‘Referee’ and four other common words with tricky syllables

Akeem Lasisi

A syllable is one of the elements that the English Language teacher often first introduces to pupils or students. As a result, many learners usually know what it means and they are able to accordingly break words into segments. As a reminder, a syllable is a segment of a word containing a vowel sound, or a single unit of speech – which can be a whole word or a part of it – usually containing a vowel. This means that when a syllable combines with another one – or more –  it yields a word, although there are many one-word syllables like be, king, shout and even the indefinite article, a.  Below are some other examples:

Monosyllabic (one-syllable) words: go, sit, brag, ball

Disyllabic (two): danger, father, brother, mother

Trisyllabic (three): dismissal, encourage, recurrence, occasion

I hope you can provide more examples, including words with more syllables – like agricultural and idiosyncrasies.

As relatively easy as the concept is, there are, however, certain words with rather tricky (not trickish!) syllabic structures. Because they are so slippery, many of us mispronounce them, as a good knowledge of the syllabic components of a word helps in mastering its spelling as well as in properly articulating it. The about five terms I am treating today are those that have more than the number of syllables that many erroneously attribute to them when they are speaking.

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How do you pronounce this common word? You know the fact that it is associated with football, which is the religion of many people, makes it very popular. In many cases, guys say ref-ree, thus allocating two syllables to it (REF-REE).

This is wrong because there are three syllables in the word. It is REF-ER-EE, not REF-REE. So, next time you need to refer to it, do not swallow the middle syllable.

One thing is even funny about its pronunciation: the primary stress is on the last syllable: ref-er-EE, with the secondary on the first.


‘Necessary’ shares a similar fate with ‘referee’. It has four syllables but a lot of speakers swallow one, pronouncing it as if it has just three. They say something like NE-CE-SSARY, whereas it should come out like NEC-ES-SAR-Y. In other words, ‘unnecessary’ will have five syllables, not four.


When you pronounce ‘matches’ as MACTH-ES, (with two syllables), there is no problem. But you are wrong when you overgeneralise and pronounce  ‘machete’ as MACHE-TE. There are three syllables in the word, as against the two often indicated. The ‘e’ that ends it has a syllabic status; it is not to be buried in the preceding syllable. So, we should say MA-CHE-TE, instead of MATHE-TE or MA-TCHET.

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Hyperbole, epitome

The two words also generally suffer syllabic denial, with at least one of the syllables of each swept under the carper of ignorance.

I remember we have discussed them in this class on one or two occasions. ‘Hyperbole’ should be pronounced as HY-PER-BO-LE, instead of HY-PER-BOLE.

The number of the syllables in it is not three, it is four. The same thing applies to ‘epitome’, which has four syllables, not three. It is E-PIT-O-ME, not E-PI-TOM..

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