Consider, for instance, the word "university":

  • American Heritage: u·ni·ver·si·ty
  • Collins Cobuild: uni|ver|sity
  • Merriam Webster: uni·ver·si·ty

As you see, syllabic boundaries differ.

I read somewhere that this is codified by orthographic conventions. So, does this mean that there's no standard, even in purely American (or British) dictionaries?

  • Basing on the definition of syllable, the syllables in the same word should not change.
    – apaderno
    Commented Apr 17, 2011 at 21:22
  • 10
    Are you sure all of these indicate syllables rather than hyphenation rules?
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Apr 17, 2011 at 21:57
  • @RegDwight Pardon my ignorance, but what are these "hyphenation rules" exactly?
    – Uticensis
    Commented Apr 18, 2011 at 1:40
  • 3
    Where you can put a hyphen, should you want to split the word across two lines.
    – nohat
    Commented Apr 18, 2011 at 1:47
  • Related.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 1:27

3 Answers 3


Syllables (which are a unit of spoken language and nothing per se to do with punctuation or hyphenation) are generally considered to be governed by something called the Maximum Onset Principle, meaning that a syllable consists of a vowel at its centre or nucleus and at its two edges (the onset and coda) zero or more consonants, with the coda first filled with as many consonants as the language in question allows.

These are the principles of syllabification and you'll find a few corner cases. In English, for example, in a word such as "strengths", it might be argued that the final -s actually functions as a though it were a vowel, forming the nucleus of a syllable. In a word such as "university", which intuitively appears to have five syllables, in actual pronunciation it's not clear that the "i" really heads a syllable but might in fact get "merged" into the coda of the previous syllable. Within a language, different speakers can syllabify some sound combinations differently. For example, to most speakers from England, "film" consists of one syllable; to most speakers from Wales, it consists of two syllables. In Spanish, the word "atlas" is probably syllabified "at-las" by a speaker from Spain and "a-tlas" by a speaker from Mexico. But, barring these occasional corner cases, the principle I've just mentioned holds pretty much across languages and there's reasonable consistency and predictability in how speakers of a given language syllabify.

Then, loosely based on syllabification, are rules of hyphenation. Taking something close to "real" syllable divisions as a starting point, in various languages these are then are modified so as not to split up parts of a word that go together as a "unit", or to avoid "odd-looking" hyphenations. So in "university", one might avoid hyphenating as "u-niversity" as it looks a bit odd leaving one letter on its own and also splits up the unit "uni-". The rules might also take account of spelling phenomena which don't reflect pronunciation. So for example in English, there might be a rule to always place a hyphen between consecutive letters representing consonants even where phonologically there is no corresponding syllable break, e.g. im-mune (only one [m] is actually pronounced).

There's no God-given, universally agreed upon "rules" for hyphenation, but there are preferences of individual editors and style guide writers. And as I say, syllabification is more or less consistent, but not 100% so. So dictionary "syllabifications" will differ because (a) what they are giving may or may not be syllabification in the true sense; and (b) there's not necessarily a consensually agreed syllabification or hyphenation.

My recommended rules of hyphenation in English:

  • Never hyphenate words. In 2011, what is the real need to hyphenate words?[*]
  • If you absolutely absolutely must hyphenate: just leave the hyphen wherever your word processor puts it. There are more important things in life for you to worry about. (Of course, if you are writing the hyphenation algorithm of a word processor, then you need to care a little more, but that's about the only occasion I can think of.)

[*] If you're writing in a more agglutinative language like German or worse Finnish, where you get an average of about 2 words per line of A4, then I would posit that there is more of a case for hyphenation.

  • How about the word represent? Heritage says: rep·re·sent (rěp'rĭ-zěnt), while Meriam Webster says: rep·re·sent (re-pri-'zent). As you see, the punctuations are consistent, but the syllabifications differ. Am I right? Commented Apr 18, 2011 at 11:36
  • I'm skeptical of the syllabification (in the pronunciation) suggested by Heritage. In most dialects, I would suggest the syllabification would be "re-pre-sent". Leaving aside the Maximum Onset Principle, there's actually evidence for this syllabification in that the 'p' is aspirated and isn't accompanied by glottalisation of the preceding vowel (i.e. it's pronounced how speakers pronounce it "at the start of syllables, not at the end"). Possible exception: Tyneside English. Commented Apr 18, 2011 at 14:05
  • @Sadeq: the word is accented on different syllables in the two dictionaries (in Heritage on the first and Merriam-Webster on the third), and stress affects syllabification. In particular, the rule that a stressed syllable cannot end with a short vowel requires this shift. Commented Apr 11, 2012 at 14:55

Those dots in Merriam Webster do not denote syllables. Note that Merriam Webster gives this pronunciation for university, clearly showing five syllables:


I expect this is the same for Collins Cobuild. The dots and pipes show hyphenation points.

  • Actually, Mirriam Webster gives two pronunciation for university: ˌyü-nə-'vər-sə-tē, -'vər-stē. The latter seems to be (another!) 4-syllable variant. Commented Apr 18, 2011 at 11:27

As a rule of thumb, a syllable has only one vowel sound (or a diphtong). So "uni" and "sity" have two vowel sounds. There may be exceptions, as usual in linguistics, but that's a starting point for you.

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