Grammar. 19.01.2011
Grammar Teacher

Word and Sentence stress in English

Автор: Grammar Teacher
This time I am going to draw your attention to some delicate item of the English language. To begin with, you’ve got to remember that each time you learn new vocabulary, it is important to make sure you

know the following:

• the meaning of the word you’re learning;
• collocation (which other words commonly go with it);
• “currency” - whether or not the word is restricted to certain situations or can be used widely;
• its spelling;
• and pronunciation.

Let’s take the word “ DESPERATE“.


 -   feeling that you have no hope and are ready to do anything to change the situation you are in (desperate with sth) ;

 -  needing or wanting something very much (desperate for sth, desperate to do sth );

 -    a desperate situation is very bad or serious.


desperate attempt/bid/effort; desperate battle/struggle/fight


quite frequently used (especially by pessimists) 


desperate (not disparate or whatever else)



Although the last point is crucially important, very often it’s neglected by students and even by teachers. There are two interesting features of English pronunciation which give you the key to understanding and being understood and these are STRESS and INTONATION. Today we’ll start by considering WORD and SENTENCE STRESS (наголос). 

English is considered a stressed language while many other languages are considered syllabic. What does that mean? It means that in English, certain words have stress within a sentence, and certain syllables have stress within a word. And it is this stress that allows our ears to understand the meaning and also to pick up the important parts of the sentence. We give stress to certain words while other words are quickly spoken (some students say eaten!). In other languages, such as French or Italian, each syllable receives equal importance (there is stress, but each syllable has its own length). English however, spends more time on specific stressed words while quickly gliding over the other, less important, words.

What is word stress?

In multi-syllable words (багатоскладових словах) the stress falls on one of the syllables while the other syllables tend to be spoken over quickly. For example, try saying the following words to yourself: qualify, banana, understand. All of them have 3 syllables and one of the syllables in each word will sound louder than the others: so, we get QUAlify, baNAna and underSTAND. (The syllables indicated in capitals are the stressed syllables). What makes a syllable stressed? It is usually higher in pitch (the level of the speaker’s voice). It’s pronounced louder. And finally, it’s longer in duration.
Stress can fall on the first, middle or last syllables of words, as is shown here:














In order for one syllable to be perceived as stressed, the syllables around it need to be unstressed. Have another look at the groups of words in the table above. In the word SYLLABUS, we said the first syllable was stressed. This logically implies that the final two are unstressed. Also, in the word BANANA, the first and third syllables are unstressed, and the middle one is stressed. In order to improve your pronunciation, focus on pronouncing the stressed syllable clearly. However, don't be afraid to "mute" (not say clearly) the other unstressed vowels.  

But how do we recognize where the stress falls? Well, there are a couple of ideas:

1. Try putting this word in the end of a short sentence, and saying it over a few times: for example, It’s in the syllabus; He had a prior engagement; I don’t understand. 


2. Try saying this word as though you have been completely taken by surprise: for example, SYLlabus? baNAna? kangaROO? 



In dictionaries we spot the stress with help of a mark before the stressed syllable like in the following examples: /bəˈnɑː.nə/, /ɪnˈgeɪdʒ.mənt/, /ˌʌn.dəˈstænd/.

The table below is a kind of a ‘rough guide’ to stressed syllables. Though these are rather tendencies than rules, since they only tell us what is true most of the time, and it is always possible to find exceptions.

In longer words with many syllables, there can be a primary stress and a secondary stress. So the primary stress would be the highest in pitch and perhaps the longest, but there might also be another syllable that is important. For example, the word EMBARRASSMENT (ɪmˈbær.ə.smənt ).So there it is the last two syllables that are not stressed. And it is the second syllable that is stressed. But the first syllable is also somewhat important and higher in pitch than the last two. So, the first syllable there has a secondary stress, and the second syllable has the primary stress. The last two syllables are unstressed.

There are several ways of indicating stress when it comes to making notes as you are learning a new vocabulary item. And I strongly advise you to use one of them. For this, of course, you will need to consult your dictionary all the time.

What is sentence stress?

Sentence Stress is actually the “music” of English, the thing that gives the language its particular “beat” or “rhythm”. In general, in any given English sentence there will be particular words that carry more “weight” or “volume” (stress) than others. Believe me, we do convey a lot of meaning through how much stress we place in a sentence and which word the stress is on.
Consider the following example:

I did not say you stole my red hat.

At the moment, nothing is particularly stressed. The meaning seems fairly obvious. But what if some stress is placed on the first word - I:

I did not say you stole my red hat.

Then the meaning contains the idea that someone else said it, not me. Stress the second and third word and you get another shade of meaning:

I did not say you stole my red hat. (Strong anger and denial of the fact.)
I did not say you stole my red hat.
I did not say you stole my red hat. (But I implied it that you did. Did you?)
I did not say you stole my red hat (I wasn't accusing you. I know it was someone else)
I did not say you stole my red hat. (I said you did something else with it, or maybe borrowed it.)
I did not say you stole my red hat. (I meant that you stole someone else's red hat)
I did not say you stole my red hat. (I said that you stole my blue hat.)
I did not say that you stole my red hat. (I said that you stole my red bat. You misunderstood my pronunciation)

Analyzing this way, you can see how important stress is in English. Now, you need to understand which words we generally stress and which we do not stress. Stressed words carry the meaning or the sense behind the sentence, and for this reason they are called content words – they carry the content of the sentence. The example below gives us three content words – LIVES, HOUSE and CORNER:

he LIVES in the HOUSE on the CORNER.




These three content words carry the most important ideas in the sentence. Unstressed words tend to be smaller words which we need in order to make our language hold together. They help the sentence “function” and for this reason they are called function words. 




Content Words

Function Words

Main Verbs

go, talk, writing


I, you, he ,they


student, desk


on, under, with


big, clever


the, a, some


quickly, loudly


but, and, so

Negative Aux. Verbs

can’t, don’t, aren’t

Auxiliary Verbs

can, should, must


this, that, those

Verb “to be”

is, was, am

Question Words

who, which, where



Now, say this sentence aloud and count how many seconds it takes:




The beautiful Mountain appeared transfixed in the distance.

Time required? Probably about 5 seconds. Now, try speaking this sentence aloud: 



      He can come on Sundays as long as he doesn't have to do any homework in the evening.

Time required? Probably about 5 seconds. But the first sentence is much shorter than the second sentence?! How’s it possible? The thing is that Even though the second sentence is approximately 30% longer than the first, it has the same number of stressed words – 5.  From this example, you can see that you needn't worry about pronouncing every word clearly to be understood. You should however, concentrate on pronouncing the stressed words clearly.

You will soon find that you can understand and communicate more because you begin to listen for (and use in speaking) stressed words. All those words that you thought you didn't understand are really not crucial for understanding the sense or making yourself understood. Stressed words are the key to excellent pronunciation and understanding of English. I hope this ode to the importance of stress in English will help you to improve your understanding and speaking skills :-).

Now watch the videos to review what we’ve learned this time:






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