non-capitalization in Poetry

Non-capitalization is good for helping progress the emotional drama of a poem. For many poems, this is a capitalization strategy that you can try to see if it will help improve what you want to say. This style can surprise you.

Writing any poem without capitalization to begin with can be a challenge, so mostly this style is good after finishing a poem while exploring all of the different tones and options. The time I find non-capitalization helpful in a poem is when the poem is informal, and quiet, or morose. Non-capitalization tends to change the tone towards something more personal and sincere. Poems which are navel gazers or preaching poems can turn into something that sounds honest when getting rid of the formality of grammar.

There are two different ways that you can play with non-capitalization; leave everything uncapitalized, and leave sentences uncapitalized.

The difference is a method of thought. In most cases, uncapitalized poetry won’t mean uncapitalized words, just not capitalizing the first word in your sentences, but that isn’t the only grammar rule which deals with capitalization. Some poets also add on that they want to capitalize nothing. It’s all about a degree of choice. There are even some poets who will choose to capitalize nothing but the most important part of the poem to draw attention to it.

Everything Uncapitalized

This tone is usually more private, almost like whispering and sharing a secret. It comes off soft, and sometimes disrespectful to the speaker or the individuals and places involved. This is because most of the time capitalization of proper nouns and pronouns is regarded as honoring that individual.

With this style, you would not capitalize things like “I” and “United States” which can leave the tone of the poem somewhat morose. Most poems that choose to go with this style also feel less restricted to proper sentence structure and grammatical rules.

There is a new trend in poetry for younger generations which creates poems that do not follow these grammatical rules such as just using lists of noun phrases as a poem rather than adding verbs and sentences. These poems can be very bold and shocking, but most of them will look better without capitalization because it plays at the idea that these are not sentences, but fragments which were meant to be fragments.

The more you want to break traditional rules, the less grammar and punctuation you may want to try in the poem. Not all poems will abide by these rules. It takes understanding the subject, the motivation, and the response people will have to find a balance between clarity, and presentation. Some grammar rules will help with the flow of the poem.

Sentences Uncapitalized

This tone presents with more belief in self if the poem is first person, and more respect for the character if it is in third person. In this case, you still capitalize things like “I” and “Tim” but you wouldn’t capitalize the beginning of sentences. Oftentimes this is the stop-gap for poems which feel too formal with capitalization, but not informal enough for a lack of capitalization.

Another fun thing to do with this style of non-capitalization is to allow for a lack of punctuation, or minimal punctuation which can create interesting sentences, and develop new ways to read lines. You can use enjambment to plan sentences as they read, versus sentences that are on a line. This can be tricky if you stick with all grammar rules, but given the trends of poems, it’s oftentimes easier to create unique images on a line with enjambment than you may imagine.

Applications of non-capitalization

In many ways non-capitalization in poetry can be a challenge to see how well your poem stands up to grammatical criticism as we read. Sometimes the capitalization in a sentence or paragraph can hide grammatical flaws like missing clauses.

As we read, we jump from sentence to sentence with capitalization guiding us along, and getting rid of that capitalization can create a new perspective of how the sentences flow together, and where they don’t. A problem for some young writers is to write in complete sentences, and getting rid of capitalization can show them where the complete sentences are so they stop putting periods where a comma should go.

More than a learning tool, taking away capitalization can give people a feeling of missing something which may be exactly what your poem is about. Sometimes the best metaphors for emotions are visual rather than the symbolic meanings of the words. If the poem is about a lack of beginnings, or a lack of respect, or just written by someone who would be texting it rather than typing, try taking out capitalization, give it a little bit of time, then read it fresh and see if you like it better.

The worst thing that could happen is having to add the capitalization back in, so it’s worth the extra effort!

Rap and Poetry

Today, English teachers try to engage their students with poetry by saying “it’s like rap” even though there are a lot of differences in the way that rap and poetry function. Poetry and rap are different because while rap has a beat or rhythm that it’s set to, poetry often creates a beat through word choice and meter. Also, rap is more prone to rhyming, or requiring rhyming than poetry. Lastly, rap and poetry differ widely when it comes to stylistic developments. The first one, and most obvious, is that rap has a beat pounded with it, and while that’s not always the case out loud, it usually is with motion.

Rap has developed over the time almost like a cousin to beat poetry, or the movement in poetry when it was more important to hit the spoken word aspect of sounds rather than presenting a story, or a clean reading. There’s a lot of interaction with both of them. With rap, there is dancing, singing along, and even rap battles. With beat poetry, they also have battles and audience jeering. This is the primary similarity between poetry and rap.

However, not all poetry is beat or spoken word, and while you could debate that all rap is poetry, you could also debate all songs are poetry, or all music in general, even instrumental, is poetry. To start kids off in poetry, this is great, but once you want to get into the more complex explorations of poetry, once you start developing an understanding of different forms, different eras, rap and poetry stop being similar.

Not all poetry relies heavily on the spoken word’s beat, or tonality. A lot of it has been morphed into something that can be read silently to yourself, although it always sounds more visceral out loud. Also rap tends to be a lot longer than most poems today. With the waning attention spans due to the wide variety of entertainment, it’s hard to keep someone around for a 5 minute read, so poems tend to be one page.

If you look at the length of a typical rap song, such as Eminem’s “Rap God” you can easily see it’s much longer than one page. [Warning: explicit language in Rap God]

If you look at a recent poem published by The Poetry Foundation, like “A French Piano Tuner & a One-Eyed Glassblower Walk into a Bar” you will see that not only are the lines much shorter, but the poem in general is small. [Warning: explicit language in A French Piano Tuner & a One-Eyed Glassblower Walk into a Bar]

In many ways that’s because rap is made to almost be a verbal plethora of language, to speak quick and combine tricky sounds. Poetry in general, is a slower sport. This helps build the next difference between the two.

Rap is more prone to rhyming than poetry. That is because rap tends to ride through the rhythm and rhyme of the words to speak faster and keep your tongue from twisting, while poetry is relying more heavily on meaning and inferred messages. It becomes necessary to remain slower so people can catch all of the words clearly.

This isn’t to say that rappers don’t speak clearly, they do. It’s just that their goal is sometimes to best the others in their field by pure eloquence of phrase and speed, whereas Poetry aims to obtain the most visceral, or emotional response. Both of them also have classes within their groupings. Some are more popular than others, some are easier to follow than others.

While I talk about Eminem, there are some audiences who are widely familiar with the more popular rappers of today’s generation which have different styles of rapping, just as I know of many styles unlike the poem I used as an example. For instance, this particular song “XO Tour Llif3” produced by JW Lucas and TM88 on the most popular songs on SoundCloud, a music listening website, is different from “Rap God” but still considered rap.

Lastly, or at least the last one I want to talk about, is that rap is stylistically different. As you can see from the examples, rap and poetry can have the same subject matter, or similarly explicit language, but be very different in how they approach a situation.

For poetry, conservation is the name of the game. Fit as much as you can in the tightest space possible, and then cut half of it. In rap, it’s more about the flow of the style. Fit whatever you need to in the song, but make sure you’re entertaining and giving people they can use to follow along.

All in all, the primary difference falls down to the audience’s expectations. Poems used to be more like songs or rap, but the more we expect from either class, the less similar they become. As we expect people to avoid repeating themselves, the styles change to conform, and as we expect them to read less, again, the style changes. It becomes a game of knowing your audience and writing for them.

The last thing I’d like to leave you with is a question. What differences or similarities do you see between different songs? Can you pick out a writer from the lyrics alone, or does it take the voice?

National Poetry Month

It’s that time of year again.

National Poetry Month is based on the premise that the more you write, the better you’ll get, but there’s a flipside to that. The more you write, the less time you spend reading, and that can really hinder your ability to improve.

For me, it becomes a balance between reading and writing. Read a poem, write a poem, be aware of poetic language throughout the day, all of it is what National Poetry is good for.

The most surprising place I find beautiful poetry is on the radio. There are a lot of song writers today that develop language through poetry and write stories with their songs. Some of the big names in the business do just that, like Taylor Swift, and Eminem.

Sometimes the message isn’t always the right one, but listening to how the music flows with the words can help improve craft. You can concentrate on stresses, learn to write in meter, and how to rhyme better while listening to music.

So in that way, it can be really easy to get your “reading” time in if you have to drive, but you can also hide a chapbook in the bathroom, or have one on your phone through the Kindle app. They have a lot of poetry books for free in the store.

Most of them are the old books too, so you can learn some of the more famous names like Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Longfellow, and so forth.

 

Alternative Capitalization

This style of capitalization is new on the scene, but not as new as you might think! If you read Victorian era writing, you’ve actually seen this capitalization style. Remember when words like Death were capitalized because they were being used as a proper noun? That is an alternative capitalization strategy!

This style is more complex than sentence or line capitalization, but it is incredibly useful. Basically, line and sentence capitalization didn’t work for everyone, and after people stopped capitalizing metaphorical symbols, these people found they had to break out of the box, and do something different. They decided to take all the grammatical rules we know and memorized, and toss them out the window.

The main ones I’ll be talking about are going to be Breath Capitalization and Victorian Capitalization. These are used in spoken word and victorian era poetry. We can still see their uses today, however, as we combine and fiddle with things like emotional capitalization, which wraps up under Breath.

Breath Capitalization

This is when something is capitalized based on how you breathe and speak. For spoken poets, it’s their cheat sheet for when to raise their volume, breathe, speak softer, or change intonation. It goes hand in hand with an alternative punctuation style.

Instead, they use capitalization based on where they Want it to be to create EMPHASIS like we do while we TexT our friends late at night because “OH MY GOD I CANT BELIEVE HE JUST SAID THAT” is a lot easier to type than “Oh my god, I cannot believe he just said that!” on a phone. Both of them emphasize that whatever he just said, was crazy, but the first one matches breath capitalization+punctuation, and the other one matches sentence capitalization+punctuation.

Victorian Capitalization

While this style isn’t nearly as used, it is very useful for explaining how Alternative can be such a fun way to write. Back when Emily Dickinson was crafting her Great American Paperweight, she chose to capitalize words that were important somehow, but not always obviously important. They were words that deserved emphasis, but also words that required further investigation.

Today poets use this idea when they want to change inflection and tone in a poem. It also can indicate things like worth!

Working Together

Breath and Victorian capitalization styles can work together beautifully because when you want something to look a certain way, you can capitalize it to fit the weight of a page, and throw all of those nasty grammar rules out the window to create your own.

The beauty of poetry here is that as long as we are consistant with ourselves, people will be able to follow along and understand what we’re saying. People are programmed to recognize patterns, and we can use that to our advantage by creating a pattern and then using it consistently, and poetry readers will forgive us for not using a pattern they’re familiar with. In fact, a lot of poetry readers will be thrilled to see something unique.

Sentence Capitalization

To continue from a month ago with my series on capitalization in poetry, sentence capitalization is next.

This style of writing is the most common today. The more you read, the more you’ll see it. The style is pretty basic. Write your poem like you would write your prose. If you would capitalize it normally, then you would capitalize it in this style. The one caveat to it is that you would capitalize it as if you were writing in a paragraph, not lines and stanzas. Here’s how it goes, if it’s the beginning of a sentence or a proper noun, you capitalize. Basically, you can write your poem as a paragraph, and then add in all of your stanzas and lines, and you’ll have your capitalization spot on in this style.

The nuances of this style really allow the writer to explore the different aspects of poetry. It’s got enough class to handle a poem that rhymes, and enough system to handle a poem that doesn’t.

One of the reasons this style is something that most poets write with is because it handles nearly everything you can throw at it. Villanelle? Sure. Haiku? Of course! Dramatic reenactment of World War II? Definitely! This style allows the poet to avoid thinking about how they want to capitalize, and when to hit those buttons, and just write. It’s already how we naturally do things in every other aspect of our lives, so it’s a smooth transition.

Writing poetry becomes a thing that’s not very different from writing in a journal, or on a blog, aside from the style of word choice, and how often you hit enter.

For me, as a writer of poetry, and a reviewer of poetry, I find this style the easiest to delve into the meaning and content of the poem. It’s accessible, and I don’t have to stop and wonder about a certain word being capitalized.

I don’t always want to see this style though, sometimes, a poem needs to shout and that’s where one of the other styles comes into play. This style doesn’t allow a question about what should be capitalized. It doesn’t give you leeway to capitalize “anger” because you’re really angry, or “love” because you want to express that it’s not puppy love, but the big, capital ‘L’ kind. Those nuances are left to another capitalization style.

This style makes it more about the words you chose on an internal level, unless you pair it with breath punctuation. Breath punctuation is when you punctuate according to how you read the poem, rather than how the poem should grammatically be punctuated.

This combination can be enthralling, because everything looks right on the surface, with the capitalization, but the breath, the pauses, the waiting, the speed you have to read some sentences at without stopping for just a moment before you get out the next line is all there and together and it can be beautiful, or just make you gasp. But these things are unique to the poem, and how you want to write it as a poet.

It’s your choice what you want your voice to become. Your voice, how you want to present your words to the reader, has a lot to do with your choice of capitalization style for particular poems. This type of capitalization doesn’t surprise anyone, so if you’re trying to really make a statement, then this capitalization might not do it. You’d be relying on other things, like word choice, structure, punctuation, syntax, connotation, metaphor, and so on.

Still, if you look at poetry books today, many of the literary magazines like this capitalization the best. They’ll get on kicks of poems that lack capitalization too, and sometimes they’ll even publish really cool poems that capitalize according to emotion, but this style is one of the most popular ones.

That says a lot about it’s value.

In summary, this is the go-to style for most poets who aren’t trying to rock the boat with their capitalization.

Line Capitalization

I said I would go into details about each of the capitalization types, so here I am!

Line Capitalization is the original traditional way to capitalize poetry. It went out of fashion pretty quickly, around the time free verse started getting into the full swing of things, line capitalization went out of traditional style. It wasn’t mandatory any more, and people began to get very comfortable, very quickly, with the idea that our capitalization can match our prose writing. Poets such as William Carlos Williams were among those who challenged the traditionalist style of poetry.

It quickly became a matter of fashion whether you capitalized or not, sort of like wearing your favorite team’s colors on enemy territory. If you continued to capitalize your lines, you were standing up for tradition, for rhyme, for structure, and all the moral obligations holding to the past represented.

Meanwhile, if you capitalized some other way, typically by the sentence rather than the line, you were standing for the new free verse movement, the flow of a poem, the sounds of words on a page, and capturing the essence of nature rather than the essence of rhyme.

Today, line capitalization is a stark statement that what follows is a poem. It’s a way to declare a poem like screaming off a roof. Most reviewers don’t like it, and if you are a subscriber to a poetry magazine, it is a rare poem which actually gets published with this style of writing.

Today, it is mostly seen as the mark of a beginning writer, but that’s because it’s what poets are taught to see as poetry when they first approach the subject.

Our schools show us poetry and teach us “capitalize every letter at the beginning of a line” and “make it rhyme” as they tell us that a haiku is 7-5-7 and damage us for the rest of our lives into hating the structure and failing to see the nuances it presents.

So, when we eventually spread our wings again, and explore the crisis stage of our poetry careers, filled with navel gazing and Sylvia Plath style poetry, we’re naturally writing with the only style we know how, it has to rhyme, and it has to capitalize the first letter of every line.

The style itself is good for more than that.

It’s good when you want to create a traditional, classic feel, like putting on a suit with tails, all crisp and black and white. If you’re writing a poem honoring Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, or any other ancient deity of our kind, it’s best to suit up for the experience, and that’s where it really shines. You have to know your classics to do the style some real justice, but since so many don’t know their classics, it’s easy to slip by until you find another fanatic.

The style has its pitfalls too.

If you choose to write this way just because Microsoft Word is your platform, and it decides to capitalize the first letter of every line, you’re going to have analysts like me assuming you’re new to poetry and that has a plethora of disadvantages. Glancing down poems on WordPress, I’m disheartened to see so many classically structured poems just because of the word blobs “With sentences Like this Because It is A poem.”

But more on that next time. I’ll go into Sentence Capitalization and you might begin to see what I mean.

Too long, didn’t read:

Use line capitalization when you’re trying to be fancy and classical. Otherwise, avoid it because it makes people assume you’re a newb.

If you disagree with me, or just want to chat, I’d love to hear from you!

 

Commas In Poetry

Considering the general size of most other articles, I’m sizing mine down to single subjects.

Commas in poetry are a very useful thing. There are many ways to use a comma in a poem. Most readers see them as general breaks in speech and allow the reader a pause before continuing, such as a breath marker.

Some poets only will use commas in poetry to indicate when they want the reader to breathe. Others will use commas in grammatical fashions to indicate pauses in sentences, new items in a list, or subordinate clauses. Because poetry and grammar actually can go hand in hand, it’s not unusual to find grammar markers used in their traditional sense.

Some poems even use more grammar markers than prose would traditionally use in modern writing because people are more afraid of poems than grammar.

This is true with commas too.

If you look at a poem and see a bunch of commas, it makes more sense intuitively about where you need to pause, and where you should not pause. Take a look at this poem of mine in two different versions and I’ll walk you through the use of commas.

Both of the ways these commas will be used will be completely “legal” in sense of writing poetry.

I smile in my silent surrender,
dancing moonbeams in my hands.

It reflects differently now
than before the moonwalks began.

Now, it bounces when it would veer,
and we have a new moon swimming
through the great black abyss.

Our ever-silent companion.

In this case, I’m using standard punctuation. I’m not trying to deviate from any known standards, I’m not trying to use it to convey any hidden messages, and I’m not putting it at the end of each line to show a pause at the line’s end.

I smile, in my silent surrender
dancing, moonbeams in my hands.

It reflects differently, now
than before the moonwalks began.

Now, it bounces, when it would veer,
and we have a new moon, swimming
through the great black abyss.

Our ever-silent companion.

Here, I am using the commas to include syncopation for words and phrases that I want the reader to feel. Depending on how you like to read poetry, either one of these might be good for you to read. You also might only like a traditional style of poetry, such as the next one.

I smile in my silent surrender,
dancing moonbeams in my hands.

It reflects differently now,
than before the moonwalks began.

Now it bounces when it would veer,
and we have a new moon swimming,
through the great black abyss.

Our ever-silent companion.

Here, I am only using commas and punctuation at the very end of a line. This is another way in which commas and punctuation can be used to emulate the feeling that old poets used to have with what they wrote.

My personal favorite is a mix.

I smile, in my silent surrender
dancing moonbeams in my hands.

It reflects differently now
than before the moonwalks began.

Now, it bounces, when it would veer,
and we have a new moon swimming
through the great black abyss.

Our ever-silent companion.

What are your thoughts on commas in poetry? Do you have a preference for how you use them? 

Share your thoughts down below and let’s talk about it!

 

 

Words: Neurology and Language

An Exploration of Connection

Yesterday I posted about syllables, and I’d like to follow that post up because I actually wrote it a while ago, and as we progress, we learn, and something struck me while I was editing the post for this atmosphere.

There is a type of closeness between the way in which we organize language, and the way in which we perceive our bodies to function. At least, this is true in English. I’m not a Linguist, I don’t know if this is true for other cultures, but it seems to hold true for English.

Just as we have one controlling body part, the brain, which runs all of our other functions, albeit subconsciously most of the time, so too do we organize our language. In a sentence, we have a root, a base, that solid unit which has something happen to it, such as a nerve, which has chemicals which then make it respond.

The chemicals are like our predicates/subjects, and the nerves are our subjects. Sometimes, our subjects are dipped into our predicates, and sometimes our predicates are applied to our subjects, but either way, we get the two of them together. It struck me because of the name of a core of a syllable, nucleus.

The nucleus of the body is that part which controls the rest of the cell. Now, I’m not saying that the two are backwards related, I’m not saying the name nucleus for the cell came before nucleus for the syllable, or that nucleus was the name of the cell before it was the name for the core of anything else, such as a family group. I just, find it interesting that we assign the same name to both things.

As an English speaker, I see this happen all the time. The legs of a tripod, the arms of glasses, and so on, but the idea that the scientific pursuit of understanding language would overlap with understanding the body surprised me for some reason. Nucleus, next to onset and coda, just feels wrong. It’s like Nucleus should have been subject, or base or something, root even, but nucleus?

The nucleus and the coda of a syllable create the rhyme/rime.

The nucleus and extra bits of a cell are contained within the cytoplasma.

If we were to extrapolate from that, we could say that the extra bits of a cell are considered the coda. The cytoplasma would be the rhyme, and the cell wall or membrane would be the onset.

Here’s the fun bit.

That means that all cells which are composed the same, rhyme with one another whether they are shaped exactly the same or not. As long as their inner bits line up/are the same, they rhyme! All of our skin cells, our blood cells, our family cells, which are composed of the same ingredients, despite how they look on the outside, rhyme.

That means you and your full blood siblings rhyme because you’re both composed of the same DNA. The memories might be different, the shell might be different, but you are composed of the same thing.

You could even say that you rhyme with people who have the same life experiences.

The idea of oneness, of two out of three parts being the same as other people has always been a fascination of the human condition. We are drawn towards people who are similar to us, who like the same things we do, who love the same things we do. All we have to do is look at fandoms to understand that, and what makes a fandom great, is when it can interact with a counterpart fandom which is minutely different.

When Sherlock interacts with Dr. Who, or Supernatural, we see the growth of the one through the unity of the two.

Just like the word Defibrillate becomes more when paired with Extrapolate or Exfoliate, so too do we grow when we are in harmony with those around us, but when we are not the same.

This world is full of broken puzzle pieces
and we have no box to tell us where to go,
just gooey balls of guesses
sliding by one another
searching for our place.

So you think you can Syllable?

Counting Syllables

Syllable counting is one of those things that poets are supposed to know how to do. Why? Well there are a lot of reasons. Having the same amount of syllables in multiple lines can help the flow of the lines and provide a reader with expectations for how long the next lines are going to be giving us a chance for surprise. The reason we can’t just do this with length is because syllables often vary in length on the page. For instance, “strength” is a single syllable.

The methods we usually have for learning this are pretty straightforward for some of the population that is more hearing-oriented, but no matter who you are, you can learn to identify syllables. You don’t have to be able to hear them.

That being said, the other methods of learning them, listed below, are somewhat complex ideas, so I need to over some basics first.

Linguistics is the study of language in general. It’s a descriptive study of language, meaning linguistics attempts to describe what is already going on in language, not create rules for people to follow as a whole. They have a way to think about syllables which I can pretty much guarantee, you’ve never run into before. It’s good stuff.

In Linguistics, there is an International Phonetic Alphabet which linguists use to indicate sounds without catering to a specific language. This IPA is used to indicate the difference between things like a hard I and a soft I or the difference between th and t, or z, and s. It’s broken up into sections according to where the sound is made, and covers all possible sounds humans as a species could conceivably make with the equipment we’re provided.

After that, I have a more prescriptive way outlined for those of us who just want to get right to the rules of what to do. This won’t always work however, because language is fluid. However, it will give you a place to start.

To start, I’m going to re-explain what you’ve probably already been frustrated with about how to count syllables and then we’ll move into the linguistics, then the rules.

Just Do It

For a lot of people what works best is to listen to how a word is pronounced and decide where the parts of those words are. For instance, where are the parts in the word “Strength?” Many people will answer that there aren’t any, because it’s one syllable, and when compared to a word like “Strengthen” it’s clear that there is a break in only “strengthen” and not “strength.”

How do we hear that? Strength-en is because we can hear the minute language change sort of like a pecking sound in the word. For instance, “pecking” has “peck” and “ing” however, it’s not always apparent where the language is split. “Apparent” is a three syllable word that can be hard to determine. “A-par-ent” is usually the way that it’s broken up, however, it’s potentially going to change for your own dialect and pronunciation.

For those of us less linguistically inclined, but still wanting to get this without rules, think about it like breaking up words into their base. From there, you’re going to have to decide if those parts sound like they’re separated at all or not. As long as you can get how many syllables a word has, it doesn’t really matter if you can break it up appropriately, so don’t fret so much about the were, so much as the how many.

Linguistics

So I actually did a bit of research to see how better to describe this to people who just aren’t getting the first method. Here’s what I’ve found: This is actually a result of how language is created. Syllables are parts of words that are stuffed together to make the complete idea. It’s sort of like when you have a card, you have the number/face and the color/suit, and then the individual suits in those colors. We can’t have individual cards with just 1-24 because that wouldn’t be much fun matching pairs, there wouldn’t be any! We create classifications so we don’t have to memorize so much and some of those groupings for words are syllables.

Here’s the best video I found on syllables. The symbols popping up in the part where he’s talking about sounds and the spellings of words are from the IPA spelling and sounds. Here is the IPA

Linguistics Video

A large part of structured poetry is based on your ability to count syllables. To get going, first, a syllable is a part of words. Each word is composed of syllables in any language. In every language, we compose our words with syllables which tend to follow similar patterns.

When we learn about syllables in school, they say to listen to what you’re saying, and group it according to breaks in language. This is because as we grow up, we start speaking by learning syllables. When babies engage in babble, they are actually practicing forming syllables. “Ba” for instance, is a syllable, same with “da” and “ga” and so on. As it is how we learned to speak in the first place, we often can already identify syllables, by accessing our intuition.

If you are not among those who can easily identify syllables, don’t worry! Linguistics has studied syllables and come up with ways to identify syllables in your language, whatever that might be.

Syllable Composition

A syllable is a part of speech, sure, but what is it made of? The quick answer is a vowel and consonants. Linguistics have called these parts the nucleus, onset, and coda. In other words, a syllable is composed of up to three sounds, the main sound, the sound before that sound, and the sound after it.

Nucleus

Syllables contain multiple parts because they’re bigger than just letters. One part of every syllable is the loudest/longest part, similar to the nucleus in an atom. Linguistics calls this the nucleus of a syllable. A hard fast rule you can cling to is that vowels can always make up the nucleus in syllables, always. However, other things can be the nucleus too, though not much.

The nucleus of a syllable is what is holding the sounds together. So when the sound is being held together, it needs a sound in the middle which has good air flow, such as mm, nn, or even rr, which makes up the center noise. Quieter noises, like those which aren’t vocalized, often can’t hold up to that weight, they’re sounds which circle noises which are stronger and louder.

When we’re looking to count syllables, we can immediately break away any vowels that are next to one another and not composing a single sound. For instance, if we’re looking at the following list of words, we can tell how many syllables they have by just counting the vowels.

ginger
2

foxy
2 (counting y)

barbeque
3 (e is silent)

trepidation
4 (io is acting as one sound)

As you can see, there are different exceptions to these rules, but they’re not so much exceptions, as looking at the word phonetically. Think about “foxy” phonetically, as it sounds. The word starts with a “ff”, then goes into “ah” “x” and “ee” at the end. This makes two vowel noises rather than just one. Same with barbeque, we don’t hear the “e” on the end, because in English, it is silent. That means the noise isn’t phonetically marked, and thus, is not a part of its own syllable.  Trepidation is harder. I put it on the list because “ion” is not “ee” and “aw” “nn” it’s closer to the word “in” or “on” depending on your accent. This is only one noise. As “ion” is a common suffix on words, it is always something that can be used as a syllable, usually with the attached onset of whatever consonant comes before it.

Basically, the nucleus is the noise which is the longest and loudest in the syllable. A nucleus is always made when there is a vowel sound. Vowels are a clear hallmark of a nucleus. In some cases, like “mountain” the phonetic noise of “tn” at the end won’t have a vowel though, and in these cases, noises which are long, and have moderate to good air flow such as “mm” and “nn” which are nasal vocalized sounds, can act as the nucleus instead of a vowel.

Around the nucleus are two different sections, the onset, which is the more important of the two, and the coda. The onset is whatever sound leads up to the nucleus of a sound, and the coda leads away from it. Both of these are completely optional, sort of like in sentences how subjects and predicates are up in the air, but you have to have a word. “Go.” is a perfectly valid sentence because of an implied subject. For syllables, the vowels can always be a syllable alone, but they can also have some clothes on, the onset and coda.

Onset

An onset is an optional part of a syllable, but between a coda and an onset, the onset is more likely to happen than the coda. This is because it is easier for us to hear/collect/recognize information coming before a nucleus than after it. Language is about communicating, so being able to identify what we hear is important. Because the nucleus is strong, it is easier to miss the end sounds, codas, than it is to miss sounds before it, onsets.

An onset will be any consonant sound. This could be anything like “th” all the way to “z” so they’re fairly important. Basically, any consonant noises before a nucleus can be an onset to that nucleus, however, it cannot be another nucleus. These are how we identify where to break up the actual syllables in our words. Let’s go back to our list and examine the onsets we have there.

ginger

foxy

barbeque

trepidation

All of the underlined letters are potential onsets to the bolded nucleus. In “ginger” we have “[g]i[ng]er” for instance. In this case, there’s some examining to do. Because we’ve got both n and g with the second onset, we have to determine if it is a viable word.

Every syllable should be able to start a word.

So, can “nge” start a word? Can you think of any words which start with “nge?” Personally I can’t, so because I cannot think of words which start with “nge” I know that the n has to be the coda, and the g has to be the onset alone. This is how you figure out syllables.

Every word you meet, determine the vowels which are actually heard when you say the word, then, determine the consonants surrounding those vowels. If you have more than one consonant before a vowel/nucleus, ask if it can start a word. If it can, then both/all noises are part of the onset, and if not, then that is where you divide the syllable. Let’s do the rest of the list.

Our next word is (f)o(x)y. This one is pretty quick because we only have two vowels and two onsets. Regardless of whether we break it up “fox-ee” or “fo-xy” we end up with two syllables. Personally I’ve never heard of a word that starts with Xy though, so I like “Fox-y” as the division.

The third word on our list is (b)a(rb)e(q)ue, we have three syllables here because we have three vowels. There’s nothing tricky at the end to make another vowel. Here, we see a clear use of codas again for that middle potential onsets. I don’t know of a word that starts with the syllable “Rbe” but “bar” is definitely a word, so I’m going to break this down into it’s parts of the word. “bar-be-que” because a “cue” ball sounds exactly like “que” anyways, also “be” is totally a word.

Lastly, (tr)e(p)i(d)a(t)ion. In this word, we actually have a consonant set that actually does start a word, and is together, but we also have tree, trim, trailer, and so forth as examples of “tr” starting words in English. As for the rest, it’s a break right before the consonant because the vowels like to be onsets rather than codas. To explain why they like to be onsets more than codas, I have to go into explaining codas, so here we go. If you don’t care to learn about codas and you’re just happy to know that you can break up vowels as they are, then go ahead and stop reading here, or skip down.

Codas

Codas are the ending sounds of a syllable because they are the sounds that come after the strong words. Basically, they’re the tail. Just like we can have prefixes, we can have suffixes in syllables too. In this case, these suffixes, or endings, are actually used as a sort of cap and are a part of the rhyme pair when rhyming.

All in all, because we find it easier to hear onsets rather than codas, just like we want the subject front and center, or our favorite dish first so we have fresh taste buds, we are more inclined to have onsets than codas. Anything can be a coda in language, however, we are more disposed to hearing them as onsets.

Think about it like seeing a pattern. You don’t look at a pattern like /-/-/-/- and break it up by saying Oh, every (-) is the end, so every (/) must be the beginning. We look at the first thing that’s there, and break it up because a (/) is next. /- /- /- /- that way when we end up with /-.- /-.- /-.- we don’t mess up.

In many ways, this is exactly how we break up syllables too. Instead of looking for codas, look for the nucleus and then any onsets. The codas, however, are good for rhyming.

The part of a word that sounds like a rhyme is actually the nucleus and the coda. This is because the coda alters the ending sound of the nucleus giving us more options for language. When we label something for a rhyme, the onsets don’t actually matter so much as the vowel and coda. Slant rhyme is rhyming just the vowel sound because of that very fact. Treat rhymes with feet because “eet” is the same in both of them, even though “f” and “tr” are different, and both are only a single syllable.

For rhyming purposes, codas are important, but in terms of identifying syllables, not so much.

Listening To Syllables

So what are we actually doing when we listen for syllables? We’re identifying the difference between a coda and an onset through our intuitive knowledge of how language works. Just like we don’t need to know that a verb needs a direct object because of a list that says what verbs require them, we often don’t need someone telling us that two specific consonants don’t get stuffed together to start a noise.

On top of that, when we use prefixes and suffixes, we are adding a complete syllable because we’re adding a noise, a full noise, to a pre-established word. This can get confusing with words like “words” because s is a suffix, but it’s not strong enough to stand on its own as a nucleus, so it’s stuffed on to the rest of the word and is left as a single syllable.

That being said, there are some quick rules you can follow to break up syllables if you don’t understand this whole nucleus thing or you’re not sure. You can find the list of rules here: Dividing Syllables

I’m going to go over them for a complex word and see how the two compare.

Break off suffixes and prefixes

Root words themselves already have syllables, so put the word back down to it’s root. This is helpful with words like disestablishmentarianism. All of our prefixes and suffixes are as follows. dis-establish-ment-arian-ism. From what we learned earlier, we can break it apart with our nuclei too.

d(i)s(e)st(a)bl(i)shm(e)nt(a)r(i)(a)n(i)sm

Here are all of our nuclei

Here are our potential onsets and why they are or are not onsets.

(d)i(s)e(st)a(bl)i(shm)e(nt)a(r)ia(n)ism

sta = star, stairs, etc.

bli = blithe, but that’s a hard I, not a soft i, so no

shme= shmuck is u not e, so no.

nta = none

the total results.

di-se-stab-lish-men-ta-ri-an-ism = 9 syllables. Above, breaking away the prefixes, we have five of these nine.

Personally, this is how I break up this word: dis-e-stab-lish-ment-ar-i-an-ism, which is still nine syllables. They only differ in “dis” and “ment” but that doesn’t change the syllable count.

The next step for rules of what to break and where helps us get closer to accurate.

Separate consecutive consonants

There is a caveat to this, Don’t separate consonants that are making a single sound such as sh, and th. Howwever, repeated consonants such as in little, break those apart. Let’s go back to our suffix/prefix split word above and add this rule.

dis-estab-lish-ment-arian-is-m

Did you notice a difference? The ism is broken up because m is able to hold the weight of a nucleus in a word. If you just look at vowels as a nucleus, you don’t notice “mm” and “nn”  which are trying to hold that weight. Now we’re up to 7 out of what should be 10 syllables.

Divide consonants that are surrounded by vowels

If it is a long vowel, then divide before the consonant, if it is a short, divide after. Long vowels are vowels which sound like their name such as “eye” being “i” and “ih” being short “i”

dis-estab-lish-ment-ar-ian-is-m

We actually have so few vowels in this that this rule only applies in one case “ari” and in this case, we have a hard/long “I”, so we divide after the “I.” Now we’re at 8 out of 10!

Divide “le”s

Basically we’re supposed to look at “le” endings now, but our word actually doesn’t have that. For this, they want us to divide after the k but before the l, so ck-le.

After “ckle” they want us to look for “le” at the end and see if the letter before “le” is a vowel. If it is, then leave it attached, if it’s not, pull it off with the consonant.

That means this method falls short, but how?

The simple answer: they didn’t count on a nucleus without an onset or coda. Here’s another rule you can add that should put you up to the right count.

Separate vowels into separate syllables

– If it has a consonant next to it, determine if that consonant, or consonants could start a word. e-stab-lish-ment

– Pair consonants at the front of vowels if the resulting group starts a word.

– If a vowel has vowels on either side, separate into its own syllable.

dis-e-stab-lish-ment-ar-i-an-is-m

And we got to 10! Depending on how you pronounce “ism” it may be 9 or 10.

When you’re using the other method, remember to check the end of your words and determine if mm or nn is the last sound. Chances are, the few times you run into this situation, you can use a syllable counter to determine what the standard norm for that word is anyway, and you won’t have an issue counting the syllables.

Please remember, syllable counters are computers trying to determine human language. They’re not always right! Oftentimes they don’t understand things like silent e and that messes up their counts.

In short, listen to how you speak and break it up according to when you hear changes in tone, with vowels and consonants together. If it has a short vowel, chances are it needs more consents. If it has a long vowel, it needs fewer consonants.