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A study of Metrical Writing, Part 18: Ambiguous syllables

Published by OJB in the blog OJB's blog. Views: 155

@ladybird (The moment you've been waiting for.)

Today we will be looking at Ambiguous syllables. In the previous post, we talked about cutting away Syllables. In this post, we will be talking about how some writers add syllables to their words, usually due to speech habits.

Before we get to this, I want to address Silent Syllables. The most common silent syllable is the -ed ending for past tense. In some words, you will pronounce the -ed ending, in others it will be totally silent. Here are some examples.

Stopped (1 syllable)

Text-ed (2 syllables)

The reason I bring this up is that sometimes U.K English is different from U.S. English in terms of pronouncing syllables.

The word 'Toward' is 1 syllable in the U.S. But in a U.K poem I read, 'Toward' was being used as a 2 syllable word.

The point is this, not all silent syllables are silent depending on what part of the world you are from. Reading other people's metrical writing can be tricky if you are not used to their pronunciation of words.


Now onto Ambiguous syllables.

In English, there are four consonants that CAN form their own syllable. They are, M, N, R, and L.

To give some examples.

Rhythm = Rhyth-m

Isn't = IS -n't

Fire = FI -re

Smile = SMI -le

Now the Ms, and Ns are easy to hear, but the Ls and Rs are subtle in their sound. In essence, some people hear the word 'fire' as two syllables, and some hear it as one. The way you hear a word is the way you need to write it in your meter.

I am going to give you some examples of words that have ambiguous syllables and then we will discuss what they all have in common.

Our (Ow-er), Desire (De-Si-er) Child (Chi-eld) Wild (Why-eld) While (Why-el) Oil (O-il) Foul (Fow-el)

Do you see the pattern? The words either have a long 'I' or the have double vowel (ou, oi, etc.)

These ambiguous syllables are sometimes played with by poets. Shakespeare was known to use 'our' as a one syllable word in one line, and use it as two a few lines later. (Shakespeare, I would imagine, had a very keen ear.)

But to add to this complication, let us take a look at the words Flower vs Flour. It could be argued that these two words sound identical (despite their spelling) so if some people would pronounce Flour as one syllable, could they pronounce flower as one syllable as well? The answer is yes.

Frost is known for having the word 'flower' being a single syllable word in poems.

A few other words to keep in mind,

'Higher' being pronounced like 'fire'.
'Foul' being pronounced like 'towel.
'Mirror' being pronounced like 'near'. (but with a M)
'Error' being pronounced like 'air.'


As we can see, there is some fluidity to syllable counts.

I need to stress something; since Ambiguous syllables are somewhat 'fake,' they will never be stressed.

Using the word desiring. Most people would say de-SIR-ing. If you do hear this word as a four syllable word, this is how it would look.

de(1)-SI (4)-r(1)-ING (2)

To add another layer of confusion to this whole ordeal, a writer could elude such a word if they do hear it as four syllables.


This whole business might seem confusing to some, but it is important aspect in regards to reading other people's meter.


As a general rule, if you don't 'hear' words like fire, wild, smile, tile, etc as two syllables, don't write them as two; However, if you do hear them as two, I know of no such rule saying you can't switch syllable counts from one to the other to help with the metrical pattern, but I would not be obnoxious with syllable play. I Personally hear 'fire' as two syllables, and 95% of the time I would write it as such; however, in a jam, I would cheat it to one syllable.


The last thing I want to touch on is Epenthesis.

Sometimes, due to a words spelling, a speaker will add an extra 'sound' to it as a way to help with the pronunciation, usually though, a person will change the spelling of the word to match how they are pronouncing the word. Here are some examples.

Monst-rous vs. monst-er-ous.

Real-tor vs. real-at-or.

Jewel-ry vs. Jewel-er-y.

There are many other words out there that do this.


As we can see, Syllable counting can be a tricky business.

(I'll post a scanned poem later. I am looking for one that illustrates the points I've made.)


I hope today's post has been insightful. If you have any questions or thoughts, please leave a comment or a like.

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Next post: https://www.writingforums.org/entry/a-study-of-metrical-writing-part-19-the-weight-of-syllables.64041/
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