When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking

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"When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking" is a spelling rule used when teaching English-speaking children that says that when there are two vowels in a word the first one has the so-called "long" sound of the vowel (or alphabet name), and the second one is not pronounced.

For example, in train the a has the so-called “long a sound and i does not sound. The same happens for each, die, goat, and rescue.

Unfortunately, this rule is false 60% of the time.[1] Counterexamples: head, chief, pause, out, biscuit.

The first one does the talking

  • "ai" /eɪ/: Adelaide, afraid, aid, aim, available, brain, campaign, chain, claim, complain, contain, daily, detail, entertain, explain, fail, faith, gain, hail, Haiti, jail, mail, main, Maine, maintain, paid, pain, paint, rail, rain, raise, remain, retail, snail, Spain, stain, straight, train, trait, wait
Exception: said
  • "ea" /iː/: beach - bead - beat - bleach - breathe - cheat - clean - cream - creature - deal - dream - each - easy - eat - feature - heal - heat - increase - jeans - lead (verb) - leader - leaf - lean - leave - meal - mean - meat - pea - peach - peak - please - reach - read - repeat - reason - reveal - scream - sea - seal - seat - steal - steam - stream - teach - team - treat - weak
Exceptions:
/e/: ahead - already - bread - breakfast - breast - breath - cleanse - dead - deaf - dealt - death - dread - dreadful - feather - head - header - health - heather - heavy - instead - jealous - lead (metal) - leapt - leather - meadow - meant - measure - pheasant - pleasant - pleasure - read (past tense and past participle) - ready - spread - steady - sweat - thread - threat - threaten - treachery - tread - treadmill - treasure - wealth - weapon - weather
/eɪ/: break - great - steak
  • "ee" /iː/: fee - keep - sleep
  • "oa" /əʊ/: approach, boat, coach, coal, coat, coast, float, foam, goal, goat, load, loan, oats, road, roast, throat, toast
  • "oe" /əʊ/: toe
Exceptions: shoe - does - canoe
  • "ue" /(j)uː/: blue - clue - continue - due - value

Mixed results

  • "ei"
/iː/: ceiling - conceive - receipt
/eɪ/: eight - neighbour - weigh
  • "eo"
/iː/: people
/e/: leopard
Both vowels do the talking: video - theory
  • "ie"
/aɪ/: lies - fried
/iː/: chief - field

The rule doesn't work

  • "au" /ɔː/: cause - author
  • "oo"
/uː/ school - goose
/ʊ/: foot - good
  • "ou" /aʊ/: about - mouth
Exceptions: soup - through; could - should - would; country - double
Rule works for soul

Both vowels do the talking

With a little imagination, instead of exceptions the following patterns are examples of rules for diphthongs.

  • "ew" /(j)uː/: few - flew - new
  • "oi" /ɔɪ/: choice

References

  1. All about Learning Press, When Two Vowels Go Walking