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When I'm using Merriam-Webster dictionary to confirm the pronunciation and I found out that the syllables divided in the word and its phonetic are different.

For example, elephant, and experience.

  • Elephant is divided into el-e-phant which the l is the ending sound of the first syllable, but its phonetic is divided as \ ˈe-lə-fənt \ which the l sound goes the second syllable as the beginning sound.

  • Experience is divided into ex-pe-ri-ence and the letter r is pronounced as a consonant, but its phonetic is divided as \ ik-ˈspir-ē-ən(t)s\ which the r sound goes to the second syllable, and make an r-controlled vowel sound with the letter e.

How would this happen? I'm totally confused. I really need your kind explanation or some useful material for reference.

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  • Pronunciation varies from region to region and person to person. What's in the dictionary will always be, at best, an approximation. Or it might just be a misprint. It seems wrong to me too. – Andrew Jan 4 '17 at 16:21
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    @HenryWang Be careful with the notations. (Each dictionary may use its own notations.) Merriam-Webster uses el·e·phant for written syllabification (i.e., hyphenation), and \ˈe-lə-fənt\ for spoken syllabification. One is for the eye, the other is for the ear. – Damkerng T. Jan 4 '17 at 16:29
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    To divide words into sounds is called writing them phonetically or phonemically. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound without meaning in a language and contrasts with other ones. There is a phonetic and phonemic alphabet (44 separate sounds) in English. You have to learn it in order to understand how e-le-phant becomes ɛlɪfənt (phonemic writing using phonetic notation). Elephant is three syllables but seven phonemes (seven different units of sound). – Lambie Jan 4 '17 at 18:38
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It's a common misunderstanding to think that the way a dictionary divides headwords is supposed to indicate the syllabification of the word. It doesn't; it's related to the syllabification, but not the same. What it's meant to indicate is where a word can be broken for hyphenation.

You can find more explanation of this in the answer to the following ELU question: Different syllabic boundaries in various dictionaries?

Actual phonetic syllabification is also complicated. Certain words are easy to divide into syllables (e.g. "hangnail" should clearly be divided as /hæŋ.neɪl/) but many others are more difficult. Different scholars have different theories about how to divide words like "barrel", "mattress", "later" and "selfish". John Wells proposed syllabifying these as /bær.əl/, /mætr.əs/, /leɪt.ə/ and /sɛlf.ɪʃ/ respectively.

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  • As a footnote, I think el-e-phant and e-le-phant would end up sounding pretty much the same either way – a phenomenon responsible for many misheard lyrics. – J.R. Jan 5 '17 at 10:07
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I just found a paper version Merriam-Webster dictionary, and it explains the difference between the dot division and the hyphen division as this:

"A hyphen is used in the pronunciation to show syllabic division. these hyphens sometimes coincide with the centered dots in the entry word that indicate end-of-line division:

ab·sen·tee \ˌab-sən-ˈtē\

Sometimes they do not:

met·ric \ˈme-trik\

So, the syllabic division of elephant and experience should be divided into e-le-phant \ˈe-lə-fənt\ and ex-per-i-ence \ik-ˈspir-ē-ən(t)s. My new concern is that the pronunciation of experience \ik-ˈspir-ē-ən(t)s. The letter combination er in the word entry is pronounced as /ir/ which is an R-controlled vowel sound. From the syllabic division, /ir/ should have same pronunciation as word ear. But, it seems that people pronounce the word as \ik-ˈspi-rē-ən(t)s\, the /ir/ sound was separated into a vowel /i/ and a consonant /r/ which links with the vowel /i/ after it but not the vowel /i/ in front of it. Is that right?

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  • Nice find! As to your question at the end of your answer, I think it's probably worth writing a new question. FWIW, in English, phonemes are pronounced consecutively, so that /r/ is linked to both /i/ before it and /ē/ after it. So, unlike syllables in some other languages, the four syllables, \ik-ˈspir-ē-ən(t)s\, are not pronounced separately (i.e., without linking between syllables). One possible argument for grouping /r/ with /spir/ is that if we ask a speaker to pronounce the first two syllables of experience, chances are, they will pronounce \ik-ˈspir\, rather than \ik-ˈspi\. – Damkerng T. Jan 5 '17 at 8:24
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Syllables have nothing to do with spelling or hyphenation (as noted in sumelic's answer). They're a unit of speech.

Also, syllabification is one of the most controversial topics in phonology.

A syllable is a unit of speech consisting of a vowel, a diphthong or a syllabic consonant with or without surrounding consonants.

I have explained syllabification in this answer to another similar question.


So how to divide words like elephant or experience into syllables?

This can be determined by Maximum Onset Principle (MOP). This principle states that intervocalic (between vowels) consonants are syllabified as the onset of the following syllable as long as the phonotactic constraints of the language allow it.

So elephant /ˈeləfənt/ can be syllabified as:

  • e
  • fənt

The /l/ is intervocalic, meaning it should become the onset of the following syllable, so that the first vowel can be a syllable on it's own. Also, we know that /l/ can occur syllable-initially (as in law, light, low etc) so it can become the onset of the next syllable.

In the same vein, the /f/ becomes the onset of the syllable next to the second one (again, we know that /f/ can occur syllable-initially as in fan, fire, fit etc., so it conforms to the Phonotactic constraints).


Now absentee /ˈæbsəntiː/,

Although the /-bs-/ is intervocalic, it's not syllabified as the onset of the next syllable since English cannot have an onset like /bs-/. So the /b/ becomes the coda of the first syllable instead

So it should be syllabified as:

  • æb

Now we're left with [..ntiː], if we regard the */nt-/ as the onset of the next syllable, then it breaks the phonotactics of English, because English words can't start with */nt-/. So we make the /n/ the coda of the preceding syllable /sə/ and t as the onset of the next syllable:

  • sən
  • tiː

Last syllable is /tiː/ because according to MOP, the /t/ should be an onset of the next syllable:


Now experience /ekˈspɪə.ri.jəns/. Note that the letter ⟨x⟩ represents the cluster /-ks-/ in this instance. Now we should syllabify it in such a way that it conforms to the Phonotactics of English. It's more complicated than you might expect.

We know that English words can't start with /ks-/, so /ks/ in experience can't be the onset of the second syllable. Therefore we break the /k/ and /s/; the /k/ becomes the coda of the first syllable and the /s/ becomes the onset of the second. After the /-ks-/, we have /p/ and we know that /sp-/ can be an onset in English (as in spy, spoon, spin etc), so the /sp/ becomes the onset of the second syllable:

  • ek
  • spɪə

After that, we have /r/ and according to MOP, it should become the onset of the next syllable:

  • ri

Now we have another vowel /ə/ after the front vowel /i/ and we know that when a front vowel is followed by another vowel, there's usually a palatal glide /j/ between both the words. The same goes for the last two syllables of experience i.e. there's a glide in between both the syllables (/-rijəns/) which can act as an onset of the last syllable:

  • jəns
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