In today’s lesson, I’m going to answer the question, what is a syllable? And more importantly, I’ll also teach you how to count the syllables inside words.
The topic of counting syllables gets introduced to people in primary school, but it is often poorly taught. Consequently, many people can’t count the number of syllables inside a word properly. To clear up the confusion around counting syllables, I made this lesson! Watch the video version below:
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What Is a Syllable?
We will begin with a basic definition of the syllable:
The number of syllables in a word corresponds to the number of sections that ‘stand out’ inside that word. The sounds that stand out are the vowels and syllabic consonants l, m, n. When a vowel sound stands out inside a word (is prominent), it has a kind of magnetic attraction, which is capable of drawing consonants to it.
Importantly, we are not going to the smallest possible level of detail and counting every individual sound/phoneme in a word. To count the number of syllables in a word, we must count at the level above that. For example, consider the word ‘problems’…
At the smallest level of sound, the word ‘problems’ /ˈprɒb.ləmz /contains 8 individual sounds/phonemes. p-r-ɒ-b-l-e-m-z
If we then zoom out a little, the word ‘problems’/ˈprɒb.ləmz /consists of two syllables: PROB-LEMS.
Finally, if we zoom out further, we can say that the word ‘problems’ /ˈprɒb.ləmz / is a single word.
IMPORTANT: you were probably taught at school that the number of syllables inside a word corresponds to the number of vowels that it contains. However, this is an oversimplification which can lead to mistakes when counting syllables. This is because the syllabic consonants l, m, and n are powerful enough to form syllables that don’t require a vowel. Examples of words containing syllabic consonants are:
little → /ˈlɪtl̩/ (2 syllable word)
mmm → /m̩ː/ (1 syllable interjection with no vowel sound)
button → /ˈbʌtn̩/ (2 syllable word)
Notice that in the example words above, the mark under the l̩, m̩, and n̩ symbols is there to denote a syllabic consonant. If you have never seen these strange phonetic symbols before, don’t be overwhelmed by them! Most dictionaries don’t think that it is necessary to go into this level of detail when transcribing words.
Why Knowing About Syllables Is Important for Your English
Learning how to properly count the number of syllables inside a word benefits your English in a number of ways:
- PRONUNCIATION BENEFITS: Understanding syllables makes your English sound much more natural because it improves your sense of English rhythm. For upper-intermediate and advanced students – you can’t apply word stress properly unless you have a good understanding of syllables.
- READING BENEFITS: Correctly segmenting words into syllables makes you a faster reader who can tackle extremely long words such as ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ (12 syllables!).
- SPELLING BENEFITS: Breaking up words into chunks/syllables makes you a far better speller.
- ARTISTIC BENEFITS: Knowing about syllables will make you a much better poet!
Why Counting Syllables Is Difficult for Some Students
Counting the number of syllables inside a word is difficult for some students of English. There are a few main reasons for this.
Firstly, the length of English syllables is uneven. Some are short and some are long. This could be different to how syllables operate in your native language. Take for example the words ‘a’ and ‘strengths’. Remarkably, both words are one-syllable words!
A second reason is that the widely taught clapping technique for counting syllables doesn’t always work.
A third reason that some students struggle with the topic is because they have invented their own pronunciation of English words! This happens a lot to students who mostly taught themselves English by reading books and following along with subtitles. This leads them to pronounce words according to the number of vowels that are present in the spelling of a word, which in many cases doesn’t correspond to the pronunciation. A common example of this is found in the one-syllable word ‘called’ /kɔːld/, which many students incorrectly pronounce as ‘CALL-ED’ (two syllables).
And lastly, students with audio processing difficulties find it more difficult than most to break words up into syllables. This is because they ‘hear’ sounds differently, which makes the boundaries between syllables seem blurry or unclear. For help with this issue, see my English Jade course.
How to Count Syllables
The best way to learn how to count the number of syllables in a word is to follow along with a demonstration. Watch the video at the top of the page, skipping to 5.10 min to practise counting syllables with me.
Let’s talk now about the solution… How do we make counting the number of syllables in words easy? Here are some factors we must consider:
- Sound exploration: The first step is exploring the sounds inside words; this requires practice.
- Syllable breaks: We have to learn to recognise where syllables break. Some rules and patterns can help us with this, but there will still be some ‘grey areas’. At times it is unclear where a syllable break occurs.
- Open syllables VS closed syllables: We also have to know the difference between two types of syllables, as explained below.
An open syllable describes a syllable in a word that is not followed by a consonant sound. This type of consonant is easy to identify at the end of a word, but can also occur in other positions. For example, the word ‘see’ /siː/ contains a vowel that is not followed by a consonant. This makes it an open syllable word. Now consider the word ‘seed’ /siːd/, which is a closed syllable word because it ends with a final /d/ consonant. The words ‘see’ and ‘seed’ are both one-syllable words.
It’s easy to count the number of syllables in words that consist of open syllables. Even the unreliable clapping technique to count syllables works for words like this.
Open Syllable Examples (1 Syllable in Length) ➔ see, by, there
Open Syllable Examples (2 Syllables in Length) ➔ before, later, coma
Words that contain closed syllables are more difficult for us to count. A closed syllable refers to a vowel that is followed by one or more consonants. Take for example the closed syllable word ‘his’ /hɪz/. We have the consonant /h/ before the vowel and a /z/ after it. The vowel /ɪ/ is in the middle of the syllable, making three sounds in a kind of sandwich.
Closed Syllable Examples (1 syllable in length):
- bag /bæg/
- need /niːd/
- make /meɪk/
- part /pɑːt/
- could /kʊd/
- search /sɜːʧ/ *Notice how there are 6 letters in the spelling, but it’s still only one syllable.
- earth /ɜːθ/
Tip: When counting syllables, say each word as naturally as you can. If your pronunciation is too slow and perfect, it can confuse your brain!Jade Joddle
Closed Syllable Examples (2 Syllables in Length) ➔ sentence, children, mountain.
The place where the syllables break is shown here with a dash ➔ sen-tence chil-dren moun-tain
The three words above have a common pattern. Notice that the syllables break where two consonants meet. Also, pay special attention to the word ‘mountain’ because this word shows us that a single vowel sound can be spelt with more than one letter.
Finally, we will look at two words in closer detail…
FRIENDS /frendz/ – Think of the vowel in the word as a magnet to which consonants can be attracted. In the case of ‘friends’, we have two consonants before the vowel and three after it, which creates a complex syllable. It is common to simplify the pronunciation of this word by dropping the /d/ ➔ /frenz/.
STRENGTHS /streŋkθs/ – This special word provides an example of the most complex syllable that can be created in English! It has three consonants before the vowel, and four after the vowel. This is a very difficult word to pronounce, even for most native speakers. If you want to cheat with the pronunciation, you can say /strenθs/ instead (non-standard pronunciation).
Thank you for learning to count syllables with me!
Extend Your Learning
▶︎ Learn more about English rhythm by practising the schwa sound.
▶︎ Advanced students are advised to watch my lesson on the confusing topic of syllable breaks…