Words are considered as the basic unit of a sentence, while syllables are considered as the basic unit of speech. In its simplest definition, syllables are the natural division of words into little units when they are pronounced. In speech, a syllable is a cluster of sound that is usually formed around a vowel-sound, which is usually paired with a consonant-sound. Generally speaking, there are two types of syllables, simple syllables and complex syllables.

Simple syllables do not contain consonant clusters. While on the other hand, complex syllables contain a consonant cluster. A consonant cluster is a group of consonants that does not have any vowel between them. It should be noted that learners of the English language will find no problem in learning to pronounce words with simple syllables, however, the same thing cannot be said when it comes to complex syllables.

In this lesson, we will be talking about simple and complex syllables, as well as the use of stress.

The Basics of Syllabication

Before we proceed, let us answer this question first: are syllables important? Obviously, the answer is, yes, they are. First thing you should know is that dividing a word into syllables help greatly with correct pronunciation. At the same time,  it acts as an essential guide to non-native speakers who are learning a new language. For example, dividing an unfamiliar word into syllables can also help with its spelling. Although when it comes to that, it is still recommended to check a dictionary.

When we speak about syllabication, we are talking about how words are divided into syllables. A syllable is a unit of speech that is made up of a vowel-sound, a consonant-sound, or a combination of both. These units are called clusters, and there are two kinds: consonant clusters, and vowel clusters.

Vowel clusters are found in both simple and complex syllables. These are groups of vowels grouped together to form specific sounds (e.g. ee, ia, ou).


  • main
  • pour
  • queen

Consonant clusters, as mentioned earlier, are a group of consonants clustered together to form specific sounds (e.g. bl, st, shr).


  • black
  • stuck
  • shrink

Aside from being classified as either simple or complex syllables, syllables may also be divided into closed and open syllables. Closed syllables are syllables that contain a vowel enclosed by two consonants.


  • gram-mar
  • drow-sy
  • flo-rist

Open syllables on the other hand, are syllables that end with a vowel with a long sound.


  • fa-vor
  • cri-te-ri-a
  • so-lo


Talking about syllables will be incomplete without the mention of blends. Blends are also known as clusters. These are a group of letters that are made to produce one sound. In simple and complex syllables, they often make their own syllable unit. Digraphs are made up of two letters, while trigraphs are made up of three.

Some common digraphs include the following:


  • adorable
  • bible
  • bleach


  • archer
  • cheap
  • enchant


  • cauldron
  • kindred
  • tendril


  • agree
  • begrudge
  • growl


  • describe
  • discount
  • mascot


  • cloth
  • froth
  • healthy


  • awhile
  • cartwheel
  • whimsical

Some common trigraphs include the following:


  • eschew
  • paschal
  • scholar


  • ashram
  • enshrine
  • shriek


  • display
  • misplace
  • splendor


  • disprove
  • spring
  • sprinkle


  • arabesque
  • grotesque
  • squirm


  • abstract
  • bowstring
  • strawberry


  • brethren
  • threat
  • urethra

Rules of Syllabication

Now that you’re familiar with the basics of simple and complex syllables, it is time to learn the rules. As a learner of the English language is that it is important for you to at least familiarize yourself with how to divide a word into syllables. Why? Because learning how to syllabicate can help you read new and unknown words. As mentioned above, it also helps in your pronunciation and spelling. Aside from these, learning how to syllabicate can also help you decipher the meaning of an unfamiliar word, especially if the word contains affixes.

The first thing you must remember is that every syllable must have at least one vowel sound.

Each vowel sound accounts for one syllable unit.

  • cone
  • liv-er
  • mag-ni-fy

The second thing you should remember is that you should never divide a one syllable word. But how do we know how many syllables are present? One tip is to count how many times your jaw falls when you pronounce the word.

  • knot
  • spit
  • pie

Compound words are to be divided between the words that make it up.

  • bird-house
  • high-light
  • spread-sheet
  • but-ter-fly
  • sun-flow-er

If a word contains ck or x, divide the word after the ck or x;.

  • buck-le
  • ex-am
  • rock-er

Never separate blends (i.e. digraphs and trigraphs).

  • chan-nel
  • hatch-et
  • pho-net-ic

Simple and Complex Syllables: Regarding Affixes

If a word has a suffix, and if that suffix has a vowel sound in it, divide the word between the suffix and the base word.

  • ar-gu-ment (suf. ment)
  • child-ish (suf. ish)
  • kind-ness (suf. ness)

However, if a word has a prefix, divide the word between the prefix and the base word.

  • in-mate (pre. in)
  • sub-way (pre. sub)
  • un-skilled (pre. un)

Simple and Complex Syllables: Regarding Vowels

If a vowel is pronounced alone within a word, if will form its own syllable unit.

  • choc-o-late
  • grad-u-ate
  • in-i-ti-ate

On the other hand, if two vowels come together in a word, and if the two vowels are sounded separately, divide the word between the two vowels.

  • li-on
  • re-act
  • se-ance

Simple and Complex Syllables: Regarding Consonants

If a word contains two middle consonants, divide the word between these two consonants.

  • gram-mar
  • let-ter
  • pos-ter
  • prin-cess

If a consonant comes between two short vowels in a word, divide the word after the consonant.

  • blem-ish
  • ev-er
  • low-er

However, if a consonant comes between two long vowels in a word, divide the word before the consonant.

  • na-tion
  • pe-ri-od
  • rai-sin

If two or more consonants come between two vowels, divide the word between the first two consonants.

  • but-ter
  • plas-ma
  • wrap-per

Simple and Complex Syllables: Syllables That Form Their Own Units

If a word ends in –ly, it will form its own syllable unit.

  • kind-ly
  • ug-ly
  • si-lent-ly

If a word ends in –ed, and if it follows a letter d or t, it will form its own syllable unit.

  • band-ed
  • hat-ed
  • land-ed

Words that end in –al or –el will usually form its own syllable unit.

  • cas-u-al
  • fac-tu-al
  • reb-el
  • vow-el

If -ture or –tion are at the end of a word, they will form their own syllable unit.

  • at-ten-tion
  • ma-ture
  • na-tion
  • rup-ture

If be-, de-,ex-, or re- are found at the beginning of a word, they will form their own syllable unit.

  • be-fore
  • de-cor
  • ex-tract
  • re-sponse

Simple and Complex Syllables: Special Endings

If a word ends in –ant and it follows a consonant or a digraph, divide the word before the consonant or digraph.

  • dis-en-chant (follows the digraph ch)
  • non-cha-lant
  • re-pug-nant

If a word ends in –le, and it follows a consonant, divide the word before the consonant that it follows.

  • af-fa-ble
  • driz-zle
  • thim-ble


Stress in Simple and Complex Syllables

complex syllables syllabication syllables and stress
Hermione teaching Harry and Ron how to pronounce a spell correctly.

Now that the basics of simple and complex syllables have been covered, it is time to move on to another aspect of pronunciation. Stress refers to the emphasis given to a certain syllable in a word. In the English language, you will know which syllable is stressed by listening closely. Usually, the stressed syllable is the one that receives a higher and longer pitch. In the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA, the symbol [] before a syllable denotes that the syllable is stressed.

It is important to realize that there are a few rules to follow when it comes to ‘stress’ regarding monosyllabic, disyllabic, and polysyllabic words. Try pronouncing the following sample words to get a hang of how ‘stress’ works.

Monosyllabic words

First, we have monosyllabic words. Monosyllabic words, or words with only one syllable, are considered stressed. Usually, dictionaries may leave out the [‘] when it comes to monosyllabic words because of this rule.

        clock, goat, lamp, mouth, swing

Disyllabic words

Next, we have disyllabic words. Disyllabic words contain two syllables. Take note, the stress on disyllabic words may appear on the first or second syllable.


Polysyllabic words

Lastly, we have polysyllabic words. Polysyllabic words have more than two syllables. The stress on polysyllabic words may appear on any of the syllables.


Primary and secondary stress

Words that contain more than two syllables may also have more than one stressed syllable. In the IPA, the symbol [] before a syllable denotes a primary stress, while the symbol [,] before a syllable denotes a secondary stress. A primary stress means that the syllable is pronounced in a forcible manner. On the other hand, a secondary stress means that the syllable is pronounced in a less forcible, but still noticeable, way. Usually, despite its name, a primary stress may appear after the secondary stress.



Stress in Sentences

One more thing about stress is that stress may also appear in sentences. Usually, speakers place stress on the words they want to emphasize. Regarding stress in sentences, keep the following rules in mind:

Nouns, main verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are usually stressed.

Additionally, articles, conjunctions, helping verbs, prepositions, and pronouns are not usually stressed.

        That dress is ‘gorgeous!
        I ‘love apricots.
        The baby had such ‘tiny hands.
        Hitler was an ‘evil man.
        ‘Dancing is not for me.

Learning how to properly pronounce English words may seem daunting, especially for non-native speakers. However, once you have familiarized yourself with the difference between simple and complex syllables, basic rules of syllabication, and how to apply stress in words and sentences, you’ll be speaking like a pro in no time. In conclusion, always remember that the best way to perfect pronunciation is through constant practice and reading. As long as you continue to incorporate reading and practicing pronunciations into your routine, you will surely be a master of the language soon. So, what do you think of this lesson? Please feel free to share your thoughts with us through the comments.

Read: Pronoun Examples and its Uses for Writing and Speaking