Syllabification

Syllabification or syllabication is the separation of a word into syllables whether written, spoken, or signed. It is also known as hyphenation. The separation into syllables in the written form is generally marked by a hyphen when using English orthography and with a period when writing the actually spoken syllables in the International Phonetic Alphabet. For the purposes of presentation, typographers may use:

  • An interpunct (e.g., syl·la·ble)
  • Special-purpose hyphenation point (e.g., syl‧la‧ble)
  • Space (e.g., syl la ble)

At the end of a line, a word can be separated in writing into parts, generally called “syllables”, if it does not fit the line and if moving it to the next line would make the first line shorter than the others. This can especially be a problem with long words, and with narrow columns in newspapers. Word processing has fortunately automated the process of justification, making syllabication of shorter words often unnecessary.

In certain languages, the spoken syllables are also the basis of syllabification when it comes to writing. However, due to the weak correspondence between sounds and letters in the spelling of modern English, syllabification with respect to English is based mostly on etymological or morphological principles rather than phonetic principles. For example, it is not possible to syllabify the word ‘learning’ as lear-ning as per the correct syllabification of the English language. Seeing only lear- at the end of a line might mislead the reader into pronouncing the word incorrectly, as the digraph ea can hold many different values. The history of English orthography accounts for such phenomena.

English written syllabication hence deals with a concept of “syllable” that does not correspond to the concept of a phonological unit. Because of this, even most native English speakers are not able to syllabify words as per established rules without consulting a dictionary or using a word processor. Schools generally do not provide much more advice on the topic than to consult a dictionary. In addition, there are several differences between US and British hyphenation and even between dictionaries of the same English variety.

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