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I was taught by my high school teacher how to count syllables and according to that method, you count them by clapping each syllable. The word "obsessive" should be: /əb.se.sɪv/ -- OB-SE-SIV. But when I searched it in Cambridge Dictionary, they say it is /əbˈses.ɪv/. /əb.se.sɪv/ (my method) sounds natural too).

The word "absolutely" is correct by both the dictionary and my method: /ˌæb.səˈluːt.li/

Is there any standard way of syllabification? Is the dictionary correct or not?

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  • The American Heritage Dictionary hyphenates ob-ses-sive. Is there any reason you need to know the syllables other than hyphenating the word between lines? The first two dictionaries I consulted did not show syllable boundaries at all. Merriam-Webster shows both syllable boudaries and pronunciation like this: ob·​ses·​sive | \ äb-ˈse-siv , əb- \ – GEdgar Jan 29 at 12:34
  • @GEdgar Hi. No, there isn't any reason but I'm just curious. – Guest1 Jan 29 at 12:34
  • Here is a nice link to look up a word in many dictionaries: onelook.com – GEdgar Jan 29 at 12:39
  • @GEdgar It’s quite confusing, but the line-breaking divisions are not the same as the syllabification. The former are based on spelling, the latter on sound. This being English, never the twain shall meet! So MW only give one syllabification, in the end. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Feb 1 at 10:30
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Syllabification is a controversial topic in linguistics. There isn't a 'standard' way of syllabifying words, but there's a phonological rule called Maximal Onset Principle (MOP), according to which intervocalic[1] consonants should be syllabified as the onset[2] of the following syllable as long as the Phonotactic constraints[3] allow it. This would mean that VCV[4] has to be syllabified as V.CV as long as the onset of the second syllable is permissible. There are exceptions, however.

I will mark ill-formed sequences of sounds with a preceding asterisk.

So banana should be syllabified as:

  • /bə.ˈnɑː.nə/, not */bən.ˈɑːn.ə/ or */bə.nɑːn.ə/

The first /-n-/ is intervocalic, so it should be the onset of the second syllable and it is a permissible onset (there are so many words that start with /n/ such as night, name, noon etc.). The same goes for the second /-n-/.


Obsessive is syllabified as:

  • /əb.sɛs.ɪv/, not */ə.bsɛs.ɪv/ or */əb.sɛ.sɪv/

Although the consonant cluster /-bs-/ is intervocalic, it's not syllabified as the onset of the next syllable because it violates the Phonotactics of English. And the reason as to why the second syllable is /sɛs/ and not */sɛ/ is that there's no English word that ends with the lax vowel /ɛ/ (except meh). The syllabification given in the dictionary is correct.


Extreme is syllabified as:

  • /ɛk.ˈstriːm/ not */ɛks.triːm/ or */ɛ.kstriːm/

According to MOP, the intervocalic consonants /-kstr-/ should be syllabified as the onset of the next syllable; however, if we syllabify it as */ɛ.kstriːm/, it violates the Phonotactics of English because English cannot have an onset starting with PLOSIVE + FRICATIVE, so the /k/ becomes the coda of the first syllable, /ɛk/. /str-/ conforms to the phonotactic rules of onset clusters, so it becomes the onset of the next syllable, /striːm/.


There's another theory (or an exception to MOP) that states that stressed syllables having lax vowels such as /ʌ ɪ ʊ ɛ/ should not have an empty coda, so obsessive should be /əb.ˈsɛs.ɪv/, very should be /ˈvɛr.i/, city should be /ˈsɪt.i/ etc. Banana is pronounced with a lax vowel /æ/ in American English, in which case, it's syllabified as /bə.ˈnæn.ə/ (or /bəˈnæn.nə/, according to the ambisyllabicity theory).


Yet another theory says that the consonant following the lax vowels /ʌ ɪ ʊ ɛ/ should be ambisyllabic. 'Ambisyllabic' means that it it belongs to both the preceding and the following syllable. So according to the ambisyllabicity theory, obsessive can be syllabified as:

  • /əb.sɛs.sɪv/

Notes:

  1. 'Intervocalic' means between vowels e.g. the /t/ in city, better, water etc., is between two vowels, so it's intervocalic.

  2. Typically, a syllable consists of three segments; onset, nucleus, coda. The word bat /bæt/ can be analysed as: /b/ → onset, /æ/ → nucleus, /t/ → coda.

    • onset: it refers to the consonant(s) before the nucleus (usually a vowel)
    • nucleus: a vowel/diphthong or a syllabic consonant that forms the syllable peak
    • coda: consonant(s) after the nucleus
  3. Phonotactic constraints are language-specific rules that determine the permissble sequences of sounds. For example, Greek allows word-initial /pn-/ as in pneumonia, but English doesn't, that's why the /p/ is dropped in pneumonia in English.

  4. V → vowel, C → consonant

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    This is all very correct, thank you. I would only add a minor comment to respond to OP's "how to count syllables ... by clapping each syllable". In English it is relatively easy to identify syllable nuclei, but the boundaries between syllables can be trickier (and not universally agreed upon). Of course, there can be issues in counting syllables/identifying nuclei too—cf. how many syllables are in 'flour'/'flower', 'fire'/'higher', etc? – nohat Jan 29 at 18:15
  • An excellent and encyclopaedic answer but I'll still be saying /əb.sɛ.sɪv/ :) – Greybeard Jan 29 at 21:24
  • @Greybeard: Did you mean [əb.sɛ.sɪv]? :D – Decapitated Soul Jan 30 at 3:09
  • Yes, I probably do. – Greybeard Feb 1 at 10:44
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    @DecapitatedSoul You can read Well's summary of syllabification in English here. It's elementary stuff, really. For example, t-glottaling only happens in codas, pre-fortis clipping only happens when the fortis consonant is in the coda etc. Of course, you'll be aware that your latest favourite writer, Geoff Lindsey, was a student of Wells's (and is my boss for two weeks every year!). – Araucaria - Not here any more. Feb 2 at 21:38

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