What You Need to Know About the Letter Y

The Versatile Letter Y: What You Need to Know. Image of hand holding a blue letter y.

The letter y is an important letter and there’s a lot to know about it. We’ve culled through several credible writings on this letter (resources included at the end of the post) and have carefully chosen the most salient points for discussion.

What sounds does the letter y represent?

The letter y is a very versatile letter. It has different sounds depending on where it is located in a word. When the letter y appears at the beginning of a word, it acts as a consonant. Examples of words with y as a consonant are yellow, yawn, and yet.

Y also acts a vowel when it occurs in the middle or at the end of a word. The letter y can sound like /ǐ/ as in gym, /ī/ as in why, and /ē/ as in lazy.

Why do my students need to know the story behind spelling rules?

The saying goes, ‘you learn something new every day’ and that is true for us. As self-professed word geeks we love learning about the etymology of words. We share this information with our students whenever we introduce a new pattern or rule. We find that when we share the history, students retain that information and are better able to apply it to their spelling. It’s actually easier than memorizing random rules.

Back in the day, students were taught spelling rules without anything to support them. Remember this one? ‘Change the y to i and add -es’. They just had to memorize the rules. Lucky for us, we were good at memorizing. Not-so-lucky for many of our friends and fellow classmates.

Now that we are responsible for teaching students encoding and decoding, we try our best to incorporate the ‘why’ behind the various rules.

Why is y used in the middle of some words?

Most often words containing a y in the middle, are of Greek origin such as myth, hymn, and gym (the abbreviation for gymnasium). These words follow the closed syllable pattern, and the y has the short sound of i.

Why do one syllable words end with y rather than i?

In the English language, most words do not end with the letter i. Lyn Stone, author of Spelling for Life, calls these type of letters ‘illegal letters’. p. 70. (Other illegal letters include j, q, u, and v.) Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule and many of these exceptions are either because the word is slang or has been borrowed from other languages.

  • ski (Nowegian)
  • I (Old English)
  • hi (slang)

As we begin to acquaint our students with the open syllable, we introduce the concept that y stands in for the letter i as in the words, why, try, fly, by.

Later, when studying vowel digraphs, we will introduce the team ie and explain that this is another spelling that occurs at the ends of words when the long i sound is heard. Examples of such words include pie, tie, and lie. This is also an important piece of information when discussing suffix endings.

Why do two syllable words end with y rather than e?

In order to explain this rule to our students, it helps if they have had experience with the vowel-consonant-e rule. Here’s why.

When e appears at the end of a word, it is usually silent. Think of the words haze, tine, babe and store. Each of these words end with a silent e. The job of the e is simply to make the preceding vowel long.

If we wanted to describe a mouse as being tiny, we would have to use the letter y instead of the letter e because e at the end of the word has no sound. We use the letter y when the letter e won’t work.

Opportunities for students to read contrasting word pairs helps solidify their understanding.

  • haze-hazy
  • tine-tiny
  • babe-baby
  • store-story

Why do we change the y to i before adding the suffixes -es or -ed?

I spent many years simply reciting the rule ‘change the y to i and add -es’. I just accepted this as part of the randomness of the English language. It wasn’t until I started learning more deeply about etymology and the history of the English language, that I learned the reason behind the rule. (Thanks Lynn Stone!)

Basically, we’ve learned that words in the English language do not end with the letter i so, we must replace the i with a y. However, when we add a suffix, the letter y is no longer the last letter in the word. Y is now an internal letter. Therefore, the y reverts back to an i. For instance, when adding the suffix -ed to the end of the word spy, the y is no longer at the end of the word, so it reverts back to the letter i. The correct past tense spelling of spy is spied.

Why do we add -es, not -s – When adding a suffix ending to a word ending in y, such as spy, we revert the y back to the i because the suffix prevents the word from ending with i. If we add only the suffix -s, the word would be spis (and would be pronounced as a closed syllable word). In order for the i to retain its long sound, we need to add -es. The vowel team ie make the long sound of i.

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Where can I learn more about etymology and spelling?

We have found ‘Spelling for Life: Uncovering the Simplicity and Science of Spelling’ by Lyn Stone to be a handy resource when preparing for spelling lessons. It’s also handy for answering questions from our inquisitive students.

Cover of the book, Spelling for Life: Uncovering the Simplicity and Science of Spelling by Lyn Stone.

‘Uncovering the Logic of English: A Common-Sense Approach to Reading, Spelling, and Literacy’ by Denise Eide is a must-have to up your literacy instruction game. We all have those students who ask, “Why?” This book has the answers!

Cover of the book, Unlocking the Logic of English: A Common-Sense Approach to Reading, Spelling, and Literacy by Denise Eide.

‘The ABCs and All Their Tricks: The Complete Reference Book of Phonics and Spelling’ by Margaret M. Bishop is another fantastic guide for teachers and parents.

Cover of the book, The ABC's and All Their Tricks: The Complete Reference Book of Phonics and Spelling by Margaret M. Bishop.

A student friendly version that delves into etymology is ‘Once Upon a Word: A Word-Origin Dictionary for Kids’ by Jess Zafarris’. If you want to help improve your students’ vocabulary, this book can help you reach that goal.

The cover of the book, Once Upon a Word: A Word-Origin Dictionary for Kids by Jess Zafarris.

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As word geeks, we love talking about spelling rules and etymology. Feel free to DM us if you have more questions.


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