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S, s [Called ‘ess’]. The 19th LETTER of the Roman ALPHABET as used for English. It originated as the Phoenician symbol for a voiceless sibilant. The Greeks adopted it as the letter sigma (Σ), with lower-case variants according to its position in a word: medial (σ) and final (ζ). The Etruscans and then the Romans further adapted the form to create S. A straightened lower-case variant (ʃ), known as LONG S was used in script and (except in final position) in printing until the 18c.

Sound values: voiceless and voiced

(1) In English, the letter s represents a sibilant alveolar fricative, both voiceless /s/ and voiced /z/, that is sometimes palatalized. (2) Initial s is normally voiceless, and precedes vowels (sat, sail, set, seat, sit, site, soon, soil, south) and consonants (scare, skill, slip, smith, snip, sphere, spit, squeal, still, svelte, swing). (3) Final s in monosyllables is voiced in as, has, his, is, was, but not in gas, yes, this, nor in most accents after u: us, bus, pus, thus. Final double s is always voiceless: contrast his/hiss. (4) Certain common s-endings of Romance or GREEK origin are voiceless (-as as in atlas, -is as in cannabis, -os as in rhinoceros, -ous as in famous, -us as in terminus), but final -es is typically voiced (species, theses, Hercules). (5) The Romance prefix dis- varies, with voicing in disaster, disease but not in disagreeable, disgrace. (6) The Germanic prefix mis- never has voiced s: misadventure, mischance, misgovern, mishap, misspell. (7) Between vowels, s is normally voiced: bosom, busy, cousin, easy, feasible, hesitate, misery, peasant, poison, position, present, prison, reason, rosy, visit, weasel (contrast admissible, blossom, gossip, lesson, possible). (8) Intervocalic s is voiceless in basin, mason, sausage (derived from earlier French c: compare Modern FRENCH bassin, maçon, saucisse), and usually also in -osity (curiosity, luminosity). (9) Greek-derived words commonly have voiceless medial s: analysis, asylum, basalt, crisis, dose, episode, thesis (but not music, physics). (10) After medial consonants s is usually voiceless: balsam, arsenal, gipsy but note clumsy, crimson, damsel. There is variation after n: answer, ransom, but Kansas, pansy. It is usually voiceless before voiceless medial consonants (asphalt, basket, hospital, sister, whistle), but otherwise voiced (husband, wisdom, muslin, spasm, dismal).

-CE, -SE, -ZE.

(1) A final e sometimes distinguishes voiced and voiceless s (tens/tense), but the distinction is rarely reliable (contrast chase/phase) compared with voiceless -ce (hens/hence, advise/advice) and voiced -ze (dose/doze). Lens is unusual: a voiced singular without final e. The cluster -nse usually has voiceless s as in tense/dense, but note cleanse. The ambiguity of -se is not removed by contrasting forms with -ce, -ze: since/rinse both have voiceless /s/, while fleece/freeze are distinct. The dominant pattern of voiced or voiceless -se varies according to preceding vowel, but uncertainty is high after the long e-sound, as in lease/please, geese/cheese. (2) The pronunciation of grease (noun and verb) varies from accent to accent: /s/ in RP, /z/ commonly in ScoE, and regionally varied in AmE. (3) In lose/loose it is the consonant sounds that differ but the vowel spellings that vary. (4) Some words vary /s, z/ according to grammatical category, as in close (adjective and verb) and house, use (noun and verb) (closest/closed, house/houses/housed and useful/useable), sometimes using c for the voiceless alternative or z for the voiced, as in advise/advice, glass/glaze. (5) AmE sometimes prefers -se for BrE -ce: AmE defense, offense, pretense, practise, license, vise (the tool), BrE defence, offence, pretence, practice, licence, vice. (6) Erase, eraser, erasure are normally voiced in BrE but voiceless in AmE.

Palatalized S

(1) Before i or u, there are some common patterns of palatalization, with s pronounced sh, or, if voiced, zh. This arises by assimilation of a following y- sound, represented either by i or by u pronounced with an initial y-sound, as in puce, pure. Sometimes assimilation is incomplete, with s kept unpalatalized in careful speech: for example, /s/ in issue and /z/ in casual. Conversely, palatalization is sometimes extended to words like assume (‘ashoom’). (2) Initial palatalized s is confined to sugar, sure (and the derivatives assurance, insurance), but palatalization is common before final unstressed vowels: geographical terms such as Asia, Persia are heard with both voiced and voiceless palatalized s. (3) Before final -ion, s is palatalized and voiceless after l or n (impulsion, tension), but has optional voicing after r (version, immersion, but not torsion), and regular voicing after vowels (invasion, lesion, vision, erosion, fusion). (4) Voiceless palatalized s after vowels is doubled: passion, session, mission, concussion: compare Russian, but unpalatalized ss in hessian. (5) Other endings preceded by palatalized s are -ual, -ure, voiced as in casual, visual, usual, measure, leisure, but voiceless in fissure, censure, tonsure, sensual. The list does not include -ial, before which the sibilant is written as c (facial) or t (spatial), for historical reasons.

Silent S

(1) Postvocalic s is often silent in French-derived words (isle, apropos, chamois, chassis, corps, debris, fracas, precis, viscount, Grosvenor, Illinois), or where inserted by false analogy with French: island, unrelated to isle (MIDDLE ENGLISH yland, etc.); aisle (compare French aile), which probably acquired its s by confusion with isle; demesne, cognate with domain. (2) Silent final s in French-derived words (corps, fracas) is often pronounced in the plural (two army corps, frequent fracas).

Double S

(1) Ss is normally voiceless (pass, assess, dismiss; message, passage, possible), but it is sometimes voiced in medial position (brassiere, dessert, dissolve, hussar, scissors, possess), and optionally in hussy. (2) In final position, ss typically occurs in monosyllables (press, miss, loss, fuss, pass), less often in polysyllables (compass, embarrass, morass), but commonly in the suffixes -less (hopeless) and -ness (kindness), derived from Germanic sources, and the suffix -ess (hostess, princess), derived from Romance sources. (3) The Latin prefix ad- becomes as- when assimilated to roots beginning with s: assault, assemble, assimilate, assume. (4) The prefixes dis-, mis- similarly produce ss when the following syllable begins with s (misspell, dissatisfy), but the s of dis- is assimilated into the digraph sh in dishevelled (formerly discheveled, etc.). (5) Some words optionally have double final s in their inflected forms: biased/biassed, buses/busses, focusing/focussing, gased/gassed. (6) Ss after a long vowel, as in bass, gross is rare, forms such as face, dose being more usual.

SC and SCH.

The letter s occurs frequently with various values in conjunction with c and ch: effervesce, schedule, scheme, scent, schism, schist. See C.


(1) The digraph sh represents a distinct English phoneme, a voiceless alveolar fricative /ʃ/, which mostly arose from palatalization of early s, whether in OLD ENGLISH or Old French. (2) Old English used sc rather than sh, ship being written scip, and sh only became general after c.1450, probably by analogy with other -h digraphs such as ch, th, wh. The evolution is demonstrated by such Old English and MIDDLE ENGLISH forms as Englisc, Englisch, Englissche, Englisshe. Nevertheless sh is most typically found in words of Old English origin: shadow, shall, shape, shed, ship, shoot, shot, shut, fish. (3) A French-derived palatalized s was frequently changed to sh as in abash, anguish, ashet, brush, bushel, cash, cushion, fashion, leash, parish, and verbs ending in -ish (abolish, famish, finish, punish).


(1) The sequence st is sometimes pronounced as /s/, ss/st having the same value in hassle/castle, and st having different values in whistle, pistol. (2) The /s/ value of st occurs mainly before -en (fasten, listen, moisten) and -le (castle, wrestle, thistle, jostle, rustle), although elision of /t/ before m in Christmas, postman has the same effect.

Inflectional S

(1) Final s is commonly an inflection, as in the plural of most nouns (year/years), the third-person singular of the present tense of most verbs (eat/eats, need/needs), and in possessive forms with apostrophe (my uncle's house). (2) Inflectional s is normally voiced, as after all vowels and voiced consonants (rays, skis, skies, rows, rues, bananas, purrs, paws, ploys, ploughs, ribs, rods, rugs, ridges, rolls, rims, runs, roars, races, roses, rushes, wreathes, arrives, boxes, razes), but not after voiceless non-sibilant consonants (tics, tiffs, treks, tips, cliques, sits, myths). (3) Possessive s is similarly voiced, as in the pronouns his, hers, ours, yours, theirs, whose, but not its after t, and is is similarly devoiced in the contraction it's. (4) The use of the possessive apostrophe raises uncertainties when a noun ends in s. Personal names ending in s may add only an apostrophe (Achilles'), but 's is also common (Achilles's), while in set phrases the apostrophe may be dropped (Achilles tendon). The OED gives various conventions in plant names, such as Venus's flytrap, Venus' hair, Venus looking-glass. Fowler has suggested using only an apostrophe before sake, producing for goodness' sake, and even for conscience's sake, but the practice is rare.

Singulars and plurals

(1) Noun plurals and verbs ending in a sibilant generally add -es: lenses, buzzes, masses, foxes, wishes, touches, witches. Riches, though a plural form, derives from singular French richesse. (2) Some names of diseases (mumps, measles) may be treated as plural, but pox (smallpox, chickenpox, etc.) functions as singular rather than as the plural of pock (its ultimate origin). (3) Forceps, gallows, and BrE innings may be singular or plural, although gallows was formerly plural. FOWLER'S Modern English Usage (1983) has recommended the plural gallowses if needed, and gives inningses as a BrE alternative to innings (compare AmE singular inning; plural innings, in baseball). (4) Tools with two arms (pincers, pliers, scissors, shears, tweezers) and garments with two legs (BrE pyjamas, AmE pajamas, shorts, tights, trousers) are grammatically plural, but semantically singular; plurality is expressed by preceding pair of, and -es is never added: no *scissorses. (5) Family names of WELSH provenance, such as Jones and Williams, add -es for their plural, but are sometimes written with an apostrophe even when not possessive: the Williams'. (6) PLURALS are widely misspelt as possessives: for example, the so-called greengrocer's APOSTROPHE: *6 apple's. (7) For the pattern half/halves, see F. (8) For plurals of words ending in o, as in potatoes, pianos, see O. (9) or changing y to ies, as in pony/ponies, see I.

S/T variation.

(1) Some variations of s and t have arisen in such related forms as pretension/pretentious, torsion/distortion. (2) S/t variation with corresponding changed pronunciation occurs in the endings -sis/-tic in sets of related words from Greek: analysis/analytic(al), neurosis/neurotic, psychosis/psychotic, synthesis/synthetic. (3) The -gloss/-glot variation in diglossia/glossary/glottal/polyglot derives from dialect differences in ancient Greek. (4) Different derivational paths have been followed from LATIN and/or French to English in the doublets poison/potion, reason/ration.


(1) Variation occurs between s and z in such words as organise/organize, systematise/systematize. Here the -ize ending reflects Greek origin, while -ise reflects the adaptation of some of these words during their passage through French, as in the verbs organiser, systématiser. (2) The -ise form is widespread in BrE and virtually universal in AusE, whereas the -ize form is universal in AmE, favoured in CanE, and is employed by some British publishers, such as Oxford University Press. (3) In BrE -ize is not used in some two dozen verbs based on Latin roots, such as advise, advertise, compromise, surprise. In verbs with base nouns in -lysis (analysis, paralysis), BrE has -lyse (analyse, paralyse) and AmE -lyze (analyze, paralyze).

Lost letters

(1) An initial s in the Latin roots of some words has been assimilated by the prefix ex-, but appears after other prefixes, as in exert/insert, exist/consist, expect/respect, expire/perspire, extinguish/distinguish, exult/result. S has been similarly assimilated in expatiate, exude. (2) X has assimilated s from the now archaic forms bucksome, cockscomb, pocks in present day buxom, coxcomb, pox. (3) Some words that now begin with s have lost a preceding vowel by aphesis, although it may survive in cognates: sample from example, squire from esquire, state from estate, story from history. See APHESIS, ESH, PALATE.

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S1 / es/ (also s) • n. (pl. Ss or S's / esiz/ ) 1. the nineteenth letter of the alphabet. ∎  denoting the next after R in a set of items, categories, etc. 2. a shape like that of a capital S: [in comb.] an S-bend. S2 • abbr. ∎  (chiefly in Catholic use) Saint: S Ignatius Loyola. ∎  siemens. ∎  small (as a clothes size). ∎  South or Southern: 65° S. ∎  Biochem. Svedberg unit(s). • symb. ∎  the chemical element sulfur. ∎  Chem. entropy.

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S 19th letter of the English alphabet and a letter employed in the alphabets of other w European languages, It is descended from the Semitic letter sin or shin, a name meaning tooth, which had a sound somewhat like the modern English sh. The Greeks had various letters for sibilants, but after about 600 bc they used mainly sigma for s. The letter as we know it today achieved its final form after adoption into the Latin alphabet. In modern English, the two common pronunciations of s are voiced and unvoiced alveolar fricative consonants, as heard in his and hiss. In making the sound, the speaker lightly touches the upper toothridge with the blade or tip of the tongue, while the sides of it lightly touch the side teeth making a narrow passage to allow the escape of breath with or without voice. The combination of s and h represents in English another sibilant sound, as in show and wash. However, s alone has this sound in sure, sugar and (with i) mission, and can have the voiced pronunciation of the combination, as in division and treasure. This latter pair of sibilants are palato-alveolar fricative consonants. The sounds are made in a similar way to to those given above for ordinary s, but the front of the tongue is additionally raised toward the hard palate (roof of the mouth). In a few words, such as island and aisle, the s is not sounded at all.

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s • abbr. ∎  second(s). ∎  Law section (of an act). ∎  shilling(s). ∎  Gram. singular. ∎  Chem. solid. ∎  (in genealogies) son(s). ∎  succeeded. ∎  Chem. denoting electrons and orbitals possessing zero angular momentum and total symmetry: s-electrons. • symb. (in mathematical formulae) distance.

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s Physics, symbol for electron state l=0 (where l is orbital angular momentum quantum number)
• (ital.) Chem., Physics, symbol for path length
• symbol for second(s)
• (ital.) Chem. secondary (isomer; as in s-butyl alcohol)
• (ital.) Chem., symbol for sedimentation coefficient
• Spectroscopy, symbol for singlet
• Music soh (in tonic sol-fa)
• Chem. solid (as in NaCl(s))
• (ital.) Physics, symbol for specific entropy
• (ital.) Physics, symbol for spin quantum number
• Physics strange (a quark flavour)
• Spectroscopy, symbol for strong absorption
• (ital.) Chem. symmetric (as in s-dichloroethane)

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's inf. • contr. of ∎  is: it's raining. ∎  has: she's gone. ∎  us: let's go. ∎  does: what's he do?

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S, 19th letter of the alphabet, representing the common sibilant, voiceless in spur, voiced in rose. Its Greek equivalent is sigma. In former times the nonterminal s was written or printed much like an f without the right half of the cross bar. In chemistry S is the symbol of the element sulfur.

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1. See sulphur.

2. See Svedberg unit.

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