Syllable: The Six Types of Syllables and Their Functions

Syllables are the individual units of pronunciation that help to both write and articulate a word. Organizing words into syllables helps to break them into smaller pieces. All words have at least one syllable and some words, especially medical terms, can be longer than ten.

There are different six types of syllables that determine where emphasis is placed in a word and can help to learn spelling. Understanding each type of syllable and how they impact a word can help both native speakers and new learners master the English language.


What Is A Syllable?

As with most terminology in English linguistic, the word syllable has origins in Greek and Latin. By definition, syllables are the building blocks of words that are individual units of pronunciation containing one vowel sound. Syllables do not have to contain consonants, though they often do. Additionally, they don’t always have to contain vowels themselves, just vowel sounds. The word “rainbow,” for example has two vowel sounds, one formed by the letters AI, and one formed by O. As such, the word contains two syllables.

By contrast, the word “brrr” does not contain any vowels, but the speech sound produced by the repeated R letters creates a vowel sound, giving the word one syllable. In pronouncing words, each syllable is treated as a separate part to help with fluency and articulation.

In linguistics, words can be defined by the number of syllables they contain. Single syllable words, like “man” are referred to as monosyllabic. Words with two syllables are called bisyllabic or disyllabic. The terminology continues as such: words with three syllables are trisyllabic; words with more than three syllables are polysyllabic. The word polysyllabic can also be used to describe any word that is not monosyllabic, meaning any word that contains multiple syllables. To determine how many syllables are in a word, some people use the “chin test,” where you place your hand under your chin and pronounce a word. The number of syllables will equal the number of times your chin hits your hand.

What Are Syllables Used For?

In terms of everyday use, syllables are helpful for native English speakers and new learners alike. When faced with a new word, syllables help to break it down into smaller parts. You may here someone sounding out a word by focusing first on the individual syllables and then combining them to pronounce the full word. This is a useful tool for every English speaker, whether they are fluent or learning the language for the first time.

Along the same lines, syllables help work through speech impediments as they allow the speaker to focus on smaller units. Practicing these smaller units is a useful exercise to improve articulation.

In addition to pronunciation, one of the main reasons for breaking word down into syllables is to teach spelling. Recognizing this fact, a man named Noah Webster organized syllables into six different types in the early 1800s. Webster, whose eponymous dictionary still shapes the English language to this day, sought to create ways to categorize syllables so that readers faced with a new word would have mental cues they could use to break down that word. There are six types of syllables in the English language.

Types of Syllables

1. The first type of syllable is the closed syllable, which is the most common type.

If a syllable has a short vowel, like in the words “cat,” “cut,” “hat,” and “bet,” then it must end with at least one consonant. When followed by another syllable that begins with a consonant, the two letters are split between each vowel. For example, the word “happen” has two syllables, “hap-” and “-pen.” Closed syllables help to remind writers that there is an extra P in the word even though it is a silent consonant. This is particularly useful when learning to spell.

2. The next type is the open syllable, which ends in a vowel.

These syllables always end in single long vowel sound without a consonant. Some easy examples to remember are “me,” “go,” “she,” and “be.” Open syllables do not, however, have to be monosyllabic or at the end of a word. For example, polysyllabic words with open syllables include “spider,” “bonus,” and “slogan.” This type of syllable is different from closed syllables in that it usually doesn’t include a double consonant.

3. Similar to open syllables, the vowel-consonant-e type includes a long vowel.

Often abbreviated VCe, this type occurs when a long vowel is followed by a single consonant and a silent E. Examples include “bare,” “care,” “woke,” and “cute.”

4. The next type are vowel team syllables, which can be two to four letters that represent a new speech sound.

They are not considered digraphs because there can be more than two vowels. The vowel teams can create long, short, or diphthong sounds. These are some of the more difficult syllables to learn in the English language because of the tendency to try to pronounce each vowel. They are also equally difficult to remember how to spell, as the individual vowels bend together.

In the word “boat,” for example, the OA vowels form a new speech sound. The individual sounds for O and A are not pronounced. The word “beautiful” is another good example, as all three vowels, EAU, blend to form a new sound that is different from each individual vowel. Other examples include “looking,” “toast,” and “read.” Vowel team syllables can also come at the end of a word, like in “Monday” and “tie.”

5. A more straightforward type of syllable is called r-controlled or vowel-r.

These syllables are just as they sound, a vowel followed by the letter R. For example, “perform,” “charm,” and “store” are all r-controlled syllables. The R “controls” the way the vowel is articulated.

6. The last type is the consonant plus LE syllable, often abbreviated as C-le.

These syllables only come at the end of words. There are many C-le syllables, including “apple,” “title,” “little,” and even “syllable.”

While it may seem complicated to learn all of the types of syllables, breaking them down into their specific functions can help both pronounce and spell a word. As you learn to master the English language, these rules will become second nature.

Syllable Infographic


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