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S (letter)

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S, s is a letter of the Latin alphabet. It is the nineteenth letter of most variants, being placed after R and before T, as is the case for instance in the English alphabet. Its English name is pronounced [ˈes], ess.

Use in English

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Use in English
Alphabetical word list
Retroalphabetical list  
Common misspellings  

s is a hissing sound, unvoiced, like c in nîce, or voiced, a buzzing sound, like z in zoô.

The unvoiced, hissing s

The unvoiced, hissing sound occurs in sõap, stew, schême, sky, spêed, Srì Lánka (or *Shr-), mòuse, scêne, péts, píps, pāst time = pāssed gone, míss failure = Míss girl.

  • The accents show stress and pronunciation (see English spellings): A: sát, mâde, pàrk, cāst (cást/càst), åll, ãir; E: ére, êar, vèin, fërn; I: sít, mîne, skì, bïrd; O: sóng, môde, lòve, wörd, ŏr; OO: moôn, foòt; U: sún, mûse, fùll, pürr; W: neŵ, ẁant; Y: gým, mŷ, keỳ, mÿrrh.

It is the sound of ss: glāss, grāss, pāss, híss, lóss, óscillate, véssel, assûme and tréspass (where the single s is also a hiss, giving rise to the error *trésspass, cf. tréss), though not assůre, which in BrE sounds like ashŏre and in AmE *ashûre.

The double s is, however, a buzz, like z, in dessërt food (= desërt abandon), scíssors, hussàr, Aussie Australia (= Óssie, Ózzy, etc., person) and Missoûri, in the first occurrence in posséss, and optionally in péssimist (péss- or péz-).

Other examples of the hissing sound: crêase, dêcrêase and íncrêase (nouns), decrêase, incrêase (verbs), bâsic (as from bâse), madrásah (*mədrássə) and NÁSA (= BrE Násser).

The hissing sound is also that of st before -en and -le (the final vowel is always schwa): lísten (*líssən), fāsten (*fāssən), whístle (*whíssle), cāstle, grístle, hústle, bústle, rústle and, with no e, mústn’t (*mússənt).

Unvoiced final s after voiceless consonants:

1. Plurals: sócks, rîghts, fláps, gáps, décks, nécks, élephants, díscs.
2. Present simple tense, third person singular: /shê/ít géts, êats, séts, quácks, bàrks, pícks, gríps, āsks.
3. Possessives, with apostrophe: Pête’s dóg, thê élephant’s trúnk, Jáck’s cát’s tâil (compare íts, which is a possessive without an apostrophe: the apostrophe is used for ít’s which means ít ís: ít’s lícking íts påw).
4. Looking exactly the same as the possessives in number 3, contracted ís and hás: ít’s it is, ít’s nót trûe, Níck’s hêre, Rûth’s thére, Pête’s íll, thát boòk’s stûpid, her cát’s cléver.

The hissing s sound also appears with a redundant c: scêne, ósscilate, acquiésce, éffervésce and scéptre (AmE -er); but scéptic is the British spelling of AmE sképtic (cf. séptic tank).

It’s the hissing s which begins consonant clusters: scãre, askeŵ, scrêam, skì, slîght, småll, snâil, spŷ, splásh, sprêe, sqùash, Srì Lánka, stône, stróng, swéãr, skíll and asbéstos (although this can also be pronounced -zb-).

The German-language character ß (esszet) is not used in English: Stràùss, not Strauß.

The voiced, buzzing s

is pronounced like z in zoô. It is not found at the beginning of words: z is used instead. Voiced s is found between vowels and in front of voiced consonants: lâser, resûme, mésmerise, noise, resîgn, phrâses, Présley (Elvis, as pronounced in most of the English-speaking world, though he himself used the pronunciation of his home area, with voiceless s, *Préssley), Bósnia, Dísney, Íslām (although there is a trend to devoice the s in the last word). But in these circumstances s can also be unvoiced as in: oâsis, crîsis, aslêep, disdâin, dismántle.

Voiced final s after voiced consonants and vowels:

1. plurals: bâbies, bônes, dâys, vòwels, potâtoes
2. present simple third person singular: /shê/ít húgs, gôes, cãres, hás, ís, and in the past ẁas
3. possessives: Jâne’s hòuse, Mãry’s sálary, the dóg’s bône, mŷ càr’s frònt sêat, hís, hërs, òurs, théirs
4. contracted ís and hás: Pêter’s going, Hárry’s góne, Shêila’s lâte, Jâne’s nót còming, Fréd’s at hôme, hê’s gót flû, nô-òne’s hêre
5. ás

clôse near has unvoiced s (*clôce) and clôse shut has voiced s (= clôze test).

As noted above, péssimist and Missoûri have double s, but are pronounced with the buzz: *pézzimist, *Mizoôry (though a spelling pronunciation of péssimist is becoming more common).

A similar case is ûsed (either *yoôzd, straightforward past or past participle of ûse, or *yoôst plus to-infinitive, denoting habit: wê ûsed to gô thére, but wê gót tîred of ít), which, in writing, can be momentarily ambiguous. In the compûter ûsed to méss úp the blóg one might think at first that the computer *yoôst, with a hissing ss sound, habitually to mess up a blog, until one gets to hád an ínternet addréss, which shows the meaning to be "the computer that was used to mess up the blog had an internet address", with a buzzing s, a z sound, *yoôzd.

Brazíl has a z, but Brasília, a much later coinage and hence import, has an s; both have s in the original Portuguese and the z sound in both languages. (This is a good example of how more recent imports to English are much less likely to change their spelling from the original.)

The sh sound

sh is the 'be quiet!' sound: ssh! húsh! - as also in shoôt, cásh, shrîne, shâke, lêash, pósh, áshen.

It can be spelt with s alone before u: BrE sůre, assůredly, AmE sûre, assûredly; préssure and Irish Seån (of which there exist anglicised versions with the h: Shåun, Shåwn). Also from Irish is Siobhăn *Shivăwn, and from Welsh, Siàn *Shàn.

in some cases, from German, Yiddish and Hebrew, this sound is spelt sch: schwà, schnítzel, Schùltz. (But in escheŵ the s is pronounced separately fronm the ch: the second syllable is identical to the word cheŵ.)

Before certain suffixes, si can be pronounced zh before a vowel: fûsion, derísion, televísion, Âsia (*Âzhə or *Âshə) as is su in pléasure, tréasure (*plézhə, *trézhə), BrE léisure, AmE lêisure. But not in every case: while AmE has *Toô-nêezhə for Tunísia, BrE says *Cheŵ-nízìə.

Miscellaneous

sy- is always - with the exception of sŷphon (which can be sîphon) and Sýracuse (which can be Sŷracûse): sýrup, sýstem, sýnagogue, sýndicate, sýnthesis, sýntax, sýmptom, sýmbol sign (= cýmbal drum).

Silent s is found finally in chássis (*shássy), prècis (*prâysêe), rendezvous (*róndâyvoô), Àrkansås, Iroquois (-kwà) and Íllinois, and medially in îsland (*îlənd), îsle island = aîsle seats (*île), rendezvoused, rendezvousing (*róndâyvoôd, róndâyvoôing).

Voiced s at the end of a word with silent e: pôse, plêase, erâse, phâse, críticise; but z is also often found in this position: crâze, hâze, frêeze, frôze.

Most words ending in -îse can also be spelt -îze: críticise or críticize (this is standard in AmE); but -îze is never found in advîse, ádvertise, comprîse, cómpromise, despîse, éxercise, surmîse, or surprîse (*surprîze appears as late as Jane Austen, but no later).

But the sound is -íss in prómíse, prémíse and práctíse (which is spelt práctice in British English when it is a noun, with the same pronunciation).

Scientific uses

  • S: surface
  • s: distance (along a path)