I was finding a school for my toddler. I saw this new theory called long vowels and short vowels

The teacher talk about apple, which she read something like "eiple" and the hat, which she claims use short vowels.

She says that some vowels are long vowels and some vowels are short vowels.

Now I know where I got my accent. I never knew about it. In Indonesian language every vowel have just one spelling.

That being said, she does sound like native speakers.

The question is:

How do we know when we should use long vowels and when we should use short vowels. For example, is a in apple short or long? Is the a in hat short or long? Do we sort of just memorize that or is there a rule.

  • 3
    I am not aware of a dialect in which /eɪpl/ would be correct; the a in apple is short. It would be long in ape, though. – RegDwigнt Sep 18 '12 at 10:25
  • There is a specific Edinburgh-Morningside accent which does this (leading to an amusing joke about /seɪcks/ instead of bin bags...) – Rory Alsop Sep 18 '12 at 10:28
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    "I saw this new theory called long vowels and short vowels" -- not exactly a new theory. The teacher is right, of course. See also my comment below at Billy's answer. – Kris Sep 18 '12 at 11:09

Unfortunately, there is no good rule - children struggle with this when learning to write. There are a few rules of thumb that hold in most cases, though:

  • Diphthongs (ou, ie, ei, eu, ...) are long (accOUnt), unless they're unstressed and turn into a schwa (succOUr)
  • Single vowels (a, e, i, o, u) are short before double consonants (AttAck)
  • Single vowels are long if they are followed by a single consonant and then an 'e', all in the same syllable (sAve, mOle), and in -ing forms of such verbs (sAve -> sAving)
  • Single vowels are short if they are followed by a single consonant in the same or next syllable, unless the above applies (cAt, At-lAs, nO-mEn-clA-ture)
  • And loads of exceptions to all of these rules, and they vary across dialects and idiolects. The consonants 'r', 'w' and 'y' do funny things to vowels, too.

These might help a little:



  • Excellently set out. The main point to note is "And loads of exceptions to all of these rules, ". The teacher is right, of course. Only, she seems to be over-simplifying things, in consideration for the little ones. – Kris Sep 18 '12 at 11:08
  • Do we really need to learn this to learn english well? I mean if I say apple instead of eipple, would white guy fail to understand? – user4951 Sep 18 '12 at 15:36
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    @JimThio: Huh? If you want to learn English well, you need to pronounce words correctly, of course! If you say 'eipple' (or 'oople' or 'ipple' or 'addle' or 'affle' or anything else incorrect), you are making it very difficult for your listener to understand what you're saying. Long 'a' and short 'a' are completely different vowels, and we do not usually think of them as being related when they're spoken. If you make three of these mistakes in the same sentence, it's unlikely that you'll be understood. – Billy Sep 18 '12 at 15:46
  • Oh really. So apple is short vowel right. I mean a followed by 2 pp. – user4951 Sep 18 '12 at 15:48
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    (By the way, in case you don't know: calling English speakers 'white guy' is likely to cause offence!) – Billy Sep 18 '12 at 15:51

How do you know if a vowel in English is long or short? Here are five simple decoding strategies. Although these reading strategies apply to only one-syllable words, these strategies can be applied on the syllable-level in multi-syllabic words.

  1. If there is one consonant after the vowel, the vowel will be short. (Examples: an, pet, big, hot, cup)
  2. If two consonants follow the vowel, the vowel will be short. (Examples: ant, rent, mist, cost, crust)
  3. If the vowel stands alone, the vowel is long. (Examples: me, hi, go)
  4. If an E is at the end of the word and it is preceded by another vowel, the E at the end of the word is silent and the first vowel is long. Silent E makes the first vowel long. (Examples: name, Pete, fine, home, cute or dune)
  5. If two vowels are adjacent (next to each other), the second vowel is silent, making the first vowel long. (Examples: main, dream, lied, road, fruit)

NOTE: It is important to clarify that the terms "long" vowel and "short" vowel do not indicte the length of the vowel, but rather the sound of the vowel. In linguistic contexts, the terms "long" and "short" are referred to as "tense" and "lax" vowels, respectively.

NOTE 2: Yes there are exceptions, but when you apply these rules on the syllable-level you will find that for the most part they work quite well.

  • I touched up the formatting. Hope you don't mind. And welcome to EL&U! – MrHen Oct 15 '13 at 15:26

The letters a, i, o, u (and sometimes e too) have two common short and long sounds, as in:

flat, flatten – inflate; hid, hidden – hide; dot, dotty – dote; tub, tubby – tube; (hem, hemmed – theme).

I have explained this short / long (or closed / open) vowel spelling system in http://improvingenglishspelling.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/long-and-short-vowels.html like this: When a, e, i, o and u are followed by just one consonant, or several consonants and a vowel, they are 'closed' and are supposed to have a short sound, as in:

 am, ample, ten, tender, pin, pinked, drop, droplet, bun, bunting.

If a single consonant after a, e, i, o and u is followed by a vowel, they are supposed to be ‘open’ and long, as in:

 hale, halo; peter, period; fine, final; sole, solo; tube, tubular'. 

If a stressed vowel before a single consonant and another vowel is to stay short, it is supposed to be followed by a doubled consonant:

 attitude, petty, pinnacle, dotty, bunny. 

Hence: cut + er = cutter, prefer + ed = preferred, enter + ed = entered, cute + er = cuter.

Thousands of English words conform to this system. Unfortunately, there are also hundreds words which break the ‘closed /short' and 'open / long’ vowel spelling method in one or more of five different ways. ... My blog http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/irregular-spellings-in-4217-common-words_7864.html shows all common words which do so.

The only English vowel spelling that has a completely regular pronunciation is ee, as in 'keep sleep deep'. All others have some exceptions - http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.com/2009/12/reading-problems.htm. Beyond a very basic level, pupils have to learn to read and write English words one by one.

  • Please sum up or quote the crucial bits right here. Link-only answers are subject to deletion without further notice, possible link rot being only one reason. Thank you. – RegDwigнt Nov 21 '12 at 13:55
  • If my above post has to be deleted, because it consists mainly of links, so be it. If I gave a reasonably comprehensible full explanation, it would take up many pages. Also, it is impossible to grasp this issue without looking at the relevant words. – user31186 Nov 23 '12 at 6:31
  • Nearly all English pronunciation and spelling rules have exceptions. E.g. those listed in post 5 above – user31186 Nov 23 '12 at 6:34
  • 1
    @Mitch, Beethoven is a surname and a German one; divorcee, a French loan word, is more interesting and I've also heard it pronounced two different ways. – Mari-Lou A Jan 26 '14 at 18:49
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    @Mari-LouA All interesting and informative but irrelevant points. An English Language learner doesn't know any of that, and so would mispronounce them using the meta-rule "'ee' has no exceptions". – Mitch Jan 26 '14 at 18:53

In school they said that a long vowel sound will simply be the vowel saying its name. A short vowel will be any vowel that says otherwise. However I'm not sure how this works when you use two letters to get a sound. A in hay would be a long vowel, a in hat would be a short vowel. E in he is a long vowel, e in edit would be a short vowel sound. This concept goes for all the vowels except for y which is special I think.

  • OP is asking how to know whether a vowel in a written text is long or short. You are defining long and short vowels, which is not what the OP asked for. – MetaEd Oct 11 '13 at 5:14

Pronouncing apple as "eiple" sounds rather like the kind of strangled English vowels heard on the BBC before the war. People, even recently, had a kind of "telephone voice" that included such deformed pronunciations.

  • 1
    Could you clarify, i.e. more directly explain how this answers the question? – Ellie Kesselman Mar 21 '14 at 15:33

protected by tchrist Aug 13 '14 at 14:46

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