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I tried to find the formal rule or the formal algorithm on how should I identify whether the word has a closed syllable or an open syllable, but I was unsuccessful. I thought that to understand which syllables the word consists of, one should use the transcription of the word.

For example, I had the word "garlic" and its transcription [ˈɡɑː.lɪk]. I see that there are two syllables "ɡɑː" and "lɪk". The first syllable does not end with a consonant so according to the definition I know it's an open syllable. But some links on the Internet say that I am wrong and the word garlic does not have an open syllable without a detailed explanation of why. If I use the letters of the word to form the syllables I get "gar" and "lick" and both of them end with the consonant letter so both of these syllables are closed.

So I could not find the formal and concrete answers for what I've been looking for.

  1. What is the formal definition of a syllable in English language?
  2. How should I identify the syllables of English word?
  3. What is the definition of an open syllable in the word? I had the definition "It's a syllable that ends with a vowel sound and does not have a consonant sound immediately following it within the same syllable" but it seems like it has nothing to do with words such as "nine" or "cite" which as I know have the open syllables but both in their transcriptions and their writing have the closed syllable according to my definition.
  4. What is the definition of a closed syllable? I thought that it could be defined as "A syllable that ends with a consonant sound" but perhaps I've overlooked something.

If the answer is too long, please kindly provide a reference (such as a book) where I can find the answers to such questions. I know that it's better to have one question in one thread but for me these questions are strongly interconnected.

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    /ˈɡɑː.lɪk/ is BrE, but AmE pronunciation of the word is /ˈɡɑːr.lɪk/ - that would explain the discrepancy you're seeing. Your definition of closed/open syllables seems right - nine and cite are one closed syllable words. Sometimes (particularly when teaching reading and writing) it makes sense to distinguish additional syllable types like VCe or vowel-r syllables, since they have their own pronunciation rules, but the base open/closed distinction is as you say. Apr 12 at 16:57
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    Local people say /ˈɡɑːr.lɪk/ where I live in the UK, in fact all of the western part of England does. Apr 12 at 20:05
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    @MaciejStachowski You should post that comment as an answer!!! The other answers here are very misleading :-/ Apr 13 at 11:36
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    @perepelart Will come back and have a look later. Apr 18 at 16:18
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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. Thank you for your time and help! Everything makes much more sense to me now. I've realized that there is an error in paragraph 4. I should pay more attention to whether I am referring to the sounds in the syllable that I pronounce or to the spelling of the syllable using graphic symbols (letters).
    – perepelart
    Apr 20 at 19:07

4 Answers 4

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@Maciej Stachowski Wrote:

/ˈɡɑː.lɪk/ is BrE, but AmE pronunciation of the word is /ˈɡɑːr.lɪk/ - that would explain the discrepancy you're seeing. Your definition of closed/open syllables seems right - nine and cite are closed syllable words. Sometimes (particularly when teaching reading and writing) it makes sense to distinguish additional syllable types like VC or vowel-r syllables, since they have their own pronunciation rules, but the base open/closed distinction is as you say.

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The formal definition of a syllable can be found in a dictionary:

a single unit of speech, either a whole word or one of the parts into which a word can be separated, usually containing a vowel

A closed syllable is a syllable that ends with a consonant sound, typically resulting in a short vowel sound, like the single syllable in 'cat'.

But most people view syllables as recognisable in pronunciation, and that can vary greatly between English dialects, such as British or US English, and between regional accents and dialects within those.

There are some general guidelines on how syllables should be recognised, such as:

  • Each syllable usually contains at least one vowel sound.
  • Consonant patterns tend to separate syllables, like consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) patterns, which often indicate syllable boundaries (for example, "hap-py").
  • Recognised prefixes and suffixes usually form separate syllables, for example, "un-hap-py" or "happi-ness".
  • Sometimes vowel combinations form a single syllable (diphthongs), while other times each vowel sound represents a separate syllable (for example, "cre-a-tion").

And there are probably more.

If you want some examples of how syllable counts change with pronunciation:

  • The word 'mirror' is usually pronounced with 2 syllables 'mi-rror' by British English speakers, but many US accents pronounce just 1 and make it sound like 'murrrr' to my British ears.
  • The month of February is pronounced with 4 syllables ('Fe-bru-ar-y') by some, but others make it sound like just 2 ('Feb-ree')

Further, you'll find that English speakers writing poetry or songs will deliberately use alternative pronunciations that may belie their own accent if it helps fit the rhythm scheme they are working to.

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  • That must be some hillbilly accent. forvo.com/search/mirror/en_uk AND forvo.com/search/mirror/en_usa
    – Lambie
    Apr 12 at 17:11
  • Thank you for explaining how I should identify the syllables of the word. It's not fully clear for me yet, but I will try to practice. I am especially thankful for pointing out that the transcription and the pronunciation of the words may depend on the dialect of English that one uses. I definitely didn't understand that before posting this question and thought that it's unified across the dialects of English. I now realize that I was mistaken and I need to take this into account.
    – perepelart
    Apr 12 at 20:32
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    Your post unhelpfully confuses orthographic rules for breaking words across line boundaries with syllables. Happy does not syllabify with a p in each syllable. It only has one /p/! Apr 13 at 11:23
  • Many people pronounce "February" as feb-yoo-ehr-ee
    – Barmar
    Apr 13 at 16:47
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How to identify the syllables of an English word?

The traditional source for syllable information in English is a good dictionary. I recall that 30 years ago when dictionaries were printed on paper, they all had syllabification as part of each entry. Today, not all online dictionaries have this, so you'll have to look for a good one that includes the syllables.

One example that does show syllabification is the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. Here is part of the entry for garlic:

gar·​lic (ˈgär-lik)

Notice the pronunciation is listed separately from the syllabification. This is important for words that have pronunciation guides that don't include all the letters of the word, such as for allium:

al·​li·​um (ˈa-lē-əm)

Here we see the syllabification is consistent with the guidelines outlined in other answers here. This is the easiest and fastest ways to determine the syllabification for an English word. This method is commonly used by songwriters who want to include lyrics with their music and need to put down the syllabification correctly to keep the music as readable as possible.

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    Sorry Todd, but you've confused the guidelines for the breaking of the orthographic word with the syllable division. Never the twain shall meet! Apr 13 at 11:21
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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. Oh yeah, maybe. Probably. Is this definitely different from what the asker is looking for? I would never have thought to ask for sources on “word breaking orthography” or whatever the right term is for what my answer is about. I thought this was called “syllabification”. Apr 13 at 12:24
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    @ToddWilcox "Is this definitely different from what the asker is looking for? " <-- Yes, I think so. Reason is that they give the phonetics for the word and also that's what open and closed syllables are about, really. There's no doubt though that OP is getting confused by trying to figure out spelling sound correspondences (which is hopeless for English most of the time!) Apr 13 at 12:31
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    @perepelart The syllabification has nothing to do with the spelling or writing of the word. A syllable is about how the sounds in the word are structured. Apr 13 at 14:52
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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. Do you think I can open a new question where I will indicate that I've understood for now so someone could say am I right or not? Or should I add it in this question? Or Do I need to write it here as comment?
    – perepelart
    Apr 13 at 15:31
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As @maciejstachowski says, in American English "garlic" is pronounced GAR-lick, two closed syllables. If it's different in British English or some other dialects, that could be the source of your inconsistent information.

Note that the definition of an open syllable is that it ends with a "vowel sound", not that it ends with a vowel. So for example, "nine" ends with a vowel but it ends with a consonant sound. It is pronounced "nīn" with a long "i".

Breaking a word into syllables in English is annoyingly complicated. The GENERAL rule is, every syllable includes a vowel (or diphthong), if the vowel is followed by two consonants, the first ends the syllable and the second begins a new syllable. If it's followed by only one consonant, then the vowel ends the syllable and the consonant begins the next syllable.

So for example: "begin" is be-gin. After the "e" there is one consonant, "g", so the first syllable ends with "e" and the second begins with "g".

"happen" is "hap-pen". The two p's get split between the first and second syllables.

When two consonants combine to make a single sound, like "th" or "ch", they are treated as a single consonant for purposes of this rule. So "gather" is NOT gat-her but ga-ther.

If a word ends with an "e", it is usually part of the preceding syllable rather than making a new syllable. So "admire" is "ad-mire", the "e" is part of the second syllable.

These rules will give you the correct syllable breakout for many, probably most English words. But like so many things in English, there are special cases and exceptions.

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  • So to define what are the syllables of the word, I need to use the transcription of the word, and both of my definitions are correct. How awesome! The word "garlic" does have an open syllable (if I use the British version of the transcription), while the words "nine" and "cite" have closed syllables. I will try to memorize and use the rules you provided to identify syllables. Thank you very much!
    – perepelart
    Apr 12 at 20:11
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    Vowel sounds are vowels. Your post confuses rules for breaking words across lines when writing on the one hand and syllables on the other. The term 'open syllable' doesn't refer to writing but sound/phonetics. This is going to confuse readers because, for example, there is only one /p/ in happen!!! (Unlike in lamppost, where there's two) Apr 13 at 11:36
  • @nothereanymore No, "vowel sounds" and "vowels" are not the same thing. Like if I write the word "nine", it ends with an "e", a vowel, but it does not end with a vowel SOUND. It ends with an "n" sound, a consonant sound.
    – Jay
    Apr 14 at 9:15
  • @nothereanymore The conventional rule for breaking words across lines is that you break at syllable boundaries. Yes, "syllables" refers to phonetics. But what's your point? I said nothing about where to break words across lines. If you're saying that the rules I cited don't apply to phonetic syllables but only to line breaks ... I think that's just incorrect.
    – Jay
    Apr 14 at 9:18
  • @Jay Then how do you get two /p/s in the word "happy" for example? And what's all this stuff about if there are two consonants the first belongs with the first syllable and the second with the second? That's got nothing to do with syllables! In the word askew, the /s/ is in the second syllable, not the first, for example. Apr 19 at 15:39

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