A syllable is a unit of spoken language that consists of one or more vowel sounds which may be preceded or followed by consonant sounds. It can be reflected in writing, where it corresponds only approximately to the spoken syllable.
English, in comparison to many other European languages, has a huge number of monosyllabic words, including the 25 most commonly used verbs. Strikingly, of the first 60 words in the list of the 100 commonest English words of the two-billion word Oxford English Corpus only one word, about, clocking in at number 45, has more than one syllable.
The word elephant consists of three syllables and can be divided graphically as follows: el-e-phant /el.ə.fənt/.
A syllable can't end in a "short" vowel: /æ/ (short a), /e/ (short e), /ɪ/ (short i; however a syllable can end in an unstressed short i), /ɒ/ (short o), /ʌ/ (short u), /ʊ/ (short oo). For example "channel" is /ˈtʃæn.əl/.
If possible a syllable must begin with a consonant. For example "greater" is /ˈgreɪ.tər/.
An unstressed short "i" can end a syllable: "difficulty" is /ˈdɪf.ɪ.kəl.tiː/.
Note that written syllables don't always correspond to phonetic syllables. For example, we divide "learn-ing" and we pronounce /ˈlɜːr.nɪŋ /.
- Monosyllable: a word consisting of just the one syllable;
- Dissyllable or disyllable: a word made up of two syllables;
- Polysyllable: a word made up of more than two syllables;
Students are often "caught out" when confronted by simple sentences/questions spoken at natural speed, such as "Did you like it?" or "I can't find it.", and will greatly benefit from linking and dictation exercises, especially using sentences made up of monosyllables:
- What did you do? - Where did you go? - Who did you go with? - "What did they say?" - Who else went? - Where did you last see it? - What did you think of it? - What's his name? - Have you sent it yet? - What do you think I should do?;
Main article: Varisyllabic words
A word is varisyllabic if it can be pronounced with a variable number of syllables, as in family /ˈfæm.ə.liː, ˈfæm.liː/. Varisyllabic words are formed by deleting the /ə/ in /əl/, /ən/ or /ər/ when followed by a vowel.
- family /ˈfæməliː, ˈfæmliː/
- maddening /ˈmædənɪŋ, ˈmædnɪŋ/
- federal /ˈfedərəl, ˈfedrəl/