Why is the syllable division in the word "experience" ex-pe-ri-ence, and not ex-per-i-ence?

  • 4
    Because the rules of dividing written words into "syllables" only apply to letters, not to real syllables with real sounds. English spelling does not represent English pronunciation in a regular way. Sorry about that, but it's the truth. English spelling is good for Middle English, but it sucks for Modern English. – John Lawler Feb 11 '17 at 15:07

Because when Webster first came up with the system of dividing words into syllables, experience was pronounced ex-pee-ri-ence and not ex-peer-i-ence, the way many of us do today. And they haven't bothered changing it since.

From Webster's 1892 dictionary:

Experience: (ĕks-pē′rĭ-ens) — /ɛksˈpiː.rɪ.əns/.
Experiment: (ĕks-pĕr′ĭ-ment) — /ɛksˈpɛr.ɪ.mənt/.

I've translated Webster's notation into IPA, as nobody uses their 1892 phonetic notation anymore.

The American Heritage Dictionary's syllabifications are quite strange. They have:


I would guess they kept the original syllabification of experience for the sake of consistency, but they have updated all the inflections of the word to match the current pronunciation.

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  • I'm having a hard time producing contrasting pronunciations of experiment where there’s an open /piː/ syllable in one and a closed /piːr/ one in the other. Shouldn’t tense vowels be open syllables, checked ones closed? That said, there are definitely East Coast folks who pronounce this word differently than I do. They seem to strangely say “eggzbeeramint” — which sounds more like a failed hangover concoction of “eggs, beer, and mint” than it does the word I’m familiar with. I think I have a tense /per/ rather than lax /pɛr/, and I know I don’t have /piːr/. – tchrist Feb 11 '17 at 16:28
  • @tchrist: right: the difference between mirror and nearer disappeared in most American English accents a long time ago. Experience used to have the nearer vowel rather than the mirror vowel, which is why it was syllabified the way it was. (And I can't tell you exactly how nearer was pronounced in 1892.) – Peter Shor Feb 11 '17 at 16:52
  • I don't believe I ever have a lax vowel before /r/, whether in marry–merry–Mary, mirror–nearer, or horse–hoarse. Of those, only that first triplet can I easily perceive and produce the non-merged version of; the others I’m hazy on. I perceive my own production of all those before /r/ as tense monophthongs (so /er/, /ir/, /or/), which is originally from the eastern Wisconsin–Illinois border. – tchrist Feb 11 '17 at 17:13
  • The real pronunciation of experience in American English syllabifies into /ɛk.spi.ri.əns/. The fact that the letter X represents a consonant cluster /ks/, and that the actual syllable boundary falls between the /k/ and the /s/ makes any syllabification scheme involving the letter X unsatisfactory. That's what I meant in my previous comment. – John Lawler Feb 11 '17 at 18:18

Why do you assume ex-pe-ri-ence is wrong? That is how I say it. Therein lies the answer to your question. Because of different dialects and regional variances, there is no one true syllable division. Lexicographers basically choose the pronunciation they believe to be most common. They are usually correct, and their guidance is helpful. But 5 years from the dictionary's release, pronunciation may well have changed.

English is defined from the ground up. There is no governing body to declare standards. English educators, style guides, grammarians, lexicographers, etc., do their best atop constantly shifting sands.

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  • Not 5 years from the dictionary's release ... more like 125 years from the dictionary's release. Webster hasn't changed most of their syllabifications for over a century. – Peter Shor Feb 11 '17 at 16:02
  • @PeterShor It seems I was unclear. My point was that the language keeps changing while the book sits on its shelf. I'll edit that part for clarity. – RichF Feb 11 '17 at 16:35

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