Spanish Syllables Explained: Your How-to Syllabification Guide

How do we break words down into syllables in Spanish? Let's go over all the essential syllabification rules to identify Spanish syllables!

Tutor helping student to learn Spanish syllables

Knowing how to break a word into syllables in Spanish is essential for any Spanish learner. It may help with pronunciation, spelling, or even identifying if a Spanish word needs a written accent or not.

Are you ready to do this like a real pro? Let’s get started! This post will show you how to separate words into syllables, the most important rules to follow, and some examples to help you out.

What Are Syllables?

First, let’s just start with the basics of what a syllable is. Syllables are each of the sound fragments into which a word is divided when pronounced. The sounds are articulated in minimal units pronounced together in the same voice emission when you say a word.

There are strong or open vowels in Spanish, and weak or closed vowels. There are three strong vowels: A, E, and O. The other two are the weak vowels: I and U.

Let’s do an exercise, try to pronounce the word: Bandera (Flag): ban – DE – ra. As you may have noticed, the way it is pronounced allows you to group letters together naturally, making an almost imperceptible pause in the outflow of air from your lungs in the utterance between one group and another.

Classification of words: According to their number of syllables

Words in Spanish can be classified according to the number of syllables. Let’s see them in detail.

Number of syllables English Examples English
Monosílabas: Words with one syllable. Monosyllabic words – Pez

– Rey

– Plan

– Mar

– Fish

– King

– Plan

– Sea

Bisílabas: Words with two syllables. Two-syllable words – Cama

– Primo

– Humo

– Dama

– Bed

– Cousin

– Smoke

– Lady

Trisílabas: Words with three syllables. Trisyllabic words – Efecto

– Domingo

– Pequeño

– Amigo

– Effect

– Sunday

– Small

– Friend

Tetrasílabas: Words with four syllables Tetrasyllabic words – Bolígrafo

– Carretera

– Elefante

– Televisión

– Pen

– Road

– Elephant

– Television

Polisílabas: Words with five or more syllables. Polysyllabic words – Comunicación

– Productivamente

– Hispanoamérica

– Electroencefalograma

– Communication

– Productively

– Latin America

– Electroencephalogram

How to Break a Word into Syllables: Rules for Syllabification

The process of dividing Spanish words into these small units is called syllabification (also called syllabication), better known as silabación or silabeo in Spanish. To complete this process, you must follow a set of rules.

These syllabification rules all obey two basic principles you should always remember: all Spanish syllables must contain at least one vowel, and all vowels can form syllables by themselves.

These conditions are a must since a syllable in Spanish cannot be made up entirely of consonants. There can be multiple consonants in a single Spanish syllable, while there must always be one or more vowels to function as a nucleus. Syllabification therefore involves the place of vowels and consonants within a word.

Now, let’s look in detail at the rules concerning syllabification.

Consonants at the beginning of a word

If there is a consonant or more at the beginning of a word, it will make a syllable with the following vowel.

Spanish Spanish syllables English
Dado DA – do Dice
Llavero lla – VE – ro Keychain
Panadería pa – na – de – RÍ – a Bakery

Consonants at the end of a word

If there is a consonant or more at the end of a word, it will form a syllable with the vowel which precedes it.

Spanish Spanish syllables English
Bíceps BÍ – ceps Biceps
Español es – pa – ÑOL Spanish
Fabricar fa –  bri – CAR To make, To produce

A consonant placed between two vowels

When a consonant is found between two vowels, it forms a syllable with the second vowel.

Spanish Spanish syllables English
Demora de – MO – ra Delay
Época É – po – ca Era
Colina co – LI – na Hill

Two consonants placed between two vowels

This rule is determined by a specific consonants group. If they are /bl/, /br/, /cl/, /cr/, /dr/, /fl/, /fr/, /gl/, /gr/, /pl/, or /tr/, they will always be kept together and joined to the second vowel.

Spanish Spanish syllables English
Oprimir o – pri – MIR To crush, To press down
Abrazo a – BRA – zo Hug
Ladrón la – DRÓN Thief
Escritor es – cri – TOR Writer
Ofrenda o – FREN – da Offering, Sacrifice
Alegría a – le – GRÍ – a Joy
Retrato re – TRA – to Portrait
Aflorar a – flo – RAR To appear, To surface
Suplicar su – plic – CAR To beg
Políglota po – LÍ – glo – ta Poliglot
Bicicleta bi – ci – CLE – ta Bicycle
Ablandar a – blan – DAR To tenderize, To soften

When a word has the consonant combination /tl/ you will have two options for breaking it into syllables in Spanish, and both are considered correct. It is necessary to emphasize this rule because it occasionally leads to confusion.

Spanish Spanish syllables English Use
Atletismo at – le – TIS – mo Athletics This syllabification is more common in Spain. Spaniards tend to pronounce /t/ and /l/ consonants separately.
Atletismo a – tle – TIS – mo Athletics This syllabification is more common in most Latin American countries.

You may notice there is no separation. The /t/ and the /l/ consonants are together and combined with the vowel that follows it.

If the consonant combinations aren’t among the pairs listed above, we must separate the consonants and assign each to a different vowel. For example:

Spanish Spanish syllables English
Reactor re – ac – TOR Reactor
Hipnotizado hip – no – ti – ZA – do Hypnotized

Three consonants placed between two vowels

If a Spanish word contains these consonant sequences /ns/ or /bs/, they cannot be separated. What you need to do is leave the corresponding sequence with the first vowel, and the third consonant will go with the second vowel.

Spanish Spanish syllables English
Constancia cons – TAN – cia Certainty, Determination
Instaurar ins – tau – RAR To establish
Obstáculo obs – TÁ – cu – lo Obstacle

Syllabification Rules with Diphthongs

A diphthong is a sequence made up of two consecutive vowels that generate one syllable. Diphthongs can be presented in three different ways that we’ll explain here.

You must keep in mind that in the case of diphthongs all the vowels stay together in a single syllable, and that the diphthongs connect to the adjacent consonants according to the rules we learned above.

Strong vowel (A, E, O) + Weak vowel (I, U)

Spanish Spanish syllables English
Aceite a – CEI – te Oil
Cuota CUO – ta Fee, Share
Baile BAI – le Dance

Atonic or unaccented weak vowel (I, U) + Strong vowel (A, E, O)

Spanish Spanish syllables English
Huevo HUE – vo Egg
Guardar guar – DAR To keep, To put way
Violeta vio – LE – ta Violet

Two weak vowels together (I, U)

Spanish Spanish syllables English
Ciudad ciu – DAD City
Ruido RUI – do Noise
Triunfo TRIUN – fo Victory

Accent rules with diphthongs

Words with diphthongs formed by a strongly stressed vowel and an unstressed weak vowel must have their written accent on the strong vowel. For example:

Spanish Spanish syllables English
Náutico NÁU – ti – co Nautical
Murciélago mur – CIÉ – la – go Bat

On the other hand, words with diphthongs formed by two weak vowels must have their written accent on the second vowel. For example:

Spanish Spanish syllables English
Acuífero a – CUÍ – fe – ro Aquifer
Lingüística lin – GÜÍS – ti – ca Linguistics


Well there you have it! As we’ve seen, there are a handful of syllabification rules to know how we break down Spanish words into syllables. You’ll get the hang of it with some practice, while knowing the rules and how they work will help you to grasp Spanish accentuation rules a little better. Even with the remarkable regional variations in Spanish pronunciation, knowing these basics on how to define each syllable in Spanish will help you understand the language in any accent. Practice makes perfect!

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