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Having looked up banana in two separate online dictionaries, I see that depending on the dictionary, the syllables are:

  • ba-na-na
  • ba-nan-a

Although I imagine this only matters when deciding where to hyphenate, I want you to help settle the argument that this started — which is really correct?

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There is no "really correct". Syllables are not defined by spelling. There are three syllables in banana, and three open vowels at their centers. The open vowels are separated by two nasal resonants, which nasalize the first two vowels. The /n/s are both quite short. Prototypically, the transitions between syllables happen in the middles of the two /n/s. How you want to spell that is up to you and your editor; basically, it's about as important as the color of your shoelaces. – John Lawler Jul 7 '13 at 22:55
It would have been nice to include the two dictionaries where you found these. – J.R. Jul 8 '13 at 1:29
It shouldn't matter so long as you know when to stop.:) – Kris Jul 9 '13 at 5:39

It depends on how you pronounce it. If you pronounce the middle vowel as in man, you should divide it ba-nan-a. If you pronounce the middle syllable as in spa, you should divide it ba-na-na. The first is the predominant American pronunciation. The second is the predominant British pronunciation. (And thus, the first hyphenation is the standard American one and the second is the standard British one.)

The reason the pronunciation makes a difference is the rule: never break a stressed syllable after a short vowel (i.e., /æ/, /ɛ/ /ɪ/, /ɒ/, /ʌ/, /ʊ/). There are, of course, exceptions to this rule if all the other hyphenations are worse (i.e., ra-tion).

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In American English, for a normal pronunciation with only the middle vowel stressed, it's ba-nan-a. However, for a slowed up, syllable by syllable pronunciation, where all three vowels are stressed, it's ba-na-na. The evidence for this comes from the flapping phonological process, which changes intervocalic syllable final alveolar stops in most American dialects into flaps. The consonant n is an alveolar stop (in the sense that there is a momentary complete obstruction in the mouth to the air stream).

In "banana", the first n is not flapped and the second one is. That tells us that the first n is at the beginning of a syllable, and the second n is at the end of a syllable. Thus, the syllabification must be ba-nan-a. The reason for this syllable division is that stressed vowels in English attract consonants into their own syllables, while unstressed vowels tend to reject preceding consonants from their own syllables. So the second "a" which is stressed wants the preceding n and the following n both to go in its own syllable.

However, if you are sounding the word out by syllables, for clarity, and you stress all three vowels, then the last two vowels pull the preceding n's into their own syllables, and the last vowel, now stressed, does not reject the preceding n from its own syllable.

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In Portuguese, it's "ba-na-na".

Source: Dicio

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I don't understand why the Portuguese syllable division is relevant. The question is about how to syllabify the English word banana; as it is, your post doesn't answer this question. – sumelic Nov 30 '15 at 22:41
As seen at Wikipedia, "The word "banana" is thought to be of West African origin, possibly from the Wolof word banaana, and passed into English via Spanish or Portuguese". I thought that the Portuguese syllabic division would influence the English one. – jose_castro_arnaud Dec 1 '15 at 20:27
English generally divides syllables depending on how the words are pronounced in English, and not on how they are divided in foreign languages. One might make exceptions for foreign words, but certainly banana is no longer a foreign word. – Peter Shor Dec 4 '15 at 15:07

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