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English Grammar for ESL learners


Stress in English pronunciation



STRESS

English is known as a stressed language.
Stressed languages are languages spoken with differing degrees of emphasis on the words and syllables in the sentences.

The content of this page is not intended to be a set of rules but rather an attempt to show
that native speakers of English use regular patterns of stress when speaking.

Although stress and intonation are an important part of English pronunciation, learners must
remember that it would be impossible for anyone to speak naturally with a set of rules in mind.
By far the best way to improve one's pronunciation is through constant contact with native
speakers of English, either through conversation, by watching films and news channels, or
listening to the radio.

However, the patterns of stress outlined below may be useful to learners, for example when
preparing a discussion or a presentation, and help them to feel more comfortable.

WORD STRESS

In English we accentuate or stress ONE syllable in a word.
We pronounce that syllable louder than others.
There are words with just one syllable (e.g.. mind), and words with one STRESSED syllable
and one or more WEAK syllables (e.g. remind, reminder, reminding).
In the examples below, bold letters indicate stressed syllables.

1) When a noun or adjective stems from a one-syllable word, (for example art, mind), the stress
 usually stays on the syllable of the original word.

art artist
break breakable
friend friendly
paint painter
come become
mind  remind


2) To differentiate between a noun and a verb with the same spelling, stress position changes.

noun verb
a decrease to decrease
an insult to insult
an object to object
a protest to protest
a record to record
a rebel to rebel
a suspect to suspect
a transfer to transfer

3) In compound nouns (two words merged into one) the stress is on the first part:

bookshop
football
notebook
toothbrush

4) The stress is generally at the end of words ending in -eer.

• auctioneer
• engineer
• pioneer
• volunteer

5) Stress usually falls AFTER prefixes :
• demolish
• dismiss
• prepare
• untie

6) Stress usually falls on the syllable BEFORE the following letters:
 (The words below are just some examples - there are many more.)

Before
-tion/-sion
Before
-ic/-ical
Before
-ity/-ety/-graphy/
-ody/-ogy
Before
-ient, -cient, -ience,
-ial, -ual - ious
Attention Automatic     Authority  Convenient
Competition Democratic Majority Efficient
Demonstration Historic Paternity Experience
Explanation Fanatic Society Essential
Invitation Elastic Variety Official
Obsession Biological Geography Potential
Permission Illogical Custody Individual
Position Philosophical Rhapsody Intellectual
Quotation Political Morphology Conscientious
Repetition Radical Psychology Judicious


STRESSED WORDS WITHIN SENTENCES

Not all words receive equal stress within a sentence in English.

Content words are stressed. Content words include:
Nouns (e.g. school, station, train)
Normal verbs (e.g. run, work, speak)
Adjectives (e.g. beautiful, tall, friendly)
Adverbs (e.g. quickly, noisily, badly)

Function words are unstressed. Function words include:
Determiners (e.g. a, an, the)
Auxiliary verbs (e.g. can, have, may, will, etc.)
Conjunctions (e.g. and, but, as, etc.)
Pronouns (e.g.  you, he, she, us, it, them, etc.)

Even if the listener does not hear some quickly pronounced function words, the meaning
of the whole sentence should be clear. This is how native speakers of English communicate.
Emphasis is put on the most important words.
For example: "Would you like a cup of tea?"

It is a general rule of English that when there is a sequence of equal stresses, the last stressed
word should be the strongest, or the loudest - which in the above case would be tea.

Try to imagine receiving a text message like "train delayed home late".
You understand that this means: 'The train has been delayed. I will be home late"
Only content words are used in the message but the meaning is quite clear.

In English, words are stressed according to the meaning the speaker wants to convey.
For example, depending in which word in the following sentence is stressed, the meaning changes:

• Are you going to the cinema tonight? (or is it someone else?)
• Are you going to the cinema tonight? (or not?)
• Are you going to the cinema tonight? (or somewhere else?)
• Are you going to the cinema tonight? (or another night?)

During a conversation, learners should listen for stressed content words in order to understand
the meaning of the whole sentence.

Likewise, they should practice stressing content words in their speech so that other people
will understand them.

next page: intonation



see also:  silent letters in English

back to grammar list




Please note that British English spelling is used on this website.