What Is a Syllable in the English Language?

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A syllable is one or more letters representing a unit of spoken language consisting of a single uninterrupted sound. Adjective: syllabic.

A syllable is made up of either a single vowel sound (as in the pronunciation of oh) or a combination of vowel and consonant(s) (as in no and not).

A syllable that stands alone is called a monosyllable. A word containing two or more syllables is called a polysyllable.

The word syllable comes from the Greek, "combine"

"English speakers have little trouble counting the number of syllables in a word," say R.W. Fasold and J. Connor-Linton, "but linguists have a harder time defining what a syllable is." Their definition of a syllable is "a way of organizing sounds around a peak of sonority"
(An Introduction to Language and Linguistics, 2014). 

Scholarly Observations on Syllables

Scholars, linguists, grammarians, and academicians have attempted to explain what a syllable is and how to identify it, something that is trickier than it may seem, as the following excerpts illustrate.

David Crystal

"A word maSy be pronounced [a] 'syllable at a time,' as in nev-er-the-less, and a good dictionary will determine where these syllabic divisions occur in writing, thus providing information about how a word may be hyphenated. Syllabification is the term which refers to the division of a word into syllables."
(A Dictionary of Linguistics & Phonetics. Blackwell, 2003)

Charles Barber

"A syllable is a peak of prominence in the chain of utterance. If you could measure the acoustic power output of a speaker as it varies with time, you would find that it goes continually up and down, forming little peaks and valleys: the peaks are syllables. The words lair and here form only one peak each, and so only one syllable, whereas the words player and newer are usually pronounced with two peaks and so contain two syllables. It is thus desirable to distinguish between a diphthong (which is one syllable) and a sequence of two vowels (which is two syllables)."
(The English Language: A Historical Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck

"Syllable isn't a tough notion to grasp intuitively, and there is considerable agreement in counting syllables within words. Probably most readers would agree that cod has one syllable, ahi two, and halibut three. But technical definitions are challenging. Still, there is agreement that a syllable is a phonological unit consisting of one or more sounds and that syllables are divided into two parts--an onset and a rhyme. The rhyme consists of a peak or nucleus, and any consonants following it. The nucleus is typically a vowel . . .. Consonants that precede the rhyme in a syllable constitute the onset . . .
"[T]he only essential element of a syllable is a nucleus. Because a single sound can constitute a syllable and a single syllable can constitute a word, a word can consist of a single vowel--but you already knew that from knowing the words a and I."
(Edward Finegan, Language: Its Structure and Use, 6th ed. Wadsworth, 2012)
"The word strengths may have the most complex syllable structure of any English word: . . . with three consonants in the onset and four in the coda [the consonants at the end of the rhyme]!"
(Linguistics for Everyone. Wadsworth, 2010)

Gerald Knowles and Tom McArthur

"Some consonants can be pronounced alone (mmm, zzz), and may or may not be regarded as syllables, but they normally accompany vowels, which tend to occupy the central position in a syllable (the syllabic position), as in pap, pep, pip, pop, pup. Consonants occupy the margins of the syllable, as with 'p' in the examples just given. A vowel in the syllable margin is often referred to as a glide, as in ebb and bay. Syllabic consonants occur in the second syllables of words like middle or midden, replacing a sequence of schwa plus consonant..."
(The Oxford Companion to the English Language, edited by Tom McArthur. Oxford University Press, 1992)

Frank Parker and Kathryn Riley

"[A] common syllable process, especially among the child's first 50 words, is reduplication (syllable repetition). This process can be seen in forms like mama, papa, peepee, and so on. Partial reduplication (the repetition of part of a syllable) may also occur; very often an /i/ is substituted for the final vowel segment, as in mommy and daddy."
(Linguistics for Non-Linguists, 2nd ed. Allyn and Bacon, 1994)

Ann-Marie Svensson

"Words like matinee and negligee, introduced after 1700, are stressed on the first syllable in British English but on the last in American English."
("On the Stressing of French Loanwords in English," in New Perspectives on English Historical Linguistics, ed. Christian Kay, et al. John Benjamins, 2002)

Syllables in Popular Culture

Television show characters have poked fun at the concept of syllables, and popular authors have tried to give some context to this unit of language. Read on for examples from actors John Lithgow and John Cleese as well as the late academic, architect, and writer Norton Juster.

John Lithgow and John Cleese

Dr. Dick Solomon: I will now dispatch my foe with an elegant haiku.
Dr. Liam Neesam: Five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables.
Dr. Dick Solomon: I know that! ... I'm so sick of you. You think you know everything. Will you stop it? Please.
Dr. Liam Neesam: Well, yes. That is technically a haiku, but it's a rather pedestrian one, isn't it?
("Mary Loves Scoochie: Part 2." 3rd Rock From the Sun, May 15, 2001)

Norton Juster

"A slavish concern for the composition of words is the sign of a bankrupt intellect. Be gone, odious wasp! You smell of decayed syllables."
(The Phantom Tollbooth, 1961)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Syllable in the English Language?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 27, 2021, thoughtco.com/syllable-definition-1692165. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, June 27). What Is a Syllable in the English Language? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/syllable-definition-1692165 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Syllable in the English Language?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/syllable-definition-1692165 (accessed July 30, 2021).