What is a Monosyllable?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Three senior girlfriends having fun in the park
"For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?" (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813). Lucia Lambriex / Getty Images

A monosyllable is a word or an utterance of one syllable. Adjective: monosyllabic. Contrast with polysyllable

In linguistics, monosyllables are most commonly studied in the fields of phonology and morphology.

Unlike a lexical monosyllable (such as dog, run, or big), a grammatical (or functional) monosyllable (such as the definite article the) has no semantic content.

Etymology: From the Greek, "one" + "syllable"

Examples and Observations

  • "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?"
    (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813)
  • "[M]any of the finest passages in our language are nearly, if not altogether, monosyllabic. Indeed, it could not well be otherwise, if it be true that, as Dean Swift has remarked, the English language is 'overstocked with monosyllables.' . . . Floy has written a lengthy and very ingenious article, entirely in monosyllables, in which he undertakes, as he says, to 'prove that short words, in spite of the sneer in the text, need not creep, nor be dull, but that they give strength, and life, and fire to the verse of those who know how to use them.'"
    (Gleanings From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, Science and Art: A Melange of Excerpta, Curious, Humorous, and Instructive, edited by Charles C. Bombaugh. T. Newton Kurtz, 1860)
  • "Small words can be crisp, brief, terse--go to the point, like a knife. They have a charm all their own. They dance, twist, turn, sing. Like sparks in the night, they light the way for the eyes of those who read. They are the grace notes of prose. You know what they say the way you know a day is bright and fair--at first sight. And you find, as you read, that you like the way they say it. Small words are gay. And they can catch large thoughts and hold them up for all to see, like rare stones in rings of gold, or joy in the eyes of a child. Some make you feel, as well as see: the cold deep dark of night, the hot salt sting of tears."
    (Joseph Ecclesine, "Advice to Scientists--in Words of One Syllable." American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 1965)
  • "Good friend, thou hast no cause to say so yet;
    But thou shalt have; and creep time ne'er so slow,
    Yet it shall come, for me to do thee good.
    I had a thing to say. But let it go."​
    (William Shakespeare, King John Act III, scene 3)
  • "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good."
    (Genesis I)
  • "Life's more than breath, and the quick round of blood--
    We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths--
    We should count time by heart-throbs. He most lives
    Who thinks most--feels the noblest--acts the best.
    Life's but a means unto an end."
    (Philip James Bailey, Festus, 1839)

The Lighter Side of Monosyllables

  • Louisa Glasson: Underneath the gruff,  monosyllabic, well-meaning but rude person, you're . . . gruff, monosyllabic, and, well, rude.
    Dr. Martin Ellingham: What about "well-meaning"? ​
    (Caroline Catz and Martin Clunes, "Erotomania." Doc Martin, 2006)

Pronunciation: MON-oh-sil-eh-bel

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What is a Monosyllable?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-monosyllable-1691325. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). What is a Monosyllable? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-monosyllable-1691325 Nordquist, Richard. "What is a Monosyllable?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-monosyllable-1691325 (accessed March 29, 2023).