Syllables and Stress

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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.

 

Syllables

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:

One syllable

The, cold, quite, bed, add, start, hope, clean, trade, green, chair, sign, pea, wish, drive, plant, square, give, law, off, trough

Two syllables

Party, special, today, quiet, orange, partner, table, demand, power, retrieve, doctor, engine, diet, transcribe, contain, cabbage, mountain, defend, spacial, greedy, exchange, manage, carpet, although

 

Three syllables

Fantastic, energy, expensive, wonderful, laughable, badminton, idiot, celery, beautiful, aggression, computer, journalist, horrify, gravity, temptation, trampoline, industry, distinguished, however, tremendous

Four syllables

Understanding, indecisive, conversation, realistic, moisturising, American, psychology, gregarious, independence, affordable, controversial, gymnasium, entrepreneur, transformation, remembering

Five syllables

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, todayorange, partner, table, demandpower, retrieveengine,  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

Electronic Dictionaries and Translators

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.

In the same way, if a learner pronounces a word differently from the accepted norm, it can be hard for a native speaker to understand the word.

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:

  • Object

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.

stressed syllables object

  • Present

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).

  • Project

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.

Clearly, it is the nouns and verbs that are the most important parts of the sentence, as these are the ‘content words’ that help with meaning.

The adjectives, adverbs and conjunctions all add flavour to the sentence but they are not absolutely necessary to understand the meaning.

cat on mat eating food

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.

stressed

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’.

Click on the highlighted text to learn more about how stress relates to the rhythm of English and intonation in English.

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.

 

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20 thoughts on “Syllables and Stress

  1. Hi Niki

    A good way to practise the syllables and patterns of the English language is to use nursery rhymes and children’s songs. These usually have simple vocabulary so the student can listen to the patterns rather than concentrate on the meaning. http://www.myenglishlanguage.com/2012/08/24/teach-efl-using-nursery-rhymes/

    Another useful tool for music fans is pop music from the 1950s and 1960s. Artists like Elvis Presley have simple, effective lyrics that are easy to understand, leaving the listener free to focus on the sounds of the words.

    Do any readers have other suggetsions for great listening practice?

    Best wishes,
    Catherine

  2. Hi Utile, I’m really glad you found the article helpful! You might also our articles on Phonology and Speaking/Listening skills 🙂

  3. Hi Asmaa,
    Stress determines which syllable is emphasised the most and the least during speech, rhythm concerns the gaps between syllables during speech and intonation is all about voice pitch (e.g. the voice rises at the end of a sentence to form a question). We will be publishing an article about this topic soon, so watch this space 🙂
    Best wishes,
    Catherine

  4. The ‘tion’ at the end of many English words is thought to have developed from Norman French influence (you can see our History of English section for more about the influence of the Norman Conquest). English words ending in ‘tion’ are usually pronounced with a ‘sh’ sound but when the letter ‘s’ precedes the ‘tion’, the word is normally pronounced with a ‘ch’ sound. For example, ‘intention’ and ‘position’ have a ‘sh’ sound, but ‘question’ and ‘suggestion’ have a ‘ch’ sound’.
    I hope this helps 🙂

  5. How would you break procrastination? since I blv the type of English you speak would influence the pronunciation.Which syllable would then be stressed?

  6. Hi Sherin, the word ‘procrastination’ follows the 5 syllable pattern for a word ending in ‘tion’, so the stress comes on the 4th or penultimate syllable – procrastiNAtion (just like the word ‘pronunciAtion’).

  7. Hi. which syllable carries the stress in this words? Pronunciation, homogenous, determination, education. Thanks

  8. Hi Olakunle, thanks for your question. These words are pronounced as follows with the stress falling on the letters in bold:

    Pronunciation, homogenous, determination, education

    Homogenous (4 syllables) is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable. There is another very similar word, homogeneous (5 syllables) which is pronounced with the stress on the third syllable. The difference is all in the extra ‘e’.

    The words ending in ‘ation’ always have a stress on the penultimate syllable (‘a’)

    I hope this helps!

  9. I cant close this page without saying a big thank you.
    infanct you make me understand this concept to the best of my knowledge.

  10. Thank you so so much. Pls I still need clarity on words ending n with ‘sm” and “ous” Thank you

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