vast have short A's. Unfortunately (as often happens in the English language), there are occasional exceptions: caste has a short A.

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Maybe because caste has different etymology? – Kit Z. Fox Aug 4 '11 at 19:12
And just to make it more fun, there's caste and then there's chaste. – Hellion Oct 6 '11 at 20:22
As they used to say to us in primary school, "Lazy E makes the vowel say its name". (This strikes me as doing some work, even if only in what I now see as a management capacity, so E isn't as lazy as all that...) So it certainly has exceptions but it is one of English spelling's rules. – AAT Oct 7 '11 at 0:16

The first rule of English is that there are very few rules that are always kept.

English is a mongrel language with conflicting conventions of pronunciation. The best one can do is attempt to be consistent. And acknowledging that as a living language English will always be inconsistent. Quel dommage.

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Love that ironic first phrase – Thursagen Aug 4 '11 at 3:44
This has the added benefit of making this StackExchange site viable for as long as people are speaking English! – Kalamane Aug 4 '11 at 14:53

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