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N, n [Called ‘en’]. The 14th LETTER of the Roman ALPHABET as used for English. It originated as the Phoenician symbol nun, adopted by the Greeks as nu (N), a form which the Romans adopted in their turn.

Sound value

In English, the letter n represents a voiced alveolar nasal. Before a vowel, the sound-symbol correspondence is regular (name, many), but in loans from French a preceding medial g indicates a y-sound after the n (cognac: ‘conyack’). In FRENCH loans n may nasalize a preceding vowel, but have no clear sound of its own (restaurant, lingerie). Articulation may be affected by a following consonant: b, p may give the value of m, as in inbred (‘imbred’) and input (‘imput’), and following hard c, k, g, q, x may produce a velar nasal ‘ng’: zinc, increase, ink, sing, anger, concrete, congress, conquer, anxious.

Double N

(1) In monosyllables following an initial consonant and vowel, n is normally single (ban, can, fan, man, ran, tan, ten, tin, ton, tun), with doubling before inflections beginning with a vowel (bans, banned, banning). Nn follows the initial short vowel in inn, Ann, but not in grammatical words (an, in, on). (2) In disyllables, after a short vowel, especially before -er, -a, -y: manner, tenner, dinner, gunner; manna, henna; canny, tinny. The pairs dinner/diner, tinny/tiny show the force of the doubling. However, many other words do not observe this pattern: any, canon (beside cannon), enemy, honour, linen, money, tenor. A single n is usual before -ish (banish, replenish, finish (compared Finnish), astonish, punish, Spanish) and -ion (companion, minion, pinion, onion, bunion). Many such words derive from French, but do not follow modern French use of nn/n: dîner, ennemi, étonner, honneur, manière, monnaie. (3) With the Germanic prefix un- before n (unnecessary, unnerved) and Latin prefixes ending in or assimilated to n (annul, connect, innate, innocent). (4) When the Germanic suffix -ness is added to words ending in n: barrenness, openness (but usually with a geminated or ‘double’ pronunciation). (5) In the comparative of adjectives ending in n following a short vowel if stressed (thinner, thinnest), but not if unstressed (commoner, commonest).

Syllabic N

The letter n may have syllabic value after alveolar consonants, as in the negative contractions hadn't, isn't, mightn't and the name Haydn. In similar environments, syllabic n can alternate with /n/ preceded by schwa. The SCHWA may, however, be spelt with a range of vowel letters: beaten, raisin, fashion, cotton. These variations can cause uncertainty: for example, in the endings -ant, -ent: resistant, consistent. See A.

Epenthetic N

Sometimes, an epenthetic n has been inserted in a word: messenger, passenger, from message, passage (compare French messager, passager). See EPENTHESIS.


(1) Some nouns have lost an initial n that has been transferred to the indefinite article: an adder from a nadder, an apron from a naperon, an umpire from a noumpere. (2) Conversely, the n of an has sometimes been transferred to a following noun: a newt from an ewt, a nickname from an ekename, the nonce from then anes. See METANALYSIS.


(1) Word-final n is silent after m (damn, hymn, autumn, column), including inflected forms (condemned, condemning), but is pronounced in derived forms where a vowel follows (autumnal, condemnation, hymnal, solemnity). (2) N is sometimes preceded by a silent g, k, p: gnat, feign, foreign; knit, know; pneumatic, pneumonia. See G, K, P.

Other patterns

Many words in older English which ended in n (often an inflection) have lost the n with the inflection. Nevertheless, there are some pairs of words in which one member is without and another has kept the final n: a/an, drunk/drunken, maid/maiden, my/mine, oft/often, ope/open. One of the terms often has an archaic or poetic flavour: maiden, oft, ope. The inflectional function survives in the olden of olden days/times.

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N1 / en/ (also n) • n. (pl. Ns or N's) the fourteenth letter of the alphabet. See also en. ∎  denoting the next after M in a set of items, categories, etc. N2 • abbr. ∎  (used in recording moves in chess) knight: 17.Na4? ∎  Nationalist. ∎  (on a gear lever) neutral. ∎  (chiefly in place names) New: N Zealand. ∎  Physics newton(s). ∎  Noon. ∎  Chem. (with reference to solutions) normal: the pH was adjusted to 7.0 with 1 N HCl. ∎  Norse. ∎  North or Northern: 78° N N Ireland. ∎ Finance note. ∎  nuclear: the N bomb. • symb. the chemical element nitrogen.

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n • abbr. ∎  name. ∎  [in comb.] (in units of measurement) nano- (10−9): the plates were coated with 500 ng of protein in sodium carbonate buffer. ∎  born. ∎  nephew. ∎  net. ∎  Gram. neuter. ∎  new. ∎  nominative. ∎  noon. ∎  (n-) [in comb.] Chem. normal (denoting straight-chain hydrocarbons): n-hexane. ∎  north or northern. ∎  note (used in a book's index to refer to a footnote): 450n. ∎ Finance note. ∎  Gram. noun. ∎  number. • symb. an unspecified or variable number: at the limit where n equals infinity. See also nth.

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n (ital.) Chem., symbol for amount of substance
• Printing, symbol for en
• (ital.) Genetics, symbol for haploid chromosome number (also in 2n (diploid), 3n (triploid), etc.)
• (ital.) Maths, symbol for indefinite number
• symbol for nano- (prefix denoting 10−9, as in nm, nanometre)
• Physics, symbol for neutron
• (ital.) Chem. normal (i.e. unbranched, as in n-butane)
• Electronics n-type (semiconductor)
• (ital.) Physics, Chem., symbol for number density (of atoms, particles, etc.)
• (ital.) Physics, symbol for principal quantum number
• (ital.) Optics, symbol for refractive index
• (ital.) Physics, symbol for rotational frequency

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N 14th letter of the modern Roman alphabet used for English and most other w European languages. It is derived from the Semitic letter nun, which was the pictorial representation of a fish. It was adopted by the Greeks as the letter nu and subsequently by the Romans. In English the letter is always pronounced as a voiced alveolar frictionless nasal continuant, with the tongue placed on the gum ridge above the upper teeth while air from the vocal tract escapes through the nose. N is unpronounced after m in a few words such as “condemn” and “hymn”.

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N the fourteenth letter of the modern English alphabet and the thirteenth of the ancient Roman one, representing the Greek and the Semitic nūn.
N or M the answer to the first question in the Catechism, ‘What is your name?’
N-word sometimes used euphemistically to refer to the word ‘nigger’, which as a contemptuous term for a black person is one of the most racially offensive words in the language.

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'n' / ən/ • contr. of and (conventionally used in informal contexts to coordinate two closely connected elements): rock 'n' roll.

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1. See Newton.

2. See nitrogen.

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n See haploid.

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