Y and W

Are “Y” and “W” consonants or vowels? The answer is: both are both.

Step One: watch for compounds

When you see a ”Y” or a “W” in the middle of a word, first look to see if the word is a compound. Inside of a compound word, a “Y” or a “W” will keep the same function that it has in the original smaller word. For example, the word “anyone” is a compound made from the words “any” plus “one”, and since the “Y” is the last letter of the word “any”, it still is pronounced as a word-final “Y”.

Here are some other compounds that have a “Y” or “W”.
Y: barnyard / boyfriend / copyright / daybreak / everybody / ladybug / layout / maybe / paycheck / playground / schoolyard.
W: cowboy / crewcut / forward / network / northward / sawhorse / showtime / southwest / viewpoint.
Y and W: anyway / citywide / keyword

Y as a consonant

The letter “Y” functions as a consonant when it comes before a vowel. There are two situations where this could happen:

  • As the first letter of a word, for example: ”you”, “yes”, “yard” or ”year”.
  • Between two vowels, for example: “royal”, “layer”, “voyage” or “beyond”.

Y as a vowel

The letter “Y” functions as a vowel in three situations:

  • As the last letter of a word, for example: “sky”, “rely”, “tiny” or “easy”.
  • As part of a vowel pair, for example: “play”, “they”, “toy”, or “buy”.
  • Between two consonants, for example: “cycle”, “type”, “myth” or “system”.

W as a consonant

The letter “W” is a consonant when it is in front of a vowel. This can happen in three situations:

  • As the first letter of a word, for example: “water”, “we”, or “with.
  • As part of a consonant pair, for example: “sweep”, “twenty”, “when” or “which”.
  • Between two vowels, for example: “vowel”, “coward”, “allowance” or “lower”.

W as a vowel

A “W” acts as a vowel only when it is the second partner of a vowel pair, for example: “brown”, “show”, “hawk” or “few”.

EXCEPTIONS: There are a few cases of silent “W”, as in: “answer”, “two”, “who”, “whole”, “wrap” or “wrong”.

One final thing to be aware of, is that a “Y” can function as a vowel independently, as in “lynx” or “gym”. When “Y” is a vowel, it uses the same sounds and spelling patterns as the Vowel “I”. (see Sounds of I – coming soon). However, a “W” cannot be a vowel independently, but is only a vowel when it is the second member of a vowel pair, as in “grow”. When “W” does have a vowel sound, it uses the Long-U sound, as in “grew”.

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About Pronunciation Coach
I am a language teacher, with over 20 years of experience teaching ESL & Spanish.

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