Syllable

Ah, the humble syllable. Such a small part of language, yet syllables make up all the words we say across all languages. So, what are they all about? And how can we identify them? 

Syllable Syllable

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Table of contents

    This article is all about syllables and will give a definition for syllable definition, cover the types of syllables in English, and provide some syllable examples. We'll also cover syllable division – in other words, how to divide a word into its constituent syllables.

    Syllable: definition

    Before we dive into the intricacies of syllables, let's begin with our syllable definition. You might already have a good idea of what a syllable is but just in case:

    A syllable is a unit of pronunciation that can join other syllables to form longer words or be a word in and of itself. Syllables must contain a singular vowel sound and may or may not have consonants before, after, or surrounding the vowel sound.

    To illustrate this, here are some brief examples of what a syllable can look like:

    • The indefinite article "a" is a syllable (one vowel sound, with no consonants).
    • The word "oven" has two syllables because it has two vowel sounds – "ov" /-ʌv/ + "en" /-ən/ (each of these syllables includes a vowel sound and a consonant).
    • Many words consist of only one syllable, such as "run," "fruit," "bath," and "large." Each of these comprises a combination of one vowel sound and various consonants.

    Syllables, playmobil figurines, StudySmarterFig 1. Whenever we speak, we use syllables.

    Types of syllables in English

    Since you're an English Language student, we'll be focusing on the types of syllables in English rather than looking at syllables on a more global level.

    There are six key types of syllables in English:

    • Closed syllable: syllables that end in a consonant and have a short vowel sound (e.g., In "picture," the first syllable, "pic" /pɪk/ ends in a consonant, and the /ɪ/ sound is short).

    • Open syllable: syllables that end in a vowel and have a long vowel sound (e.g., In "zero," the last syllable "ro" /roʊ/ ends with the vowel sound /oʊ/, which is long).

    • Vowel-consonant-e syllable: syllables that end with a long vowel, a consonant, and a silent -e (e.g., "Fate" is a one-syllable word which ends with a long -a /eɪ/, a consonant (t), and a silent -e).

    • Diphthong (vowel team) syllable: syllables that include two consecutive vowels making a singular sound (e.g., in "shouting," the first syllable "shout" (ʃaʊt) includes an -o and a -u together that makes one sound - the diphthong /aʊ/).

    • R-controlled syllable: syllables that end in at least one vowel followed by -r (e.g., In the name Peter, the end syllable "er" /ər/ consists of an -e followed by an -r.)

    R-controlled syllables are specific to rhotic accents, that is, accents where the -r is pronounced wherever it appears. In Standard American English, the -r at the end of r-controlled syllables is a rhotic /r/, which means it is more pronounced than the non-rhotic /r/ of Standard British English.

    In Standard British English, the -r at the end of most words and syllables ending in -r would make a schwa sound (ə) instead of a strong, rhotic /r/ sound. Therefore, non-rhotic British English (and other non-rhotic accents) does not include r-controlled syllables.

    There are some British accents that are rhotic, however, such as the Cornish and Devon accents, and there are a couple of American accents which are non-rhotic, such as the Chicago or Upstate New York accents.

    • Consonant-le syllable: syllables that end with a consonant followed by -le (e.g., In "syllable," the last syllable "ble" /bəl/ ends with the consonant -b followed by -le.)

    Each of these syllable types follows the rule of having a singular vowel sound and either no consonants or a range of consonants before, after, or surrounding the vowel sound.

    Syllable: examples

    An example of a syllable is the word 'hello', which has two syllables: "hel" and "lo". To ensure each of these syllable types is cemented in our minds, let's look at a few more syllable examples for each type:

    Closed Syllables

    • cat (/kæt/)
    • napkin – nap(/næp/) + kin (/kɪn/)
    • spin (/spɪn/)
    • doughnut – dough + nut (/nʌt/)

    In all of these examples, the underlined syllables end with a consonant and have a short vowel sound.

    This is generally the first kind of syllable that children are taught to read; many early reading words follow the consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) pattern ("cat," "mat," "pin," "dip," "dog," etc.)

    Open Syllables

    • go (/goʊ/)
    • sky (/skaɪ/)
    • we (/wi/)
    • mosquito – mos + qui + to (/toʊ/)

    In all of these examples, the underlined syllables end in a vowel that has a long vowel sound.

    Vowel-Consonant-e Syllables

    • plate (/pleɪt/)
    • tame (/teɪm/)
    • mite (/maɪt/)
    • bone (/boʊn/)

    In all of these examples, the syllables underlined consist of a vowel, followed by a consonant, followed by a silent (or "magic") -e. The -e in each syllable elongates the sound of the vowels.

    Diphthong Syllables

    • sky (skaɪ)
    • trail (/treɪl/)
    • spoiled - spoi (/spɔɪ/) + led

    In all of these examples, the underlined syllables include two vowels together that make a singular vowel sound.

    R-Controlled Syllables

    • fir (/fɜːr/)
    • burr (/bɜːr/
    • plumber – plumb + er (/ər/)
    • corridor – cor + ri + dor (/dər/)

    In all of these examples, the underlined syllables are made up of a vowel followed by an - r. To reiterate, r-controlled syllables are specific to rhotic accents. Non-rhotic accents do not have r-controlled syllables.

    Consonant-le Syllables

    • turtle - tur + tle (/təl/)
    • hurdle - hur + dle (/dəl/)
    • maple - ma + ple (/pəl/)

    In all of these examples, the underlined syllables are formed by placing -le after a consonant.

    Syllables, letter dice, StudySmarterFig 2. Every syllable must have one vowel sound and can have a variety of consonants

    Syllable division

    If you aren't used to doing it, syllable division can sometimes be a bit tricky. What do we mean by 'syllable division'?

    Syllable division simply refers to the process of dividing a word into its constituent syllables.

    There are several ways to divide words into syllables, and these ways depend on the composition of the word. There are seven rules you can learn to make syllable division easier.

    Syllable rules

    The seven syllable rules mentioned above are as follows:

    • A syllable can only have one vowel sound. Using this logic, you can divide words into syllables by looking at the vowel sounds.

    Vowels and vowel sounds are two different things.

    • a vowel is one of the letters: a, e, i, o, u (and sometimes y)
    • a vowel sound is the sound made by the vowel or vowels in a word

    The number of vowels in a word does not always equal the number of vowel sounds. For instance, words with a silent "-e," such as "rate" have two vowels (a and e) but only one vowel sound (eɪ).

    The word "plant" only has one vowel sound, so the word itself is only one syllable. The word "coriander," however, has four vowel sounds and is therefore divided into four syllables – "co" + "ri" + "an" + "der," where each syllable has a vowel sound.

    • Dividing between two of the same consonant. If a word has two of the same consonant (e.g., "mopping"), you can divide the word into syllables between them (e.g., "mopping" becomes "mop" + "ping"). For this rule to work, the double consonant must have a vowel on either side. In the "mopping" example, there is an "-o" on one side of the double -p and an "-i" on the other.

    • Divide according to the length of the vowel sound. Some vowel sounds are short, some are long, and some words include both. You can figure out where to divide a word into syllables depending on the kind of vowel sounds in that word.

    If the first vowel sound in a word is long, then the divide should come after the first vowel. For instance, in the word "deepen," the first vowel sound is the long -e, so the division into syllables would look like: "dee" + "pen." In this case, the middle consonant becomes attached to the second vowel sound.

    If the first vowel sound in a word is short, then the divide should come before the second vowel sound in the word. In the word "figure," the first vowel sound is the short -i, so the division into syllables would look like: "fig" + "ure". In this case, the middle consonant attaches to the first vowel sound.

    • Divide between two vowels if they make different sounds. If a word has two vowels next to each other that produce two different sounds, then you should divide between these two vowels (e.g., "diet" becomes "di" + "et", and "diaspora" becomes "di" + "as" + "por" + "a").

    • Affixes become separate syllables. If a word has been inflected to include a prefix, suffix, or both, then these affixes become their own syllables (e.g., "endless" becomes "end" + "less" and "reread" becomes "re" + "read").

    • Compound words are always divided between the two words. If a word is made up of two or more other words, then there should be syllable divisions between them.

    "Cupcake": "cup" + "cake"

    "Something": "some" + "thing"

    "Sunflower": "sun" + "flow" + "er" (here, "flower" is split into two syllables because it includes two different vowel sounds - ˈfl + ər ).

    • Divide before consonant-le structures. If a word ends with a consonant followed by -le, then you should divide the word before the consonant preceding the -le (e.g., "needle" becomes "nee" + "dle" and "turtle" becomes "tur" + "tle").

    By following these seven rules, you should be able to identify where a word should be divided into syllables.

    Syllables, t-rex skeleton, StudySmarterFig 3. "Tyrannosaurus Rex" has six syllables! Typically, the longer the word, the more syllables it has.

    Names with two syllables

    For a bit of fun, we'll end this article by looking at some names with two syllables.

    This table shows the two-syllable names and how they can be divided into their constituent syllables in IPA (international phonetic alphabet).

    NameSyllables
    Harvey-hɑr + -vi
    Shannon-ʃæ + -nən
    Michael-maɪ + -kəl
    Gertrude-gɜr + -trud
    Sarah-sɛ + -rə

    Syllable - Key takeaways

    • A syllable is a unit of pronunciation that can either be its own word or can come together with other syllables to make longer words.
    • Each syllable can only have one vowel sound in it and may or may not have a variety of consonants around the vowel sound.
    • There are six key types of syllables in English: closed, open, vowel-consonant-e, diphthong, r-controlled, and consonant-le.
    • Syllable division refers to how words are broken down into their constituent syllables.
    • There are seven rules for syllable division.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Syllable

    What is a syllable?

    A syllable is a unit of pronunciation that can either come together with other syllables to form longer words or be a word in and of itself. Syllables contain a singular vowel sound and may or may not have consonants before, after, or surrounding the vowel sound. 

    What is a syllable example?

    An example of a syllable is the word "English". The syllables are "Eng" and "lish". 

    How do you identify syllables in a word?

    There are six types of syllables in English, and knowing these types can help you to identify them in a word. They are: 


    • open
    • closed
    • vowel-consonant-e
    • diphthong
    • r-controlled
    • consonant-le


    Once you understand what each of the syllable types consists of, you can identify these types in words. 

    What are some two syllable words?

    These are some examples of two-syllable words: 


    • English: Eng + lish
    • exact: ex + act
    • mother: mo + ther
    • classroom: class + room
    • begin: be + gin

    What are the rules of syllables?

    There are seven rules of syllable division which are as follows: 


    • A syllable can only have one vowel sound. 
    • Dividing between two of the same consonant. 
    • Divide according to the length of the vowel sound. 
    • Divide between two vowels if they make different sounds. 
    • Affixes become separate syllables. 
    • Compound words are always divided between the two words. 
    • Divide before consonant-le structures. 

    Does every syllable have a vowel?

    Every syllable needs to include one vowel sound. Syllables can either be a vowel on their own, or can have consonants attached to the vowel sound.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false, a syllable can have more than one vowel sound in it.

    True or false, syllables can sometimes include consonants, but don't always. 

    How many syllable division rules are there in English?

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