About ten days ago I had asked a question about "syllabification" and received an excellent answer. That answer said: "there's a phonological rule called Maximal Onset Principle (MOP), according to which intervocalic consonants should be syllabified as the onset of the following syllable as long as the Phonotactic constraints allow it. This would mean that VCV has to be syllabified as V.CV as long as the onset of the second syllable is permissible."

And that's why "banana" (in British English) should be divided as /bə.ˈnɑː.nə/ and in American English as /bə.ˈnæn.ə/.

It took me a week to fully understand the theories explained in that answer. Now if I understand it correctly, the word "loosely", /ˈluːsli/, should be divided as /ˈluː.sli/. That is, the sl should be the "onset" of the following syllable (compare /bə.ˈnɑː.nə/), But it is divided as /ˈluːs.li/ instead.

Cambridge Dictionary is quite consistent with their syllabification and it gives /ˈluːs.li/.

Is it because "loosely" is made up of "loose" and "ly" and should be divided as separately? Or is it an exception?


  • The only difference I hear between BE and AE banana is the central 'a'. Merriam-Webster shows bə-ˈna-nə. Feb 9, 2021 at 15:09
  • @YosefBaskin: Yes, and because of that pesky vowel, 'banana' is syllabified differently in BrE and AmE. Feb 9, 2021 at 15:23
  • 1
    The problem with syllabification in English is that, while syllabic peaks are clear, their boundaries are not, and fas pea trules tend to blur them even more. Syllables do not necessarily begin between phonemes, for instance. Feb 9, 2021 at 17:12

2 Answers 2


It's because when you're dividing into syllables, morpheme boundaries often overrule the maximal onset principle. In fact, you can tell that the /s/ belongs to the first syllable because the vowel in loosely is shorter than that in loser, and vowels in syllables that end with a voiceless consonant are shortened in English.

This doesn't always happen. In the word waitress, the root word is obviously wait, so you might expect the syllable division to be after the /t/. But the pronunciation in Cambridge Dictionary is /ˈweɪ.trəs/, showing that in this case Maximum Onset Principle has overruled the morpheme boundaries.

  • I'm sceptical about the claim that 'there's a shorter vowel in the first syllable (syllables ending with voiceless consonants are shortened in English)'. I don't think it's because of that. See for instance rooster, which is syllabified as /ˈruː.stə (AmE: /ˈruː.stɚ/), not /ˈruːs.tə/. If it's because of the short vowel, then why isn't rooster syllabified as /ˈruːs.tə/? Feb 9, 2021 at 15:30
  • @DecapitatedSoul: I think you're right (after looking at data and daytime); the Cambridge Dictionary isn't taking vowel length into account when syllabifying, just morpheme boundaries. I'm disappointed. Feb 9, 2021 at 15:44
  • @DecapitatedSoul I think you're going deaf! Just tried it with four native speakers, who didn't know why they were being asked. All agreed the /u:/ is rooster was longer when their recordings were played back. I can here it too! In fact you can hear it just with roost and rooster! Feb 9, 2021 at 17:33
  • @Araucaria: But what about data and daytime? Feb 9, 2021 at 17:34
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore.: What about 'precisely' (/prɪˈsaɪs.li/)? Shouldn't it be syllabified as /prɪˈsaɪ.sli/? (Am I misunderstanding something here?) Feb 9, 2021 at 17:42

The Maximal Onset Principle is a common idea about how syllabification should work, but in many contexts, there isn’t much evidence that it is how syllabification really works.

In fact, it’s difficult to get evidence for syllabification in general. Aside from native speaker intuition, which does not always agree, the indirect evidence used to argue for syllable division can often be interpreted in ways that don’t require reference to the concept of the syllable. Some linguists are skeptical or agnostic about the linguistic reality of syllable division.

In English, specifically, the Maximal Onset Principle seems to fail in two ways that are relevant to “loosely”:

  1. Morphological division. As Peter Shor mentioned, syllable boundaries seem to coincide in some, but not all cases with morpheme boundaries, like the boundary between the base loose and the suffix -ly.

  2. Stress attraction. While not accepted by all phonologists, there is a notable theory that consonants and consonant clusters in English are preferentially syllabified with stressed syllables (with some phonotactic restrictions), even when occurring between vowels. One of the most notable articulators of this theory is John Wells. In Wells’ theory of syllabification, loose.ly, waitr.ess, and self.ish are syllabified based on this phonological criterion; in contrast, words like shell.fish are syllabified based on morphology according to Wells (“Syllabification and allophony", 1990).

  • 1
    'waitr.ess,'?! Feb 9, 2021 at 16:49
  • @DecapitatedSoul: Yes! See the linked page untder “The affricate condition”
    – herisson
    Feb 9, 2021 at 16:49
  • 1
    +1 And in addition there are allophones that only occur in syllable onsets or syllable codas that can tell us where a particular phoneme seems to be. There is also the prefortis clipping of vowels and other sonorants. (All of which is in Wells' paper) Feb 9, 2021 at 17:59

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.