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[sil-uh-buh l] /ˈsɪl ə bəl/
an uninterrupted segment of speech consisting of a vowel sound, a diphthong, or a syllabic consonant, with or without preceding or following consonant sounds:
“Eye,” “sty,” “act,” and “should” are English words of one syllable. “Eyelet,” “stifle,” “enact,” and “shouldn't” are two-syllable words.
one or more written letters or characters representing more or less exactly such an element of speech.
the slightest portion or amount of speech or writing; the least mention:
Do not breathe a syllable of all this.
verb (used with object), syllabled, syllabling. Chiefly Literary.
to utter in syllables; articulate.
to represent by syllables.
verb (used without object), syllabled, syllabling. Chiefly Literary.
to utter syllables; speak.
Origin of syllable
1350-1400; Middle English sillable < Anglo-French; Middle French sillabe < Latin syllaba < Greek syllabḗ, equivalent to syl- syl- + lab- (base of lambánein ‘to take’) + noun suffix
Related forms
half-syllabled, adjective
unsyllabled, adjective
Grammar note
Spoken English is very flexible in its syllable structure. A vowel sound can constitute a syllable by itself—like the e in unequal (un·e·qual)—or can be preceded by up to three consonant sounds (as in strong or splint) and followed by up to four consonant sounds, as in tempts or sixths (which ends with the sounds k+s+th+s). But the English sound system is not without rules. Some combinations of consonant sounds, like p+k, can never occur within a syllable, and others can occur only at one end or the other. For example, the combination s+f can occur at the beginning of a syllable (as in sphere) but not at the end, while the reverse sequence f+s can occur at the end (as in laughs) but not at the beginning. The language does stretch occasionally to accommodate borrowings from other languages, as for words like schlep and tsar that can be said with an initial consonant cluster not native to English. And in a broad sense, even certain meaningful utterances composed exclusively of consonant sounds can be regarded as syllables. Examples include shh (urging silence) and psst (used to attract someone’s attention).
Breaking a written word into syllables—as in a dictionary entry, where the purpose is to clarify the structure of the word and assist in understanding and pronunciation, or in a book, for the purpose of end-of-line hyphenation—involves additional considerations. While based primarily on sound, the syllable divisions in spelled-out forms are also influenced by long-established spelling conventions, the etymology of the word, and the lack of an exact correspondence between spelling and pronunciation. For example, in writing, multisyllabic words with double consonants are conventionally divided between the consonants, even though the consonant is pronounced only once: sudden is divided as sud·den, though pronounced suddʹn. But the word adding—formed by combining the word add with the suffix -ing, is divided as add·ing to show its constituent parts. And a word like exact (pronounced igʹzakt) cannot be divided purely phonetically, because the letter x itself would have to be split; it is traditionally divided as ex·act. This means that even when divisions in the spelled form and the pronunciation do not match, they are both correct. Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018.
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Examples from the Web for syllables
Contemporary Examples
Historical Examples
  • But a child who was just in two syllables might have written the other.

  • The man was muttering rapid fragments of words, and syllables.

    The Gentleman From Indiana Booth Tarkington
  • The way he bit off the syllables showed how tired and disappointed he was.

    Sure Pop and the Safety Scouts

    Roy Rutherford Bailey
  • And if the syllables have no parts, then they are those original elements of which there is no explanation.

    Theaetetus Plato
  • In learning to read as children, we are first taught the letters and then the syllables.

    Theaetetus Plato
British Dictionary definitions for syllables


a combination or set of one or more units of sound in a language that must consist of a sonorous element (a sonant or vowel) and may or may not contain less sonorous elements (consonants or semivowels) flanking it on either or both sides: for example "paper" has two syllables See also open (sense 34b), closed (sense 6a)
(in the writing systems of certain languages, esp ancient ones) a symbol or set of symbols standing for a syllable
the least mention in speech or print: don't breathe a syllable of it
in words of one syllable, simply; bluntly
to pronounce syllables of (a text); articulate
(transitive) to write down in syllables
Word Origin
C14: via Old French from Latin syllaba, from Greek sullabē, from sullambanein to collect together, from sul-syn- + lambanein to take
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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Word Origin and History for syllables



late 14c., from Anglo-French sillable, Old French sillabe, from Latin syllaba, from Greek syllabe "a syllable, several sounds or letters taken together," literally "a taking together," from syn- "together" (see syn-) + stem of lambanein "to take" (see analemma). The extra -l- was added by analogy with participle and principle.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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syllables in Culture

syllable definition

A basic unit of speech generally containing only one vowel sound. The word basic contains two syllables (ba-sic). The word generally contains four (gen-er-al-ly). (See hyphen.)

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
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Idioms and Phrases with syllables


The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary
Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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