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.
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.
The English language is heavily stressed with each word divided into syllables. 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, cat, sign, pea, wish, drive, plant, square, give, wait, law, off, hear, trough, eat, rough, trout, shine, watch, for, out, catch, flight, rain, speech, crab, lion, knot, fixed, slope, live, reach, trade, light, moon, wash, trend, balm, walk, sew, joke, tribe, brooch
Party, special, today, quiet, orange, partner, table, demand, power, retrieve, doctor, engine, diet, transcribe, contain, cabbage, mountain, humour, defend, spacial, greedy, exchange, manage, carpet, although, trophy, insist, tremble, balloon, healthy, shower, verbal, business, mortgage, fashion, hover, butcher, magic, broken
Fantastic, energy, expensive, wonderful, laughable, badminton, idiot, celery, beautiful, aggression, computer, journalist, horrify, gravity, temptation, dieting, trampoline, industry, distinguished, however, tremendous, justify, inflation, creation, injustice, energise, glittering, tangible, mentalise, laughable, dialect, crustacean, origin
Understanding, indecisive, conversation, realistic, moisturising, American, psychology, gregarious, independence, affordable, memorandum, controversial, superior, gymnasium, entrepreneur, traditional, transformation, remembering, establishment, vegetation, affectionate, acupuncture, invertebrate
Organisation, uncontrollable, inspirational, misunderstanding, conversational, opinionated, biological, subordination, determination, sensationalist, refrigerator, haberdashery, hospitality, conservatory, procrastination, disobedience, electrifying, consideration, apologetic, particularly, compartmentalise, hypochondria
Responsibility, idiosyncratic, discriminatory, invisibility, capitalisation, extraterrestrial, reliability, autobiography, unimaginable, characteristically, superiority, antibacterial, disciplinarian, environmentalist, materialism, biodiversity, criminalisation, imaginatively, disobediently
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.
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, relax, comfort
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
Six syllable words stress patterns:
Responsibility, idiosyncratic, invisibility, capitalisation, discriminatory or discriminatory, antibacterial, superiority, autobiography, materialism, biodiversity, criminalisation, imaginatively,
Seven syllable words stress patterns:
Industrialisation, multiculturalism, interdisciplinary, radioactivity, unidentifiable, environmentalism, individuality, vegetarianism, unsatisfactorily, electrocardiogram
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).
- Words ending in ‘sm’ with 3 or fewer syllables have their stress on the first syllable (e.g. prism, schism, autism, botulism, sarcasm) unless they are extensions of a stem word. This is often the case with words ending ‘ism’.
Words ending in ‘ism’ tend to follow the stress rule for the stem word with the ‘ism’ tagged onto the end (e.g. cannibal = cannibalism, expression = expressionism, feminist = feminism, opportunist = opportunism).
Words ending in ‘sm’ with 4 or more syllables tend to have their stress on the second syllable (e.g. enthusiasm, metabolism).
Words ending in ‘ous’
- Words ending in ‘ous’ with 2 syllables have their stress on the first syllable (e.g. monstrous, pious, anxious, pompous, zealous, conscious, famous, gracious, gorgeous, jealous, joyous).
Words ending in ‘ous’ with 4 syllables usually have their stress on the second syllable (e.g. gregarious, anonymous, superfluous, androgynous, carnivorous, tempestuous, luxurious, hilarious, continuous, conspicuous). There are some exceptions, such as sacrilegious, which stresses the 3rd syllable..
Words ending in ‘ous’ with 3 or more syllables do not always follow a set pattern. Here are some common words with 3 syllables ending in ‘ous’ and their stress placement:
Words ending in ‘ous’ with stress on first syllable
fabulous, frivolous, glamorous, calculus, dubious, envious, scandalous, serious, tenuous, chivalrous, dangerous, furious
Words ending in ‘ous’ with stress on second syllable
enormous, audacious, facetious, disastrous, ficticious, horrendous, contagious, ambitious, courageous
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 sentence stress
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 and help create the ‘music’ of a language.
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 the food (i.e. the cat).
English stress patterns within a sentence
Stress patterns affect words and sentences. The stress on a word is the emphasis placed on that word. In the sentence below, “I never said she stole my money”, the stressed word will change the meaning or implication of the sentence:
Stressing the first word ‘I’ implies that I (the speaker) never said it. It might be true or it might not be true – the point is, I never said it – someone else did.
Stressing the second word ‘never’ emphasises that I never said it. There was never an occasion when I said it (whether it is true or not).
Stressing the third word ‘said’ means that I never said it. She might have stolen it, but I did not say it. I might have thought it, but I never said it out loud.
Stressing the fourth word ‘my’ implies that it was not my money she stole – she stole someone else’s money
Stressing the fifth word ‘money’ emphases that it was not my money she stole – she stole something else belonging to me.
So in a sentence, the word stress in English makes all the difference to the meaning of the whole.
Stress affects not only the individual word but the entire sentence. This issue is strongly related to the rhythm of English. Getting the right stress and rhythm leads to the perfect communication of your intended message.
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. Grammarians call this a ‘shwa’ or /ə/.
You can hear this ‘weak’ vowel sound at the start of the words ‘about’ and ‘attack’ and at the end of the word ‘banana’. They can sound like ‘ubout’, ‘uttack’ and ‘bananuh’ when spoken by a native English speaker. The article ‘a’ as a single word is also unstressed and reduced in this way to a weak ‘uh’ sound.
For example: ‘Is there a shop nearby?’ sounds like ‘Is there-uh shop nearby?’ This shwa can also be heard in other instances such as in the word ‘and’. For example: ‘This book is for me and you’ can sound sound like ‘This book is for me un(d) you’.
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 work in the opposite way, stressing the vowel sounds strongly, while the consonants 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.