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I need to figure out what the proper syllabification of words in American English is and why. PLEASE NOTE: I am interested in syllabification from a phonetic point of view, not in terms of hyphenation/spelling.

Dictionary.com (Random House) and Cambridge dictionary give those transcriptions:

  • very /ˈvɛr.i/
  • city /ˈsɪt.i/
  • syllable /ˈsɪl.ə.bəl/

Meanwhile, syllabify from Penn Phonetics Toolkit (P2TK) gives those:

  • very /ˈvɛ.ri/
  • city /ˈsɪ.ti/
  • syllable /ˈsɪ.lə.bəl/

They do agree on "people" /ˈpipəl/ for example, though.

This leaves me with the following questions:

  1. Which set of transcriptions is correct and why? (Or are they both acceptable?)
  2. How do native speakers typically conceive those syllables? (Do they hear a distinction between one syllabification and the other?)

Background: I'm working on a webapp and training using modern linguistics to help in teaching ESL. (Key features are a focus on sound and the systematic use of IPA transcriptions.) I can see how /ˈvɛr.i/ would help in putting more emphasis on the stressed syllable, meanwhile foreigners thinking of it as /ˈvɛ.ri/ might lead to people giving too much intensity to the unstressed syllable -- but that's just my take on it. I'd like to find out how native speakers think this and what professional linguists make of it.

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One issue to bear in mind is the concept of ambisyllabicity. A consonant at the boundary between a stressed syllable and an unstressed syllable is often analyzed as being ambisyllabic, for various reasons (different linguistic tests offer support for syllabifying it in different directions). But a strict notation system that doesn't allow for a way to express ambisyllabicity forces you to choose one syllabification over the other, leading to the inconsistencies among the sources you cite. –  musicallinguist May 13 at 15:52
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2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Unfortunately, there is no straightforward syllabification method that is accepted by a majority of linguists. As you pointed out, different dictionaries provide different syllabification methods. Usually, syllabification is considered from a phonological point of view (a phonetic perspective is possible but less common, see below).

Most linguistics can agree that (in English) the nucleus ("core") of a syllable must be vowel (an exception is made for nasals in certain contexts). If we consider a word with more than one syllable, the next question is whether the consonant(s) between the first and the second nucleus should belong to the first or the second syllable.

Example: Should /r/ in very belong to the first, hence /ˈvɛr.i/, or the second syllable /ˈvɛ.ri/

The maximum onset principle (MOP)

The MOP says that as many consonants as possible should belong to the second syllable (i.e., the onset of the following syllable should be maximised). What is possible is determined by the phonology of English. For example, there are words like 'road' that begin with an /r/. Hence, we know that /r/ is a possible onset. Therefore, /ˈvɛ.ri/ is the correct syllabification.

Exceptions to the MOP

Some linguists think there should be exceptions to the MOP. For example, one opinion is that stressed syllables must not have an empty coda. This would mean that /ˈvɛr.i/ is preferred.

Another opinion is that lax vowels such as /ɪ/ and /ʊ/ must not have an empty coda (because there are no words ending in a lax vowel). This would mean that 'hippy' should be syllabified as /'hɪp.i/, not /'hɪ.pi/. Yet another analysis is that (as musicallinguist mentioned) some consonants can be ambisyllabic, i.e. belong to both the preceding and the following syllable.


There are different syllabification methods, and none of them is universally accepted (also, we have only talked about English here). You say you are interested in syllabification from a phonetic point of view (but your description of the question was in phonological terms).

P.S.: Phonetic syllabification

This is also possible. Basically, intensity peaks (which are very loud) are syllable nuclei, and intensity troughs (which are very soft) are syllable boundaries (if the loudness difference reaches a certain minimal threshold). But this will likely not help you address your pedagogical concerns.

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Thank you. The logic behind the two syllabification methods I could obverse is just what I needed. I should be able to adapt P2TK's syllaby tool to put the emphasis on stressed syllables, too, if that's what I want down the line, so that's great. –  Fabien Snauwaert May 20 at 9:07
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The dirty little secret of English is that syllable boundaries mostly do not matter (unlike other languages). What is important is the syllable nuclei which are easily identified either as the vowel or a syllabic consonant (such as / n / in 'sudden'.)

As @robert says, the Onset Maximization Principle is most commonly adopted when trying to determine which consonants belong to the nucleus. This principles states, that all things being equal, consonants should belong to the start of the syllable.

However, this principle is subject to a number of phonotactic constraints. Such as a prohibition of a short stressed open syllable. These constraints are generally derived from what is observed in monosyllabic words (because we know those are possible) as well as from an attempt to have a system that is consistent.

This latter aim lead the phonetician John Wells to offer an alternative syllabification principle, stated thus:

(1) Subject to certain conditions, consonants are syllabified with the more strongly stressed of two flanking syllables.

(2) Where adjacent syllables are of equal grade, consonants are (again subject to stated conditions) syllabified with the leftward syllable.

This might lead to violations of certain phonotactic principles such as syllabifying 'limber' as limb/er. But mb is not possible in English as a syllable-final cluster, so the syllabification is lim/ber. And so on.

As a result, the two main pronunciation dictionaries of English (Cambridge and Longman) both use a very different syllabification pattern.

Personally, I feel that the Onset Maximization Principle is more often in consonance with native speaker intuitions (although I don't have the literature to back it up) and would also be more beneficial to non-native speakers because it results in syllables with simpler clusters. E.g. 'hospital' is more helpful as 'hos-pi-tal' than 'hosp-i-tal'.

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One of the reasons why it doesn't matter is that one rarely hears all of the consonants in a cluster articulated (especially if they're voiceless), because of fæspitʃrulz or haplogy of one sort or another. We do love to drop those syllable peaks. Stressed syllable peaks are the only thing that matters in English; they're islands we can get to, but the consonants between them are often drowned out and inferred by context and the odd phonetic clue, like aspiration or unexpected stress. –  jlawler May 14 at 0:04
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