6 Word Stress

6 Word Stress

Most English words of two or more syllables have one prominent syllable that sounds longer, louder and higher in pitch than the other ones. This prominent one is said to be the stressed syllable of the word, the word stress. Speech can be hard to understand when the strongly stressed syllable is not clear or the wrong syllable is stressed.

Ex.1 Listen to the following sentences. The meaning changes when you change the stress.

(1)Look at the ?desert.

Look at the des?sert.

(2)My aunt lives in ?Egypt now.

My aunt lives in a ?jeep now.

(3)She lives in ?misery.

She lives in Mis?souri /m??z??r? /.

(4)What do you think of the ?comedy?

What do you think of the com?mittee?

6.1 What makes a syllable prominent?

What makes a syllable prominent? At least four factors are important. They are pitch, loudness, length and quality. Generally the four factors work together in combination, though syllables may sometimes be made prominent by means of only one or two of them. Pitch, especially pitch change, produces the strongest effect in stress or prominence, and length is also a powerful factor. So we signal the stressed syllable by making it longer, louder and higher in pitch. The unstressed and lightly stressed syllables in a word are shorter, weaker and lower in pitch than the stressed syllable.

6.2 Levels of stress

We have talked about two levels of stress: stressed and unstressed. This is inadequate for

representing English stress. According to Gimson’s Pronunciation of English, 6th edition revised by Cruttenden (2001), in a word of many syllables, there may be up to four degrees of stress (or prominence): primary, secondary, minor (or weak) and unstressed. But in practical use, three degrees are usually marked. The weak and unstressed are usually regarded as one, unstressed syllable. Written English does not have stress mark. Different degrees of stress are represented in

the transcription of words. [?] marks primary stress, [,] marks secondary stress, and unstressed syllables are marked by being unmarked. The stress-mark is put before the element on which the stress begins as in /, fo?t??gr?f?k/ (photographic), /pr?,n?ns??e???n/ (pronunciation).

6.3 Stress patterns in simple words

It is a highly complex matter to analyze English stress placement, because there is no fixed place for primary stress in English words. In most cases no rules can be formulated, and even when they can, they have a lot of exceptions. The following are some general rules which can be observed.

1)For most two-syllable words have stress on the first syllable, and more than 90 percent of

two-syllable English nouns foolow this pattern (?), eg. Corner, person.

Ex.2 Listen and read the following words and phrases with correct stress: pencil a sharp pencil

sofa a new sofa

party a great party

table a black table

doctor a good doctor

Some two-syllable words have stress on the second syllable and more than 60 percent of two-syllable words follow this stress pattern ( ?), e.g. prevent, remind.

Ex.3 Now listen and read the following phrases correctly:

reduce pain enjoy the dinner

produce grain prepare a lesson

behave yourself appoint the officers

prevent accidents correct a composition

conclude a speech receive a phone call

2)Most three-syllable words have stress on the first syllable (?), for

example, hospital, beautiful, holiday.

Ex.4 Say these phrases:

a big family

a new hospital

a set of furniture

a happy holiday

a wonderful idea

a terrible accident

Some of these words have stress on the middle syllable ( ?).

Say these phrases: a good example

a large committee

a fantastic plan

Stress on the last syllable in the words ( ?).

Say these phrases: underneath the chair

easy to understand

in the afternoon

Most words of more than three syllables also have stress on the third syllable from the end, for example,

?responsible, identical, apology, economy

, ?opportunity, university, immatunity, bibliography

3)For words of two or three syllables with one of the following prefixes,

the stress usually falls on the syllable following the prefix.

Ex.5 Please notice the prefixes and read the following words with correct stress:

a-ago, along, about, around, appear

be- begin, below, before, become, behave

com- combine, compare, complain, command, complete

con- contain, conclude, connect, convince, condition

de- detect, design, defeat, depart, delay

em- embark, employ, embody, embrace, embarrass

en- enjoy, engage, enrich, enslave, endure

es- escape, establish, especial, essential, estrange

ex- excited, excuse, express, example, explain

im- impress, important, imply, improve, impossible

in- inform, intend, indeed,include, incurious

ob- obtain, observe, obstruct, objective, obsess

per- permit, perform, persuade, perceive, persist

pre- prepare, prefer, prepay, prevent, pretend

pro- protect, promote, protest, protect, produce

sub- submit, submerge, subsist, subjective,submit

trans- transform, translate, transcribe, transmit, transplant

4)For words with the following suffixes, the stress nearly always falls on the

syllable preceding the suffix.

Ex.6 Readafter the tape, paying attention to the suffixes.

-ian musician, physician, politician, phonetician

-ic music, atomic,historic, scientific

-ical physical, historical, chemical, political

-ial social, essential, official, especial

-ion million, opinion, revolution, impression, discussion

-ify simplify, beautify, purify, modify

-ible possible, terrible, responsible, horrible

-ient patient, efficient, sufficient, convenient

-ience patience, convenience, audience, experience

-ity ability, activity, possibility, responsibility

-ish foolish, childish, bookish, publish, establish

-eous hideous, courageous, advantageous,

-ious conscious, glorious, anxious, curious, delicious

-ive native, active, objective, progressive, comprehensive

-ant assistant, important, constant, resistant, dependant

Note: The following suffixes do not influence the place of word-stress: -ed,-es,-er,-est,-or,-ary,-ory,-ment,-ous,-cy,

-ry,-ty,-al,-ure,-ute,-ble,-ar,-ly,-less,-ness,-ful,-ing. For example:

prison—prisoner move—movement

conquer—conqueror carry—carrying

custom—customary beauty—beautiful

proper—property sorrow—sorrowness

quick—quickly help—helpless

5)Some suffixes attract the primary stress onto themselves. There is a secondary

stress on the first syllable in words with such suffixes. Suffixes of this kind are as


-ain(for verbs only), -ee, -eer, -ier,-ade,-ese,-itis, -mental (-ental).

Ex.7 Listen and read after the tape, paying attention to different stress patterns:

refuge //——refugee //

employ //——employee //

engine //——engineer //

mountain //——mountaineer //

government//——governmental //

fundament //——fundamental //

accident //——accidental //

bombard //——bombardier //

lemon //——lemonade //

orange //——orangeade //

gastric// ——gastritis //

Japan//——Japanese //

6)Many English words of three or more syllables may have two stresses: primary

and secondary. The presence and the position of the secondary stress in English words are governed by the following rules:

(1)Al English words of more than three syllables with the primary stress on the

third or fourth syllable from the beginning have a secondary stress on the first or second syllable, e.g.

recommend //

magazine //

university //


(2)Words of three or more syllables in which the stress falls on the first or second

syllable are pronounced without a secondary stress, e.g. hospital, necessary, opinion, contemporary.

(3)All English words with the primary stress on the fourth or fifth syllable from

the beginning, formed with suffixes which attract the primary stress onto the syllable immediately preceding the suffix, have a secondary stress on the syllable on which the primary stress falls in the original words.


investigate //——investigation //

peculiar //——peculiarity //

enthusiasm //——enthusiastic //

experiment//——experimental //

6.4 Word-class pairs

There are several dozen pairs of two-syllable words with identical spelling which differ from each other in stress placement, apparently according to word class (noun, verb or adjective). In each of the following pairs, one of them is a verb and the other is either a noun or an adjective, the stress will be placed on the second syllable of the verb, but on the first syllable of the noun or adjective. Some common examples are given below (V=verb, A=adjective, N=noun): abstract // (A), // (V)

conduct //(A), // (V)

export //(N), // (V)

object//(N), // (V)

present //(N, A), // (V)

protest//(N), // (V)

Ex.8 Read the pairs of words to get their meanings.


contest win a contest contest a traffic ticket

objetct a pretty object object to what was said

contract sign a contract contract a project to a company conflict a conflict in the family classtime conflict with work

content the content of a box content oneself with a little success conduct good conduct medal conduct a band

produce farm produce produce cars and trucks

Ex.9 Read the pairs of words above in sentences. Put in stress in the words used in sentences.

(1)Why does he contest every word I say?

I lost the contest.

(2)What is that strange object?

I object to your statement.

(3)Content yourself with reading this.

Guess what the content of the letter is.

(4)The store’s produce is fresh.

Our farmers produce corn and wheat.

(5)His conduct is bad.

Will you conduct us to the boss?

(6)I refuse to leave.

Get the refuse into the cans.

(7)The TV show conflicts with the game.

There were many conflicts over the job.

(8)Let me present you with a birthday present.

6.5 Stress of compound words

We now pass on to another type of words, compounds. A compound can be analysed into two words, both of which can exist independently as English words. Compounds are written in different ways; some are written as one word, e.g. birthday, armchair. Some are separated by a hyphen, e.g. second-band, fruit-cake, and others may be separately by a space, e.g. desk lamp, computer virus.

As far as stress is concerned, some rules can be used, though there may be exceptions.

1)Most compound words have a primary stress on the first element, e.g. ?sunset (n.)

, ?newspaper (n.), ?note-book (n.), ?ladylike (a.), ?trustworthy(a.), ?get-out (n.), ?turn-about (n.).

2)If the first part of the compound is (in a broad sense) adjectival, the stress

goes on the second element, with a secondary stress on the first, e.g.

loud? speaker, second-?class, sky?blue, three?wheeler, bad-?tempered, absent-?minded, hand-?made, hard-?working.

3)Incompinds of two nouns, if the first noun indicates the material of or with

which the second is made, we use a primary stress on the second noun, with a secondary stress on the first noun. For example,

brick-?house (a house built of bricks)

stone-?bridge (a bridge built of stone)

paper-?bag (a bag made of paper)

glass ?door (a door made of glass)

4)In compounds of two nouns, if the first noun indicates the use of the second one, we have a primary stress on the first noun. For example:

?paper bag (a bag for keeping paper in)

?farm tool (a tool for doing farm work with)

?stone cutter (a machine for cutting stone)

1)In compound nouns if the first noun implies some contrast, we use single stress

on the first noun, for example,

?apple tree, ?orange juice, ?post card, ?post bag

2)In compound nouns, if the first noun is (in a broad sense) the object of the second

noun, we usually use single stress on the first noun, for example,

?hair dresser, ?story teller, ?door keeper, ?bus driver, ?watch maker

3)In the combination of a gerund and a noun, we always use single stress on the

gerund, for example:

?printing shop ?swimming pool

?reading room ?working condition

But in the combination of a present participle and a noun, the noun must be stressed, for example,

floating ?boat running?water

smiling ?girl cleaning ?woman

Ex.10 Here are some phrases and compounds with –ing- words. Compare the patterns. Read across and associate meanings:

(1)smoking room a room on fire (that is smoking)

smoking room a room where one may smoke (for smoking)

(2)dancing girl a girl who is dancing

dancing girl a girl who dances professionally

(3)smoking jacket a jacket on fire

smoking jacket a jacket commonly worn while smoking

(4)racing car a car that is speeding or racing

racing car a car used for formal racing

(5)rocking chair a chair that is rocking

rocking chair a chair built and used for rocking

(6)singing voice a voice that is singing

singing voice a voice appropriate for singing

(7)hunting dog a dog that is hunting

hunting dog a dog used for hunting

(8)cheering section a section (of people) who are cheering

cheering section a section (of students) organized to encourage athletic team 4)The stress pattern of compound noun must be distinguished from those of noun

phrases which are formed by adjective +noun or noun +noun and which typically have a secondary stress +primary stress except in cases when an emphatic contrast is intended on the first element, for example, the noun phrase ―black board‖ indicates a board which is black. The compound noun ―blackboard‖ refers to a board used in schoolrooms on which the teacher writes or draws with chalk.

Ex.11 In the following exercise be sure that you accurately and carefully distinguish the phrases from the compound nouns. Note that the stress contrast helps to differentiate the two patterns.

Noun phrase Compound

( ?) ( ?)

black bird blackbird

dark room darkroom

gold fish goldfish

green house greenhouse

red cap redcap

free way freeway

short hand shorthand

grey beard greybeard

tall boy tallboy

white house White House

toy store toy store

head doctor head doctor

English teacher English teacher

7 Sentence Stress





8 Rhythm in English Speech