Syllables

Syllables

A syllable is unit of sound. More specifically, it is a single segment of uninterrupted sound that is typically produced with a single pulse of air from the lungs.

Easy Examples of Syllables

  • Jab (a quick sharp punch)
  • (a word of one syllable or a monosyllabic word)
  • Jabber (to talk excitedly)
  • (two syllables or disyllabic or dissyllabic (avoid bisyllabic))
  • Jabberwock (the creature in Lewis Carol's poem)
  • (three syllables or trisyllabic)
  • Jabberwocky (the title of Lewis Carol's poem)
  • (four syllables or quadrisyllabic)
A syllable is made up of one or more letters with a vowel sound at its core. This does not necessarily mean that every syllable will contain a vowel, but it will include a vowel sound when pronounced. For example, rhythm, which has two syllables, does not contain any vowels, but it is said with two vowel sounds.

More Examples of Syllables

Spelling is not a good indication of how many syllables a word has. The pronunciation of a word determines the number of syllables.
  • screeched, scratched, scrunched, stretched, straights, strengths
  • (Despite being nine letters long, these are all one-syllable words.)
  • shrugged
  • (This one-syllable word contains the two-syllable word rugged. It's a good reminder that the number of syllables is determined by pronunciation.)
Remember, each new syllable in a word creates a new vowel sound. A syllable that ends in a consonant is called a closed syllable. A syllable that ends in a vowel sound is called an open syllable.

Of interest, lots of well-known novels have been rewritten into texts of just monosyllabic words. The authors of these books claim to go through this process to create texts that young children can read. Personally, I think they do it to showcase their writing skills. Either way, it's very impressive.
  • I was born at York on the first of March in the sixth year of the reign of King Charles the First. From the time when I was quite a young child, I had felt a great wish to spend my life at sea, and as I grew, so did this taste grow more and more strong; till at last I broke loose from my school and home, and found my way on foot to Hull, where I soon got a place on board a ship.
  • (This is the opening paragraph of Mary Godolphin's "'Robinson Crusoe' in words of one syllable". With the exception of boy Xury and man Friday, the whole book is written in words of one syllable.)

Why Should I Care about Syllables?

Not knowing what a syllable is will not create errors in your writing or speech. That said, this is a situation to avoid:
  • Oh, Papa Homer, you are so learnÚd.
  • Learn'd, son. It's pronounced learn'd.
  • I love you, Papa Homer.
  • I love you too, Pepsi.
  • Pepi.
  • (This is an extract from "Brother from the Same Planet" (1993), Season 4 of The Simpsons.)
Also of note, I'd considered firefighter (building through fir, fire, firefight) and jewellery (building through jew, jewel, jeweller) instead of the quadrisyllabic noun Jabberwocky at the start of this section, but fire can be a monosyllabic or a disyllabic word depending on regional dialect and jeweller can be disyllabic or trisyllabic depending on regional dialect. It just makes the case that syllables are all about pronunciation.

Key Points

  • A word's spelling is often a poor indicator of how many syllables it comprises. Only pronunciation matters.
  • Learned (one syllable) is the past tense of to learn. LearnÚd (two syllables and stressed on the second) means well educated.
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