Syllables and Stress

Syllables and Stress Patterns in EnglishEnglish 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.

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:

One syllable

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

Words with one syllable

Two syllables

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

Three syllables

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

Four syllables

Understanding, indecisive, conversation, realistic, moisturising, American, psychology, gregarious, independence, affordable, memorandum, controversial, superior, gymnasium, entrepreneur, traditional, transformation, remembering, establishment, vegetation, affectionate, acupuncture, invertebrate

Five syllables

Organisation, uncontrollable, inspirational, misunderstanding, conversational, opinionated, biological, subordination, determination, sensationalist, refrigerator, haberdashery, hospitality, conservatory, procrastination, disobedience, electrifying, consideration, apologetic, particularly, compartmentalise, hypochondria

Six syllables

Responsibility, idiosyncratic, discriminatory, invisibility, capitalisation, extraterrestrial, reliability, autobiography, unimaginable, characteristically, superiority, antibacterial, disciplinarian, environmentalist, materialism, biodiversity, criminalisation, imaginatively, disobediently

Seven syllables

Industrialisation, multiculturalism, interdisciplinary, radioactivity, unidentifiable, environmentalism, individuality, vegetarianism, unsatisfactorily, electrocardiogram

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, 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.

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).
  • 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).

'ism' - word of the year 2015

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 - words and syllables

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!

Words that have the same spelling but a different pronunciation and meaning are called heteronyms. 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).

Stress patterns in compound words 

Compound words are single words made up of two distinct parts. They are sometimes hyphenated. Here are examples of compound words and their stress patterns:

  • 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 still 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.

syllables - 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 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.

thief stole money

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.

stressed - syllables and stress patterns

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’.

Lips - syllables and stress patterns in English

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’.

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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31 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.

    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,

  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,

  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

  11. Thanks for your comment, Amy. We have added a section about words ending in ‘sm’ and ‘ous’ in the English Stress Rules section. I hope this helps.

  12. wow! this is great and really helpful. can there be stress on other parts of speech in a sentence other than nouns and verbs? if yes, examples pls

  13. Hi Noah,

    I’m glad you found the page useful! Normally a sentence stresses the nouns and verbs because these are the most important ‘content’ words. Other words can also be stressed, such as adjectives and adverbs. For example: ‘She bought a big, red car’ – here the adjectives ‘big’ and ‘red’ and the noun ‘car’ would all normally be stressed. In the sentence: ‘They walked quickly to the office’ the adverb ‘quickly’ would also be stressed alongside the verb ‘walked’ and the noun ‘office’.

    Structural words, such as conjunctions and prepositions, are rarely stressed. The exception to this is when emphasising a point or correcting information. For example: ‘He cooked chicken and beef for dinner’ – here the most important aspect of the sentence is not that he cooked dinner (that information is expected or already known by the listener), but that he cooked both meats. Stressing the conjunction ‘and’ helps us understand this meaning.

    I hope that helps!

  14. Hi Ijeoma, the ‘ing’ ending adds another syllable to the word but the ‘ing’ ending is always unstressed. For example: ‘drive’ (1 syllable) becomes ‘driving’ (2 syllables) and ‘moisturise’ (3 syllables) becomes ‘moisturising’ (4 syllables).

  15. i really love this. pls what is the stress of the word that end wit MENT example goverment

  16. Thanks for your comment, Marcell. I’m really pleased the article helped you! It means a lot to know that learners are benefiting from the content. You might also find our pages on intonation and rhythm of English useful. Good luck with your language learning!

  17. Hi Abu!

    In the word ‘government’ the stress is on the first syllable: government. This is because ‘ment’ is used here as a suffix and does not change the stress of the original word (govern – government). ‘Ment’ is often used as a suffix like this to change a verb into a noun, but the new word will always follow its original stress rule – the ‘ment’ is never stressed.

    Other examples of this: ‘announce‘ – ‘announcement’, ‘disappoint‘ – ‘disappointment’, ‘commit‘ – ‘commitment’, ‘develop’ – ‘development’.

    For words ending in ‘ment’ where the ‘ment’ part is not a suffix, the stress can be more difficult to place. Here are some examples:
    cement, figment, augment, sediment, parliament, impediment, compliment.

    If the word is longer than 2 syllables and the ‘ment’ is not a suffix, the stress will not be on ‘ment’. In words with 2 syllables the stress can be on either the first or last syllable and sometimes this can change the meaning of the word (e.g. ‘torment’ (noun) and ‘to torment‘ (verb).

    Can any readers think of any word with more than 2 syllables ending in ‘ment’, where the ‘ment’ is not a suffix and the stress is on the ‘ment’? This is an interesting challenge!

    Hope this explanation helps, Abu 🙂

  18. I Really Appreciate These..But According To The Rule,two Syllable Words that is”verb and adjective” Will Have Their stress on the second sylable then why is it GOVern and nt govERN

  19. Hi Ayomide, thanks for your comment! The word ‘govern’ is a verb (‘to govern’) but not an adjective. The related adjective would be ‘governed’. For words with two syllables that are adjectives and verbs the stress will usually be on the second syllable, but this is only a general rule and you will find exceptions.

    Some examples of exceptions are: ‘open’ – ‘to open’ (verb) and ‘an open book’ (adjective); ‘better’ – ‘to better’ (verb, ‘to better something’ means to improve on it) and ‘a better book’ (adjective); ‘baby’ – ‘to baby (someone)’ (verb, meaning to pamper/mollycoddle) and ‘a baby sparrow’ (adjective)
    All these words are also nouns – could this be why they are pronounced on their first syllable? Can anyone think of other two-syllable words that are stressed on the first syllable and are both adjectives and verbs – but are not also nouns?

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