Word stress is your magic key to understanding spoken English. Native speakers of English use word stress naturally. Word stress is so natural for them that they don’t even know they use it. Non-native speakers who speak English to native speakers without using word stress, encounter two problems:
- They find it difficult to understand native speakers, especially those speaking fast.
- The native speakers may find it difficult to understand them.
To understand word stress, it helps to understand syllables.
Every word is made from syllables.
Each word has one, two, three or more syllables.
|word||number of syllables|
Notice that (with a few rare exceptions) every syllable contains at least one vowel (a, e, i, o or u) orvowel sound.
What is Word Stress?
In English, we do not say each syllable with the same force or strength. In one word, we accentuate ONE syllable. We say one syllable very loudly (big, strong, important) and all the other syllables veryquietly.
Let’s take 3 words: photograph, photographer and photographic. Do they sound the same when spoken? No. Because we accentuate (stress) ONE syllable in each word. And it is not always the same syllable. So the shape of each word is different.
This happens in ALL words with 2 or more syllables: TEACHer, JaPAN, CHINa, aBOVE, converSAtion, INteresting, imPORtant, deMAND, etCETera, etCETera, etCETera
The syllables that are not stressed are weak or small or quiet. Native speakers of English listen for the STRESSED syllables, not the weak syllables. If you use word stress in your speech, you will instantly and automatically improve your pronunciation and your comprehension.
Try to hear the stress in individual words each time you listen to English – on the radio, or in films for example. Your first step is to HEAR and recognise it. After that, you can USE it!
There are two very important rules about word stress:
- One word, one stress. (One word cannot have two stresses. So if you hear two stresses, you have heard two words, not one word.)
- The stress is always on a vowel.
Why is Word Stress Important?
Word stress is not used in all languages. Some languages, Japanese or French for example, pronounce each syllable with eq-ual em-pha-sis.
Other languages, English for example, use word stress.
Word stress is not an optional extra that you can add to the English language if you want. It is part of the language! English speakers use word stress to communicate rapidly and accurately, even in difficult conditions. If, for example, you do not hear a word clearly, you can still understand the word because of the position of the stress.
Think again about the two words photograph and photographer. Now imagine that you are speaking to somebody by telephone over a very bad line. You cannot hear clearly. In fact, you hear only the first two syllables of one of these words, photo… Which word is it, photograph or photographer? Of course, with word stress you will know immediately which word it is because in reality you will hear either PHOto… orphoTO… So without hearing the whole word, you probably know what the word is ( PHOto…graph orphoTO…grapher). It’s magic! (Of course, you also have the ‘context’ of your conversation to help you.)
This is a simple example of how word stress helps us understand English. There are many, many other examples, because we use word stress all the time, without thinking about it.
Where do I Put Word Stress?
There are some rules about which syllable to stress. But…the rules are rather complicated! Probably the best way to learn is from experience. Listen carefully to spoken English and try to develop a feeling for the “music” of the language.
When you learn a new word, you should also learn its stress pattern. If you keep a vocabulary book, make a note to show which syllable is stressed. If you do not know, you can look in a dictionary. All dictionaries give the phonetic spelling of a word. This is where they show which syllable is stressed, usually with an apostrophe (‘) just before or just after the stressed syllable. (The notes at the front of the dictionary will explain the system used.) Look at (and listen to) this example for the word plastic. There are 2 syllables. Syllable #1 is stressed.
Rules of Word Stress in English
There are two very simple rules about word stress:
- One word has only one stress. (One word cannot have two stresses. If you hear two stresses, you hear two words. Two stresses cannot be one word. It is true that there can be a “secondary” stress in some words. But a secondary stress is much smaller than the main [primary] stress, and is only used in long words.)
- We can only stress vowels, not consonants.
Here are some more, rather complicated, rules that can help you understand where to put the stress. But do not rely on them too much, because there are many exceptions. It is better to try to “feel” the music of the language and to add the stress naturally.
1 Stress on first syllable
|Most 2-syllable nouns||PRESent, EXport, CHIna, TAble|
|Most 2-syllable adjectives||PRESent, SLENder, CLEVer, HAPpy|
2 Stress on last syllable
|Most 2-syllable verbs||to preSENT, to exPORT, to deCIDE, to beGIN|
3 Stress on penultimate syllable (penultimate = second from end)
|Words ending in -ic||GRAPHic, geoGRAPHic, geoLOGic|
|Words ending in -sion and -tion||teleVIsion, reveLAtion|
4 Stress on ante-penultimate syllable (ante-penultimate = third from end)
|Words ending in -cy, -ty, -phy and -gy||deMOcracy, dependaBIlity, phoTOgraphy, geOLogy|
|Words ending in -al||CRItical, geoLOGical|
5 Compound words (words with two parts)
|For compound nouns, the stress is on the first part||BLACKbird, GREENhouse|
|For compound adjectives, the stress is on the second part||bad-TEMpered, old-FASHioned|
|For compound verbs, the stress is on the second part||to underSTAND, to overFLOW|