English Syllables and Stress Patterns
Syllables and stress are two of the main areas of spoken language. Pronouncing words with the stress on the correct syllables will help you improve your spoken English, make your sentences easier to understand and help you sound more like a native speaker.
The English language is heavily stressed with each word divided into syllables. English is classed as a ‘stress-based’ language , which means the meanings of words can be altered significantly by a change in stress. This is why it is important to develop an understanding of English syllables and stress patterns.
Here are some examples of English words with different numbers of syllables, followed by a series of examples of correct stress placement:
The, cold, quite, bed, add, start, hope, clean, trade, green, chair, sign, pea, wish, drive, plant, square, give, law, off, trough
Party, special, today, quiet, orange, partner, table, demand, power, retrieve, doctor, engine, diet, transcribe, contain, cabbage, mountain, defend, spacial, greedy, exchange, manage, carpet, although
Fantastic, energy, expensive, wonderful, laughable, badminton, idiot, celery, beautiful, aggression, computer, journalist, horrify, gravity, temptation, trampoline, industry, distinguished, however, tremendous
Uncontrollable, inspirational, misunderstanding, conversational, opinionated, biological, subordination, determination, sensationalist, refrigerator, haberdashery, hospitality
English Stress Patterns
Usually one syllable of a word is stressed more than the others. This is how words and sentences develop their own rhythm.
Syllables and stress patterns in the English language help to create the sounds, pronunciations and rhythms that we hear all around us.
We come to recognise these syllables and stress patterns in conversations in real life interactions and on the radio and television. Here are some words from the above lists with the stressed syllable in bold:
Two syllable words stress patterns:
Quiet, party, special, today, orange, partner, table, demand, power, retrieve, engine, diet, greedy, exchange, manage, carpet, although
Three syllable words stress patterns:
Fantastic, energy, expensive, aggresion, wonderful, laughable, badminton, celery, temptation, trampoline, industry, dintinguished, however, tremendous, library
Four syllable words stress patterns:
Understanding, indecisive, conversation, realistic, moisturising, American, psychology, independence, entrepreneur, transformation, fascinating, comfortable
Five syllable words stress patterns:
Uncontrollable, inspirational, misunderstanding, conversational, opinionated, biological, alphabetical, subordination, refrigerator, haberdashery, hospitality
Syllables and Stress Patterns in Speech
Clear syllables and stress patterns are an important part of speech. The correct stress is crucial for understanding a word quickly and accurately in English.
Even if you cannot hear a word well and are not familiar with the context, you can often still work out what the word is from the stress pattern.
Learning a language is all about communication and being able to make yourself understood. This is why syllables and stress patterns in spoken English are so important.
English Stress Rules
- Only vowel sounds are stressed (a,e,i,o,u).
- A general rule is that for two syllable words, nouns and adjectives have the stress on the first syllable, but verbs have the stress on the second syllable.
For example: table (noun), special (adjective), demand (verb).
- Words ending in ‘ic’, ‘tion’ or ‘sion’ always place their stress on the penultimate (second to last) syllable. (e.g. supersonic, Atlantic, dedication, attention, transformation, comprehension).
- Words ending in ‘cy’, ‘ty’, ‘gy’ and ‘al’ always place their stress on the third from last syllable. (e.g. accountancy, sincerity, chronology, inspirational, hypothetical).
Stress can changing the meaning of a word
Remember, where we place the stress can change the meaning of a word. This can lead to some funny misunderstandings – and some frustrating conversations! Here are a few examples of words where the stressed syllable changes the meaning of the word:
The word ‘object’ is an example of a word that can change meaning depending on which syllable is stressed. When the word is pronounced ‘object’ (with a stress on the first syllable) the word is a noun meaning an ‘item’, ‘purpose’ or ‘person/thing that is the focus’ of a sentence. But the same word is pronounced ‘object‘ (with the emphasis on the second syllable) the word is now a verb, meaning ‘to disagree with’ something or someone.
When the word ‘present’ is pronounced ‘present’ (with the stress on the first syllable) the word is a noun meaning ‘a gift’ or an adjective meaning ‘here / not absent’. But when the word is pronounced ‘present’ (with the stress on the second syllable) the word is now a verb meaning ‘to present’ something or someone (i.e. to introduce).
Another example of the same word changing meaning depending on where you place the stress is the word ‘project’. This can be the noun, ‘project’ (a task), or a verb, ‘to project‘ (to throw or to protrude).
Compound words (single words made up of two distinct parts, sometimes hyphenated)
- Compound nouns have the stress on the first part: e.g. sugarcane, beetroot, henhouse, tripwire, lighthouse, newspaper, porthole, roundabout, willpower
- Compound adjectives and verbs have the stress on the second part:
e.g. wholehearted, green-fingered, old-fashioned, to understand, to inform, to short-change, to overtake
English Stress Patterns within a Sentence
Once you know where to put the stress on each individual word in English, you need to know which words to stress as part of the sentence as a whole. This is how stress patterns are related to the rhythm of English.
English speakers tend to put an emphasis on the most important words in a sentence in order to draw the listener’s attention to them. The most important words are the words that are necessary for the meaning of the sentence. For example:
‘The cat sat on the mat while eating its favourite food’
The most important words here are: ‘cat’, ‘mat’, ‘eating’ and ‘food’. Even if you only heard those words, you would be able to understand what was happening in the sentence from hearing which words are stressed.
The adjectives, adverbs and conjunctions all add flavour to the sentence but they are not absolutely necessary to understand the meaning.
In our example sentence: ‘The cat sat on the mat while eating its favourite food’, we have already used the word ‘cat’ so we do not need to emphasise the word ‘its’ (or ‘he/she’ if you want to give the cat a gender), because we already know who is eating (i.e. the cat).
Stressed Vowel Sounds and Weak Vowels
The necessary words in a sentence are stressed more by increasing the length and clarity of the vowel sound. In contrast, the unnecessary words are stressed less by using a shorter and less clear vowel sound. This is called a ‘weak’ vowel sound.
In fact, sometimes the vowel sound is almost inaudible. For example, the letter ‘a’ in English is often reduced to a muffled ‘uh’ sound.
You can hear this ‘weak’ vowel sound at the start of the words ‘about’ and ‘attack’. They can sound like ‘ubout’ and ‘uttack’ when spoken by a native English speaker. The article ‘a’ as a single word is also reduced in this way to a weak ‘uh’ sound.
The reason for this weak stress pattern is to help the rhythm and speed of speech. Using this weak ‘uh’ sound for the vowel ‘a’ helps the speaker get ready for the next stressed syllable by keeping the mouth and lips in a neutral position.
To pronounce the ‘a’ more clearly would require a greater opening of the mouth, which would slow the speaker down. As English is a stress-timed language, the regular stresses are vital for the rhythm of the language, so the vowel sounds of unstressed words often get ‘lost’.
In contrast, syllable-timed languages (such as Spanish) tend to stress the vowel sounds strongly, while the consonants can get ‘lost’.
What do you think about syllables and stress in English?
Do you find the syllables and stress patterns a difficult part of learning a new language?
Have you had any funny misunderstandings from stressing the wrong syllable in English? We’d love to hear your stories.
Do you have any ideas to help EFL students improve their understanding of syllables and stress? Let us know your thoughts in the comments box.