Are there some guiding principles on how to divide words into syllables (for spelling/pronunciation) especially in relation to when the division occurs between two vowels?

For example why does 'brief' consist of one syllable and 'client' consist of two syllables. And why words like 'actual' have three syllables and not two. What are the other cases where syllable division between vowels occurs?

Also a direct to any comprehensive source on the above would be much appreciated.

  • Also can someone tell me whether 'dual' in NAmE has two syllables or one?
    – Mrpeech
    Sep 11 '17 at 9:50
  • 1
    You’ll find English to be a mess in this regard. One extreme example is the word resume, which might have two syllables or three, depending on if you are referring to a verb that means “continue,” or that piece of paper you use when applying for a job (unless you include the accent marks and spell it résumé – but those are often omitted.)
    – J.R.
    Sep 11 '17 at 9:51
  • Also, Collins lists four possible American pronunciations for dual, two with one syllable, and two with two syllables. shrugs
    – J.R.
    Sep 11 '17 at 9:55
  • user178049, a unit of a word that has a definable vowel sound and not counted as part of another unit with a vowel sound. Could you elaborate what you mean by how you define syllable?
    – Mrpeech
    Sep 11 '17 at 9:55
  • Isn't resume from the french, the accent has been dropped over time (though still exists) over the 'e'?
    – Mrpeech
    Sep 11 '17 at 9:57

Syllabification is a highly controversial topic in phonology. There are many different approaches to syllabification and most of them sound nonsensical, but I'll give it a shot.

Bear in mind that syllables are a unit of 'spoken language' and have nothing to do with spelling.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a syllable as 'A vocal sound or set of sounds uttered with a single effort of articulation...'.

The technical part of the definition is 'single effort of articulation'. Try saying cat, fat, mate, rack, brief, time, deep etc., you will notice that they require a single chest pulse or a pulse of air pressure (monosyllables). Now say pi.cky, lu.cky, ve.ry, wa.ter, be.tter etc., they require two chest pulses. They're disyllables.

The second part of the definition is '... and forming a word or an element of a word; each of the elements of spoken language comprising a sound of greater sonority (vowel or vowel-equivalent/[vowel-like]) with or without one or more sounds of less sonority (consonants or consonant-equivalents/[less sonorous])'.

In simple words, a syllable must have a vowel/diphthong or a vowel-like sound (Sonorants; /l m n r/ etc). Vowels can make syllables on their own as in eye, oh, awe, ah etc., but non-sonorous consonants can't.

We also have syllabic consonants (Sonorants) such as /l m n/ that can make a syllable on their own. For example, the second syllable in the word rhythm is formed by the syllabic consonant /m/: [rɪ.ðm̩]

Moving on to the original question,

'Brief' is pronounced /briːf/; there's one sonority peak (/iː/) and it requires a single effort of articulation, hence one syllable.

Here's the sonority curve for 'brief':

sonority curve for 'brief'

The blue dot marks the peak of sonority. There's one peak, hence one syllable.

'Client', on the other hand, is questionable. It can be syllabified in different ways, depending on how you pronounce it. Also, vowels in succession can pose a problem.

If its pronounced /ˈklaɪənt/, then it can be transcribed as [ˈclaɪ.jənt] (or [cla.jənt]) because there's often a palatal glide /j/ when one word ends in a front vowel (/i ɪ/) and the next one starts with another vowel. As is the case with /ˈklaɪ.ənt/. That's why it can be transcrbed as [ˈclaɪ.jənt]. Now there are two peaks of sonority; one is formed by /aɪ/ in the first syllable and another by /ə/ in the second syllable. It means 'client' requires two chest pulses/ two efforts of articulation, hence two syllables.

Sonority curtve for 'client':

sonority curve for 'client'

As you can see, there are two peaks, which means there are two syllables.

'Actual' is usually pronounced /ˈæk.t͡ʃu.əl/. It can be transcribed as [ˈæk.t͡ʃu.wəl] because when one word ends with a rounded vowel (/u ʊ/) and the next one starts with a vowel, there's usually a glide /w/ between both the words. Now there are three peaks, hence three syllables.

Sonority curve for 'actual':

sonority curve for 'actual'

There are three peaks in 'actual'.

Head over to this answer for more details on sonority curves, and to this one for Maximum Onset Principle (how to syllabify words).

(Others might disagree, however.)

  • Interesting answer. Thank you, just logged back in and reading this after a while away.
    – Mrpeech
    May 26 at 17:47

Well, my friend. There isn't a certain pattern of learning all the new word pronunciations. However, what I can really suggest is the conventional way of learning new words.

Once you confront a new word,

1- First, you should read or listen to the pronunciation of the word in your lexicon. Personally, I even try to seek alternative pronunciations in several countries or pronunciations in dialect.

2- Then, it's time to read the definition and examples.

3- You should make your own examples.

4- You should try to reuse the word after a few days so as to elevate it into the range of your active words rather than passive ones.

As you see, looking up the pronunciation is the first and initial step of looking up the meaning of a new word. However, I believe once someone has got engaged with English for certain years (10 years+), they can guess the correct pronunciation of new words most of the time, especially when in comes to intonation and stress. (It's not only a matter of syllables).

  • Thanks, that approach is ok for someone with a Romance background where there are many cognates between languages but isn't so useful to someone whose alphabet/script is entirely different ie Arabic, Chinese etc. These speakers can grasp that a word can be broken down into syllables when there is a clear consonant/vowel relationship eg. BAS-KET-BALL. But struggle (understandably) when diphthongs in one word eg. - 'flea' are broken into separate syllables in another - 'area'. The problem is not about the division between vowels per se rather the ability to break words down into syllables.
    – Mrpeech
    Sep 11 '17 at 14:56
  • @Mrpeech - If you don't know how to pronounce the word you're reading, you might not be able to tell just by looking at it. Your example of flea and area is a good one. Native speakers guess how to do this based on experience.
    – J.R.
    Sep 11 '17 at 17:30

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