How to Count English Syllables

Alex Case
Ways to count the number of beats in English words

Being able to tell if English words have one syllable, two syllables, etc is the basis of lots of important pronunciation points such as word stress, consonant clusters, -ed endings, and diphthongs. It is therefore well worth learning to be able to count the number of beats in English words. This article gives some important tips on how to do so.

What is an English syllable?

In English, each syllable has a vowel sound (/e/ in “pet”, /i:/ in “see”, etc). The number of syllables is therefore simply the number of vowel sounds, so a word with two vowel sounds like “faster” has two syllables.

The number of syllables is unaffected by the number of consonant sounds (/b/, /k/, etc). This means that the word “strike” (with one vowel sound and four consonant sounds) has just one syllable, the same as “eye” and “I” (with just a single vowel sound).

How to find out how many syllables English words have

As explained above, you can work out how many syllables an English word has just by counting the number of vowel sounds. For example, “waterskiing” has four vowel sounds, and therefore has four syllables.

The number of syllables is not usually stated as a number in dictionaries, but it is shown by marks dividing the syllables as in “wa-ter-ski-ing” or “”. Those syllables can easily be counted. It’s also usually possible to google “How many syllables in…?” about the word that you are wondering about.

Typical problems with counting English syllables

Syllables can be defined differently in other languages, so this can cause some confusion for people learning English. For example, in Japanese long vowel sounds are understood to be equivalent to two syllables. This makes some sense as long vowels are longer than the short beats of short vowels, but in English long vowel sounds are thought to have long single beats, so the rule of one syllable per vowel sound is not broken. 

Similarly, a diphthong in English like the sounds in “eye” and “owe” are made up of two sounds (seen by your mouth changing shape during the vowel sound). However, they are said to have one syllable in English, the same as a long vowel sound or a short vowel sound. For example, “ha”, “hair” and “he” all have one syllable in English.

Students whose languages don’t have the same consonant clusters as English can often hear or add other syllables to words like “springs”, at the most extreme saying or even hearing “supurinugus” and therefore five syllables (instead of one). People who have this problem can especially benefit from using the counting vowel sounds tip above.

Some English words can change the number of syllables depending on if we are speaking slowly and carefully or speaking normally in rapid speech. For example, “chocolate” can be spoken with three syllables if we are speaking very carefully, but usually has only two syllables, making it sound like “choc-late”.

A related point is that contractions almost always have fewer syllables that the words that they are made from. For example, “you will” has two vowel sounds and therefore two syllables, but “you’ll” only has one syllable and so one syllable, the same as “yule”.

Words that drop syllables like “vegetable” also show an important part of the rule above that can easily be missed, which is that the number of syllables is the number of vowel sounds, which is often not the same as the number of vowels in the spelling of the written word.

This can also be seen in -ed endings. With verbs ending with most consonant sounds (“trapped”, “grabbed”, etc), -ed just adds the sound /t/ or /d/, and therefore no extra syllable is added. For example, “passed” has one syllable, the same as “pass” (and as its homophone “past”).

The spelling of words can also sometimes have the opposite effect of making two syllables look like one syllable. For example, “cooperation” may look like it starts with a single long vowel sound, but it is the same two syllables as “co-op”, making it sound something like “co-wop-e-ra-tion”.

How to practise counting English syllables

If you want to practise counting syllables of new words, words that you missed when you were listening to something, etc, the first step is to try to beat out the number of syllables with one hand as you say the word (or at least hear the word in your head). If you are not sure if the number that you have beaten out is correct, try analysing what the vowel sounds are and count how many of them the word has. You can then check with a dictionary or online by using the tips above, maybe writing the word out dictionary-style if you want to remember the right way of dividing it into syllables.

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Written by Alex Case for
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers


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