The Farlex Grammar Book > English Spelling and Pronunciation > Pronunciation Conventions > Syllables
What is a syllable?
Structure of a syllable
The three structural elements of a syllable are the nucleus, the onset, and the coda.
Syllables can be structured several ways, but they always contain a nucleus, which is (usually) formed from a vowel sound. The nucleus is the core of the syllable, indicating its individual “beat” within a word; the number of syllables in a word will be determined by the number of vowel sounds forming their nuclei.
Syllables may also contain consonant sounds that form an onset (a sound before the nucleus), a coda (a sound after the nucleus), or both, but they do not have to contain either.
For example, the word open (/ˈoʊpən/) contains two syllables: “o-” and “-pen.” The first syllable only contains a nucleus (the vowel sound /oʊ/); because it does not end with a consonant sound, it is what’s known as an open syllable. The second syllable, on the other hand, contains an onset (the consonant sound /p/), a nucleus (the reduced vowel sound /ə/), and a coda (the consonant sound /n/); it is what’s known as a closed syllable.
We’ll look at the different types of syllables further on, but first let’s look at how we can represent syllables in writing.
Indicating syllables in writing
Because syllables are related solely to speech, we do not use symbols to represent them in everyday writing. However, there are certain ways that syllables can be demonstrated in written English, such as in dictionaries or other reference works.
Words with one syllable do not have any visual representation for them—there’s no need, since the word itself is the syllable. If a word has more than one syllable, though, subsequent syllables are often identified by a mark known as an interpunct ( · ), also called a midpoint, middle dot, or centered dot. For example, the word application would appear as ap·pli·ca·tion. This is the symbol used in many dictionaries to delineate mid-word syllables; however, because the interpunct is such a specialized symbol, other sources commonly use hyphens (ap-pli-ca-tion) or slashes (ap/pli/ca/tion). In this guide, we will use interpuncts whenever a word’s syllables need to be visualized.
When the pronunciation of a word is transcribed using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), syllables usually are not represented at all except for the primary stress ( ˈ ) and, in some cases, secondary stress ( ˌ ). For example, the word application is transcribed in IPA as /ˌæplɪˈkeɪʃən/. Saying the word aloud, we can hear that the greatest vocal stress in the word is placed on the syllable /keɪ/, so it is marked with the symbol ˈ. The first syllable /æp/ has less stress, but it is still more forcefully pronounced than the rest of the syllables, so it is marked with the ˌ symbol. (Compare the pronunciation of application with that of the base word apply: /əˈplaɪ/. The first syllable is now unstressed and reduced to a schwa, so it is no longer marked with the ˌ symbol.)
However, unstressed syllables can be represented in IPA when they occur mid-word, either by periods (/ˌæp.lɪˈkeɪ.ʃən/) or spaces (/ˌæp lɪ ˈkeɪ ʃən/). While this guide usually does not mark unstressed syllables in IPA transcriptions, we will indicate them in this section with periods.
Written syllables vs. spoken syllables
You may have noticed in the example above that the syllables of application and apply are divided slightly differently in the written “dictionary” form compared to the phonetic “spoken” form (the IPA transcription). Specifically, the written form divides the double consonant PP between the first and second syllable (ap·pli·ca·tion), but as a digraph PP only makes a single consonant sound (/p/), so in the spoken form it only appears in the first syllable since it has a secondary stress (/ˌæp.lɪˈkeɪ.ʃən/). In ap·ply, on the other hand, the first syllable is unstressed and only consists of the reduced vowel sound /ə/, so the /p/ sound is now connected to the second syllable in the spoken form: /əˈplaɪ/. In fact, doubled consonants are almost always divided between syllables in the written form of a word, even though the sound they make can only belong to one syllable. Which syllable the consonant sound belongs to is determined by the type of vowel sound made by the nucleus, which is in turn dictated by what type of syllable it is.
We also sometimes see differences like this in words ending with the vowel suffixes “-ing” or “-ize.” Many written forms treat such suffixes as individual syllables separate from the preceding consonant sound, while in speech the final syllable often includes the consonant. For example:
Note that this is not always true for words ending in these suffixes, but it is common enough that it’s worth pointing out.
There are other less predictable instances in which a written syllable division does not match the way it is spoken. Such deviations as these are fairly common in English because there is rarely a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds. Instead, we identify syllables divisions based on several types of syllables that commonly occur and the spelling and pronunciation conventions that they indicate.
Types of syllables
Although syllables all perform the same basic function—marking the verbal “beats” of a spoken word—not all syllables are structured the same way. In fact, there are six types of syllables that are identified in English based on a word’s spelling and the type of sound the syllable’s nucleus creates. The two most basic categories are open and closed syllables, but we also distinguish silent E syllables, vowel-combination syllables, vowel-R syllables, and syllabic consonants. By dividing syllables into these six categories, we can identify a number of patterns that help us use a word’s spelling to determine its pronunciation, and vice versa.
An open syllable (also known as a free syllable) is one that has a single vowel letter for its nucleus and does not contain a coda—that is, it does not have a consonant sound after the vowel. An open syllable can be a vowel sound on its own, or else have an onset (one or more consonant sounds) that precedes the nucleus.
When an open syllable is stressed (i.e., it has the most vocal emphasis in the word), it will have a “traditional” long vowel sound forming its nucleus—that is, a vowel sound that “says the name” of the vowel letter. When an open syllable is unstressed, it is often shortened into a weak vowel—typically a schwa (/ə/) or the “short I” sound (/ɪ/). (For words with only a single open syllable, this vowel reduction only occurs in the articles a and the.)
(when vowel is unstressed)
(vowel is stressed)
(vowel is unstressed)
(Note: When the is unstressed, it only takes the reduced pronunciation /ðə/ before words beginning with a consonant. When an unstressed the occurs before a vowel, it is normally still pronounced /ði/.)
You may have noticed that none of the syllables we highlighted here feature vowel digraphs (two vowel letters forming a single vowel sound). This is because syllables with vowel digraphs (as well as other vowel-sound combinations) are typically classed together under a separate category, which we will look at further on.
Finally note that an open syllable cannot be followed by a doubled consonant; it can only be followed by a single consonant or a consonant cluster that acts as the onset of the next syllable. This is because a doubled consonant appearing mid-word will always be divided between syllables, with the first consonant forming the coda of a closed syllable and the second consonant forming the onset of the next syllable.
In contrast to an open syllable, a closed syllable is one in which a single vowel is followed by a coda, which consists of one or more consonant sounds at the end of the syllable (except the consonant R—vowels followed by R form a specific syllable category, which we’ll look at separately).
Closed syllables often have an onset as well (forming what’s known as the CVC or consonant-vowel-consonant pattern). This is not always the case, though, especially when a closed syllable is at the beginning of a word.
(when vowel is unstressed)
*Notice that the word have behaves like a normal closed syllable, with A taking the short vowel sound /æ/, even though it has a silent E at the end. A number of other words are pronounced with short vowels despite having silent E endings, such as give (/gɪv/), gone (/gɔn/), or love (/lʌv/), but most of the time a silent E indicates that the vowel sound in the syllable’s nucleus is long, which goes against the normal pronunciation pattern for closed syllables. These are often identified separately as Silent E Syllables.
Although it is less common, a closed syllable can have a traditional long vowel as its nucleus. It is usually the letter O that takes this long pronunciation. For example:
- both (/boʊθ/)
- con·trol (/kənˈtroʊl/)
- gross (/groʊs/)
- jolt (/dʒoʊlt/)
- pa·trol (/pəˈtroʊl/)
- post (/poʊst/)
- roll (/roʊl/)
- toll (/toʊl/)
This is almost always the case when O is followed by “-ld.” For instance:
- bold (/boʊld/)
- cold (/koʊld/)
- fold (/foʊld/)
- gold (/goʊld/)
- hold (/hoʊld/)
- mold (/moʊld/)
- old (/oʊld/)
- sold (/soʊld/)
- told (/toʊld/)
The letter I can also have a long pronunciation in a closed syllable, typically when followed by “-nd,” as in:
- be·hind (/bɪˈhaɪnd/)
- bind (/baɪnd/)
- blind (/blaɪnd/)
- find (/faɪnd/)
- grind (/graɪnd/)
- kind (/kaɪnd/)
- mind (/maɪnd/)
- rind (/raɪnd/)
- wind (/waɪnd/, meaning “to twist or turn”)
Silent E syllables
One of the most common and well-known functions of silent E is to indicate that a vowel has a “long” sound before a single consonant. Because the vowel sound of the nucleus becomes long, we distinguish syllables formed with a silent E from closed syllables, which always have short or weak vowels.
Silent E syllables are generally either the only or the final syllable of the word. For example:
Exceptions to the Silent E rule
It’s important to note that there are many exceptions to this rule; there are many words in which silent E appears at the end of syllables that have short-vowel nuclei, meaning there is little difference between them and normal closed syllables. Here are just a few examples:
- ac·tive (/ˈæk.tɪv/)
- ex·am·ine (/ɪgˈzæm.ɪn/)
- have (/hæv/)
- some (/sʌm/)
For more information on the different exceptions, go to the section on Silent E.
Just as we do with syllables in which silent E indicates a long-vowel sound for the nucleus, we separate syllables that have vowel sounds formed from a combination of letters as their nuclei. These kinds of syllables are known as vowel-combination syllables (sometimes referred to as vowel team syllables).
Many of these combinations, especially vowel digraphs, form a certain vowel sound in one instance, but a completely different sound in another. If you’re not sure how a certain combination is supposed to be pronounced, check the pronunciation guide in a good dictionary.
There are too many vowel-sound combinations to list in this section; we’ll give a brief overview here, but go to the Vowels section to learn more.
(*W, like Y, is often considered to function as a vowel rather than a consonant when used in digraphs like these.)
Also known as “R-controlled syllables,” these are syllables in which the nucleus is made up of a single vowel letter followed by R. This has the effect of changing the pronunciation of the vowel, either subtly or dramatically, so we categorize these syllables separately.
Vowel + R
Notice that ER, IR, and UR all (generally) result in the same vowel sound, /ɜ/. OR can also form this vowel sound, but it more often makes the vowel sound /ɔ/, while AR almost always makes the vowel sound /ɑ/.
A syllabic consonant refers to a syllable that has a consonant as its nucleus, rather than a vowel. When these words are pronounced out loud, the consonant will have a short reduced-vowel sound (/ə/) before it.
In most cases, syllabic consonants occur when L comes after a consonant and is followed by a semi-silent E, which indicates that the schwa sound will occur before the syllable; less commonly, this can also occur with R rather than L (a pattern that is much more common in British English). Finally, the letter M can also create syllabic consonants without a silent E, most often when it follows the letter S (especially in the suffix “-ism”) but occasionally after the digraph TH as well.
Consonant + LE
Consonant + RE
S + M
TH + M
Other syllabic consonants
Some linguistics resources also identify the letters L, M, N, and R as being syllabic consonants when they follow reduced vowels, generally at the end of the word. In speech these reduced vowels are all but eliminated, with the speaker naturally gliding from one consonant sound to the next with no (or very little) vowel sound in between.
While dictionary transcriptions will transcribe these reduced vowels as a schwa (/ə/), as we have done in this guide, some sources will simply eliminate the vowel from the IPA transcription. Academic or scholarly sources that follow the IPA more strictly might, in addition to omitting /ə/, indicate a syllabic consonant by adding a small vertical mark ( ̩ ) beneath the normal consonant character (except for R, is either transcribed as /ɹ̩/ or merged with /ə/ to form the symbol /ɚ/.
Standard IPA (with /ə/)
Academic IPA (without /ə/)
/ˈbʌt.ɹ̩/ or /ˈbʌt.ɚ/
/ˈlɛt.ɹ̩/ or /ˈlɛt.ɚ/
Rules for dividing syllables
Now that we’ve looked at the different types of syllables into which a word may be divided, we can began examining how we divide a word into those syllables.
In this section, we will be relying on the written form to establish these conventions and rules. However, it’s important to reiterate what we touched upon earlier: The exact divisions of syllable breaks can be slightly different in speech compared to the rather formulaic patterns of written words. Pronunciation differs drastically depending on where you are from, so particular details like syllabic stress or where a syllable actually begins in a word are often going to be different as well. (Even the IPA transcriptions that we’ll feature here might not be the same as how a word is spoken in a certain region.)
That said, using these rules for syllable division in conjunction with identifying the types of syllables we looked at above can make a word’s pronunciation easier to understand. Conversely, when you know how to divide a written word into pronounceable syllables, you can use the same methods to help determine the spelling of a spoken word based on its pronunciation alone.
1. Identify the number of syllables
The first, and most basic, step is to count how many syllables a word actually contains.
Because a syllable must contain a nucleus and a nucleus is almost always made up of a vowel sound, the easiest way to identify the number of syllables in a word is to identify the number of unique vowel sounds it contains. In many cases, this is as simple as counting the vowel letters in a word. For example, the word letter has two vowel letters (two E’s), and two syllables, let·ter; word has just one vowel letter (O), and only one syllable.
However, as we saw from the different types of syllables, nuclei may contain more than one vowel letter forming a single vowel sound (vowel digraphs), silent consonants that work in conjunction with vowels (vowel-consonant combinations), a silent E that occurs after the syllable’s coda, or even just a syllabic consonant. Therefore, when trying to determine the number of syllables in a word, we must count all the vowel sounds in the word, not the individual letters.
As an example, let’s determine the number of syllables in the word unpronounceable. We can see that it has seven vowel letters. The first two, U and O, are straightforward and act as the nuclei of two separate syllables. However, the next two vowels, O and U, act as a digraph that forms the diphthong /aʊ/, a single sound that “glides” from one vowel sound to another. Although two vowels comprise the diphthong, they function as the nucleus of one syllable. The next two vowels, E and A, look like they could form the digraph EA, but they actually function separately: E is silent, indicating that C takes the “soft” pronunciation /s/, while A begins the suffix “-able,” so we only count A as a nucleus. Finally, the final E of the word is part of the “Consonant + LE” pattern that we looked at earlier, indicating that L functions as a syllabic consonant, with a very subtle reduced vowel sound occurring between it and the consonant B. After analysing the different vowels in the word, we can determine that unpronounceable has five distinct vowel sounds, and thus five syllables.
2. Words with one consonant between vowels
When a word has a single consonant letter that appears between two vowels, we have to use the sound of the first vowel to help us determine where the syllable break occurs. In general, if the preceding vowel is stressed and makes a short sound, then it is the nucleus of a closed syllable and the syllable break comes after the consonant (the syllable’s coda). If, on the other hand, the preceding vowel is unstressed, or it is stressed and makes a traditionally long sound, then the syllable is open and the syllable break comes immediately before the consonant. For example:
Stressed syllable, short vowel sound
Stressed syllable, long vowel sound
Unstressed syllable, weak vowel sound
3. Words with multiple consonants
When two consonants appear next to each other in the middle of a multi-syllable word, it is most common that they will be divided between the syllables of the word. For instance:
However, not all groups of consonants behave the same way, and so won’t always split up between syllables. There are different trends we should be aware of, depending on the types of consonants that appear mid-word.
Divide syllables between double consonants
When a multi-syllable word has two of the same consonant appearing next to each other mid-word, we almost always divide the syllables between them. We do this because a doubled consonant is typically preceded by a short vowel sound, so the first consonant of the pair will form the coda of the short vowel’s syllable. For example:
Note that this is usually not done when a word that naturally ends in a doubled consonant has a vowel suffix attached to it, such as add·ing or sell·er. This is because we usually must divide suffixes separately as syllables when they do not affect the spelling of a word, a convention that we’ll look at more closely further on.
Dividing syllables between consonant clusters
While dividing the syllables around doubled consonants is fairly straightforward, it is a bit trickier to know when to divide consonant clusters between syllables. Consonant clusters (also called consonant blends, consonant sequences, or consonant compounds) are groups of two or three individual consonants that are pronounced in quick succession—they each make a distinct sound but “blend” together when spoken aloud. These are typically formed when the L, R, or S appear with other consonant sounds. (It’s important to note that consonant clusters are not the same as consonant digraphs, which form a single consonant sound. We cannot divide consonant digraphs across two syllables.)
Just as when a single consonant appears between two vowels, we first must look at the type of vowel sound that comes before a consonant cluster to determine where the syllable break will occur. If the cluster is preceded by a short vowel sound, the first consonant will usually form the coda of the previous syllable; if the vowel sound is traditionally long (i.e., it “says the name” of the vowel), then both consonants will form the onset of the subsequent syllable.
For example, compare the words acrobat and apron. Both start with A, are followed by consonant clusters (CR and PR), and have stress on the first syllable. However, the A in acrobat is pronounced /æ/—a short vowel—so we divide the syllable between the consonant cluster: ac·ro·bat (/ˈæk.rəˌbæt/). Conversely, the A in apron makes the long vowel sound /eɪ/, so the entire consonant cluster comes after the syllable break: a·pron (/ˈeɪ.prən/).
In addition, if the preceding syllable is unstressed and has a weak vowel sound (/ə/ or /ɪ/) as its nucleus, we usually (though not always) mark the syllable break before the consonant cluster.
Here are some more examples to help highlight the differences:
Short vowel nucleus
(Divided between consonant cluster)
Long vowel nucleus
(Divided before consonant cluster)
Weak vowel nucleus
(Divided before consonant cluster)
(adj., noun: /ˈrɛp.lɪ.kɪt/
(adj., noun: /ˈdu.plɪ.kɪt/
(/dɪˈgrɛs/ or /daɪˈgrɛs/)
(*Apricot can be pronounced either of these two ways, depending on the dialect, and the division of syllables changes accordingly.)
(**Often is usually pronounced without the /t/ sound, but both are acceptable. Regardless of the spoken pronunciation, the written form divides the syllable between F and T.)
Note that when a single consonant follows a vowel and is adjacent to a cluster or digraph that precedes another vowel sound, the syllable break will occur after the single consonant. For example:
4. Dividing before syllabic consonants
When a word ends with the syllabic consonants “-le” or “-re”, we mark the syllable division before the consonant that precedes them. For example:
- an·kle (/ˈæŋ.kəl/)
- bend·a·ble (/ˈbɛnd.ə.bəl/)
- fid·dle (/ˈfɪd.əl/)
- hus·tle* (/ˈhʌs.əl/)
- princ·i·ple (/ˈprɪn.sə.pəl/)
- star·tle (/ˈstɑr.təl/)
- this·tle* (/ˈθɪs.əl/)
- a·cre (/ˈeɪ.kər/)
- mas·sa·cre (/ˈmæs.ə.kər/)
- me·di·o·cre (/ˌmi.diˈoʊ.kər/)
- o·gre (/ˈoʊ.gər/)
(*Even though ST forms the /s/ sound, with T becoming silent, we still put the syllable break between the letters so that the first syllable remains closed and follows the pattern for a short vowel pronunciation.)
Exception 1: CK + LE
When “-le” comes after the consonant digraph CK, the syllable break occurs immediately before the letter L rather than the consonant adjacent to “-le.” For instance:
- buck·le (/ˈbʌk.əl/)
- crack·le (/ˈkræk.əl/)
- knuck·le (/ˈnʌk.əl/)
- pick·le (/ˈpɪk.əl/)
- trick·le (/ˈtrɪk.əl/)
Exception 2: Syllabic M
Note that we don’t indicate a syllable break before M when it functions as a syllabic consonant, even though it is pronounced as a separate syllable with a weak vowel sound for its nucleus:
- ac·tiv·ism (/ˈæk.təˌvɪz.əm/)
- her·o·ism (/ˈhɛr.oʊˌɪz.əm/)
- rhythm (/ˈrɪð.əm/)
- schism (/ˈskɪz.əm/)
When a word forms a compound by attaching to a prefix, suffix, and/or another word, there will usually be a syllable break where the different elements join together. Separating affixes and compound elements from a word can help us see the function of all the letters, so we can better understand how the word should be pronounced.
For instance, let’s look again at the word unpronounceable. Immediately we can see that it contains the prefix “un-” and the suffix “-able,” leaving the base word pronounce. This base word also contains a prefix, “pro-,” which attaches to the root nounce (derived from Latin nuntiare, meaning “to announce”). Having counted the number of syllables in Step 1, we know there are five total, and, by using Step 3, we know that “-able” will have a syllable break dividing “a-” and “-ble.” The rest of the word, then, will be divided where the affixes are conjoined:
- un·pro·nounce·a·ble (/ʌn.prəˈnaʊns.əb.əl/)
Let’s look at some other examples:
Prefix + Base Word
Base Word + Suffix
Base Word + Base Word
Suffixes and syllable divisions
It’s important to note that we can’t depend on this convention with all suffixes, as they can sometimes result in changes to a word’s spelling, pronunciation, or both. For example, when the suffix “-ion” is added to the word hesitate (/ˈhɛ.zɪˌteɪt/), it changes the final /t/ sound to /ʃ/ (/ˌhɛzɪˈteɪʃən). Because the combination TION specifically creates this sound, the letters can’t be divided across syllables.
Another common spelling convention occurs when a vowel suffix (especially “-ing”) is added to a word that ends in a vowel + a single consonant. To avoid forming a word that looks like it had a silent E that was replaced by the suffix, we double the final consonant (for example, hopping comes from the word hop, compared to hoping, from the word hope). Because we now have a double consonant next to the syllable break with a short vowel preceding it, we have to divide the consonants between the two syllables: hop·ping. Because the spelling change is the direct result of adding the suffix, we can’t simply mark the syllable break where the suffix begins—we must look at the new spelling in relation to our existing conventions. (As we saw earlier, if a word naturally ends in a double consonant, then we do mark the syllable division before the suffix because it hasn’t changed the base word’s spelling, as in add·ing, class·es, fill·er, putt·ed, etc.)
To learn more about the way words change when a suffix is added, go to the section Spelling Conventions with Suffixes.
Words with multiple pronunciations
There are many words in English that can have different pronunciations depending on how they are used in a sentence, and this can in turn affect where their syllable breaks occur. For example, the word record can be pronounced in two ways: with the stress on rec- or on -cord. When the word is pronounced record (/ˈrɛk.ərd/), the first syllable is stressed and becomes closed, so the syllable break occurs after the consonant C. In this form, the word is a noun, meaning “a unit of information preserved in some way for future access.” However, when it is pronounced record (/rɪˈkɔrd/), the first syllable becomes unstressed and open, which means that the syllable break occurs before the consonant. With this pronunciation, the word is used as a verb, meaning “to preserve for future access.”
Here are some other examples of words that have multiple pronunciations with different syllable divisions:
Meaning: “a place where few things can grow or live, especially due to an absence of water”
Meaning: “to abandon, forsake, or run away from”
Meaning: “the time occurring at this instant” or “a gift”
Meaning: “to give, introduce, offer, or furnish”
Meaning: “a particular plan, task, assignment, or undertaking”
Meaning: “to estimate, plan, or calculate” or “to throw or thrust forward”
Meaning: "a person who revolts against a government or other authority"
Meaning: "to revolt or act in defiance of authority"
Meaning: “something discarded or thrown away as trash”
Meaning: “to decline or express unwillingness to do something”
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