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.
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
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.
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.
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.
2 (counting y)
3 (e is silent)
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.
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.
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 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.
Here are all of our nuclei
Here are our potential onsets and why they are or are not onsets.
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.
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”
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!
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.
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.