Consonant Clusters: Chock-Full of Crunchy Letters

In the last post we talked about vowel combinations which, though sometimes hard to spell, are generally easy to pronounce. When you put more than two consonants together, however, you might find both pronunciation and spelling difficult. Just look at this list of words that each have five consonants in a row! How in the world do you pronounce TCHPH or RTHPL or RTTHR? What possible explanation is there for combinations like NDSCR and GHTST and TCHST? And the consonant cluster RKSCR has the potential to really screw up your day.

catchphrase
birthplace
heartthrob
windscreen
nightstand
matchstick
corkscrew

Fortunately, most English words with these long series of consonants are actually compound words, and can be broken down into their simpler and easier to spell components. In other words, don’t try to remember the TCHST part of the word matchstick – just think about the words match (TCH is a common letter grouping) and stick (the letter combination ST appears in many English words). Then put the two words back together, and you’ll have the complete word spelled correctly.

Three-letter consonant clusters are frequently found at the beginning or end of a word, less often in the middle (think of the words STRike and SPRing, or niGHT and wiTCH). Four-letter consonant clusters are generally at the end of words, like streNGTH or eiGHTH. Adding suffixes sometimes adds additional consonants, as when the word rouGH becomes rouGHNess.

In general, English words are a fairly balanced mixture of vowels and consonants. There are other languages where the scales are sometimes tipped farther in one direction or the other, however, and that probably leads to spelling problems for speakers of those languages. Students in Slovenian schools learn about the important role the cmrlj (bumble bee) plays in pollination, while French children learn about their aïeux (ancestors). Once you start recognizing patterns of letters, all of these words will become easier to spell.