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.

  • 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
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 16:21
  • 4
    @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. Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 16:29
  • 1
    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
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 18:38

2 Answers 2


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.

  • 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.
    Commented Jan 5, 2017 at 10:07

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?

  • 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\. Commented Jan 5, 2017 at 8:24

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