A guide on word stress

This section of the English Phonetics Academy designed to provide guidance and practice in English pronunciation through the use of phonetics. The exercises and drills included will aid in reducing accents and improving overall speech sound production. These lessons are particularly beneficial for non-native speakers looking to improve their English-speaking skills.

3. Word stress

Just as languages differ with regard to the sets of vowels and consonants they have and their distribution and realization, so they will differ with respect to rhythm and intonation and in the way, words are stressed.

If we want to learn to pronounce a foreign language realistically, we must therefore not only pay attention to the segmental aspects, i.e. to the vowels and consonants, but also to the suprasegmental aspects. In this chapter, we will deal with word stress.

We will discuss a number of regularities in the position of stress in English words. We discuss the position of the stress in pairs of words like an insult and to insult, in adjectives that end in suffixes, like /əbl/, (admirable); in words that have two stresses, like association, and in compounds like town hall, dark room.

The last section deals with stress shift, a phenomenon that can be observed in, for instance, twenty-one: compare I’m twenty-‘one (with the stress on one with ‘twenty-one ‘years (with the accent on twenty).

Words for which no general rule can be given, but which are frequently mispronounced by learners because they place the stress on the wrong syllable, have been included in the Pronunciation List.

Look the following words up and determine the position of the main word stress.

  • also
  • although
  • baptize
  • capsize
  • cigarette
  • cylinder
  • execute
  • Illinois
  • interview
  • magazine
  • mistake
  • pedestal
  • unrest

3.1 The stress in homographs


There are many instances in English of nouns that are written in the same way as verbs, like an insult and to insult, and of adjectives that are spelled the same as verbs, like absent and to absent. In the majority of such homographic pairs the noun or adjective is stressed on the first syllable, the verb on the second. Notice that as a result of the different placing of the stress, the verb often has different vowels from the noun or adjective.

The list below is a selection of such pairs. The verb is always placed under the noun or adjective; when the first word is an adjective, or an adjective and a noun, this is indicated accordingly; when no indication is given it is only a noun. In the third column, a variety of examples of sentences will be found.

By combining the pronunciation with the meaning, or one of the meanings, of the words in this way you will find it easier to learn them. In some cases, one of the members of a pair may be relatively rare or formal: these are marked (form). Alternatives are given in parentheses.

absent (adj.) æbsnt  
əbˈsɛnt to ~ oneself from a meeting
abstract (n/adj.) ˈæbstrækt  
əbˈstrækt with an abstracted air: ietwat afwezig
accent ˈæksɛnt (-snt) to speak with an ~
ækˈsɛnt (ək-) the accented syllable
addict ˈædɪkt  
əˈdɪkt usu: to get/ become addicted (to)
affix ˈæfɪks un- and -less are affixes
əˈfɪks to ~ a stamp to a letter (form)
ally ˈælaɪ The Allies (= The Allied Powers)
əˈlaɪ to join by agreement (form)
but: ˈælaɪd (used before nouns) Allied Breweries
attribute ˈætrɪbjuːt  
əˈtrɪbjuːt ~ to: iets toeschrijven aan
combine ˈkɑːmbaɪn association (e.g. of business companies)
kəmˈbaɪn combineren
compound (n/adj.) ˈkɑːmpaʊnd  
kəmˈpaʊnd samenstellen, combineren, erger maken
compress ˈkɑːmprɛs compres
kəmˈprɛs samendrukken, comprimeren
concert ˈkɑːnsərt a pop ~
kənˈsɜrt concerted action
conduct ˈkɑːndʌkt  
kənˈdʌkt to ~ an orchestra
conflict ˈkɑːnflɪkt armed conflict
kənˈflɪkt conflicting evidence
consort ˈkɑːnsɔrt Prince Consort:
kənˈsɔrt to ~ with animals
contest ˈkɑːntɛst a beauty ~
kənˈtɛst to ~ an election
contract ˈkɑːntrækt to sign a ~
contrast ˈkɑːntræst a sharp ~
kənˈtræst contrasting colors
converse ˈkɑːnvɜrs  
kənˈvɜrs converseren
convert ˈkɑːnvɜrt  
convict ˈkɑːnvɪkt  
decrease ˈdiːkriːs a ~ in the number of accidents
dɪkriːs prices have decreased
defect ˈdiːfɛkt  
dɪˈfɛkt overlopen
desert ˈdɛzɜrt a desert island; (noun) 
dɪˈzɜrt verlaten
digest ˈdaɪd͡ʒɛst Reader’s ~
dɪˈd͡ʒɛst (daɪ-)  
discount ˈdɪskaʊnt korting
dɪˈskaʊnt geen waarde/ geloof hechten aan
escort ˈɛskɔrt under police ~
ɪˈskɔrt escorted by police
excise ˈɛksaiz accijns
ɛkˈsaiz (ɪk-) uitsnijden
export ˈɛkspɔrt ~ promotion
ɪkˈspɔrt to ~ agricultural products
extract ˈɛkstrækt id; excerpt
ɪkˈstrækt to ~ a tooth; excerperen
incense ˈɪnsɛns wierook
ɪnˈsɛns (form) to be incensed (enraged)
frequent ˈfriːkwənt a ~ visitor
frɪˈkwɛnt (vaak) bezoeken (club, pub, etc.)
import ˈɪmpɔrt ~ restrictions
imˈpɔrt to ~ raw materials
increase ˈɪŋkriːs an ~ in the rate of inflation
ɪŋˈkriːs to ~ somebody’s wages
insult ˈɪnsʌlt to add ~ to injury
ɪnˈsʌlt to ~ the headmaster
object ˈɑːbd͡ʒɪkt (-d͡ʒɛkt the direct ~
əbˈd͡ʒɛkt to ~ to something
perfect (adj.) ˈpɜrfɪkt nobody’s ~
pərˈfɛkt to ~ one’s English
permit ˈpɜrmɪt a work ~
pərˈmɪt weather permitting
present (n/adj.) prɛznt a wedding ~
prɪˈzɛnt (form) to ~ somebody with gold watch
produce ˈproʊduːs opbrengst, produkten (agrarisch)
prəˈduːs to ~ the necessary papers
progress ˈprɑːgrɛs to make little ~
prəˈgrɛs we’re progressing slowly
project ˈprɑːd͡ʒɛkt an interesting ~
prəˈd͡ʒɛkt to ~ a slide on a screen
prospect ˈprɑːspɛkt a job with good prospects
prəˈspɛkt to ~ for gold (goud zoeken)
rebel rɛbl the rebels took control of the town
rɪˈbɛl to ~ rebel against authority
record ˈrɛkərd to break a ~, a gramophone ~
rɪˈkɔrd registreren
refuse ˈrɛfjuːs (note the final /s/) afval, vuilnis
rɪˈfjuːz weigeren
segment ˈsɛgmənt the ~ of a circle
sɛgˈmɛnt to ~ an orange into six pieces
subject ˈsʌbd͡ʒɪkt (-ɛkt) the ~ of a sentence
səbˈd͡ʒɛkt to ~ a soldier into discipline
survey ˈsɜrveɪ overzicht
sərˈveɪ to ~ the field of linguistics
suspect ˈsʌspɛkt verdacht(e)
səˈspɛkt vermoeden, verdenken
torment ˈtɔrmənt he was a ~ to his teacher
tɔrˈmɛnt martelen, kwellen
transfer ˈtrænsfər the ~ of a footballer
trænˈsfɜr to ~ a footballer to another club
transport ˈtrænspɔrt London transport
trænˈspɔrt to ~ passengers from A to B

Three syllables stress

In some words of three syllables, the noun is stressed on the first, the verb on the last syllable:

interchange ˈɪntərt͡ʃeɪnd͡ʒ railway interchange
overhaul ˈoʊvərhɑːl revisie
oʊvərˈhɑːl reviseren

In quite a number of other cases, however, the noun and the verb have the same pronunciation:

combat ˈkɑːmbæt fight
comment ˈkɑːmɛnt commentaar (geven)
debate dɪˈbeɪt debat(teren)
disgrace dɪsˈgreɪs schande; uit de gratie vallen
disguise dɪsˈgaɪz vermomming; vermommen
dispute dɪˈspjuːt (/’d?spju?t/ is also heard for the noun)
exhaust ɪgˈzɑːst uitlaat; uitputten
exile ˈɛksaɪl (gz) banneling, verbanning, verbannen
interview ˈɪntərvjuː
menace ˈmɛnəs bedreiging; (be)dreigen
process ˈprɑːsɛs process; verwerken, conserveren
purchase ˈpɜrt͡ʃəs buy
reprimand ˈrɛprɪmænd (rɛprɪˈmænd) berisping; berispen
resort rəˈzɔrt a seaside ~ (badplaats); to ~ to violence
volunteer vɑːlənˈtɪr (zich als) vrijwilliger (opgeven)

A small number of similar regularities may be noted, although they do not concern the position of the stress:

  1. The spelling -ate represents /ət/ in a noun or adjective, but /eɪt/ in a verb; in either case the stress falls on the third syllable from the end of the word. For example, intimate is pronounced /ˈɪntəmət/ when it is a noun or adjective, but /ˈɪntəmeɪt/ when it is a verb ((in bedekte termen) te kennen geven). Other examples are associate (/əˈsoʊʃɪət/ and /əˈsoʊʃɪeɪt/), desolate, duplicate, estimate, graduate (/ˈgræd͡ʒuət/, a university graduate, and /ˈgræd͡ʒueɪt/, to obtain a university degree), moderate and separate. (In some cases the noun or adjective has an alternative pronunciation with /-eɪt/: candidate, magistrate. Designate (as in the minister designate, i.e. not yet officially appointed) only has /-eɪt/.)
  2. The spelling –use represents /juːs/ in a noun or adjective, but /juːz/ in a verb. Abuse, for example, is pronounced /əˈbjuːz/ when it is a verb (misbruiken). Other examples are diffuse (adjective: diffuus, indirekt (licht); wijdlopig; verb: uitstralen, verstrooien), excuse and use. For used to see PL.

3.2 The stress in derived words

In the following sections we will have a look at two types of derived words that are frequently pronounced by learners with the stress on the wrong syllable. A derived word, for instance unbelievable, consists of a base, in this case believe, and one or more affixes, in this case un– and –able.

Derived Words

As a rule, in adjectives ending in /əbl/ (-able or –ible) the stress falls on the same syllable as in the base. (When the stress is more than two syllables removed from /əbl/, stress retraction may occur as in recognizable, from to recognize, which is either ˈrecognizable or recogˈnizable.):

desire desirable /dɪˈzaɪə(rəbl)/
exhaust inexhaustible /(ɪn)ɪgˈzɑːst(əbl)/
process processable /ˈprɑːsɛs(əbl)

Verbs ending in –ate frequently lose that ending before the affix is added, but the rule applies in the same way:

ˈnavigate ˈnavigable /ˈnævɪgəbl/ (bevaarbaar)
eˈradicate ineˈradicable /ɪnɪˈrædɪkəbl/ (onuitroeibaar)
ˈpenetrate imˈpenetrable /ɪmˈpɛnətrəbl/

However, in the following cases the stress goes to the syllable before the one that is stressed in the base:

adˈmire ˈadmirable /ˈædmrəbl/
comˈpare ˈcomparable /ˈkɑːmprəbl/
reˈpair (ir)ˈreparable /(ɪ)ˈrɛprəbl/ as in irreparable damage
/(ɪ)rɪˈpɛrəbl/) as in Is the bike (ir)repairable?
reˈvoke irˈrevocable /(ɪ)ˈrɛvəkəbl/
preˈfer ˈpreferable /ˈprɛfrəbl/
reˈpute ˈreputable /ˈrɛpjutəbl/

Also note the following:

ˈdemonstrate deˈmonstrable /dəˈmɑːnstrəbl/
ˈexplicate inexˈplicable /ɪnəksplɪkəbl/ (onverklaarbaar)

In a number of other words there is variation between speakers: some put the stress on the syllable before /əbl/, while others put it on the syllable before that one, irrespective of where the stress is in the base. An example is inextricable.

Some people say /ɪnɛkˈstrɪkəbl/, others say /ɪnˈɛkstrɪkəbl/. Such variation also occurs in applicable, irrefutable (onweerlegbaar); also, formidable and hospitable belong here, although they cannot be said to have a base.

3.2.1 Others


  • Adjectives ending in –igible / ɪd͡ʒəbl/ have the stress on the fourth syllable from the end, as in ˈeligible (verkieslijk), inˈcorrigibleˈnegligible.
  • The verbal suffix –ize does not change the stress of the base: ˈcharacter and ˈcharacterize.
  • The suffix –ization is usually pronounced /əˈzeɪʃn/, as in organization /ˈɔrgənəˈzeɪʃn/, labialization /ˈleɪbiələˈzeɪʃn/.
  • The suffix –ee always has main stress: trustee /trʌˈstiː/, employee /ˈɛmplɔɪˈiː/, refugee /ˈrɛfjəˈd͡ʒiː/.

3.3 Words with multiple stresses

There are quite a number of words in English that have two stresses. An example is assimilation, which is pronounced rather as if it consisted of more than one word, that is, like aˈsimmaˈlation (/əˈsɪməleɪʃn/).

Usually, the first of these stresses is on the first syllable of the word, as in refugee /ˈrɛfjəd͡ʒiː/ above. The rhythm that learners would be inclined to use here coincides with that of the GA speaker. But sometimes this extra word stress comes on the second syllable of the word, and this leads to a rhythmic pattern that many learners find extremely difficult to produce.

Or again, the word familiarity is often mispronounced as Family Arrity, while it should be pronounced like for Milly Arrity, that is /fəˈmɪliˈɛrɪti/ (see also the abstract of a paper by J. Windsor Lewis in the IATEFL Newsletter of June 1979, no. 58, pp. 18-19).

Although you may find it very difficult to acquire the English stress pattern, the rule for the English words is simple enough. You will have noticed that we are again dealing with derived words, the affixes in this case being –tion and –ity.

The important thing to remember is that in addition to the stress on the syllable before the affix, the accent of the base is retained in the derived word. Because it is asˈsimilate, it is asˈsimiˈlation, and because it is faˈmiliar, it is faˈmiliˈarity.

Here are some more examples:

asˈsociate asˈsociˈation /əˈsoʊsiˈeɪʃn/
conˈsider conˈsideˈration /kənˈsɪdəˈreɪʃn/
iˈdentify iˈdentifiˈcation /aɪˈdɛntɪfɪˈkeɪʃn/
inˈterpret inˈterpreˈtation /ɪnˈtɜrprəˈteɪʃn/
proˈnounce proˈnunciˈation /prəˈnʌnsiˈeɪʃn/
reˈspectable reˈspectaˈbility /rɪˈspɛktəˈbɪlɪti/
ˈspiritual ˈspirituˈality /ˈspɪrɪtjuˈælɪti/

In addition to the affixed –tion and –ity, which are particularly frequent in this type of word, there are many others that occur:

aˈpology aˈpologetic /əˈpɑːləˈd͡ʒɛtɪk/
auˈthority auˈthoriˈtarian /əˈθɔrɪˈtɛriən/
ˈcharacter ˈcharacteˈristic /ˈkɛrəktəˈrɪstɪk/
exˈperiment exˈperiˈmental /ɪkˈspɛrɪˈmɛntl/

The rule of course cannot be applied when there is no base, as in encyclopedia /ɪnˈsaɪkləˈpiːdiə/, heterogeneous /ˈhɛtəroʊˈd͡ʒiːnjəs/.

3.4 The stress in compounds: introductory remarks

Compounds are words that are made up of other words, called the constituents of the compound. We distinguish:

  1. noun compounds (e.g. typewriter)
  2. verb compounds (e.g. to breast-feed)
  3. adjective compounds (e.g. good-natured)

Compounds are stressed either on the first constituent, as in ˈnail-clippers or AN ˈautorijden or on both constituents, as in ˈgood-ˈnatured or AN ˈdood-ziek. (When the first constituent consists of only one syllable, it does not make much of a difference whether you transcribe doodˈziek or ˈdoodziek.

Also, do not worry about the fact that some dictionaries put the first of these stresses on the line, e.g. ˌdoodziek. In fact, this notation is rather misleading, because it suggests that there is a difference in pronunciation between an ˈarch ˈbishop and an ˈarchˈbishop, while there is not.)

The rule is that the stress goes to the first constituent in noun com­pounds and verb compounds, while in adjective compounds either the first or both constituents are stressed, as is illustrated by

  1. noun compound 
  2. verb compound
  3. adjective compound

In English the situation is more complex. We will deal with each compound category separately.

3.5 The stress in noun compounds

Most noun compounds have the stress on the first constituent. Examples are ˈcourse requirements, ˈhigh chair, ˈhousing problem, ˈlunch voucher, ˈalbum cover, ˈring finger, ˈweekend, ˈtrade union, ˈloudspeaker.

In the following cases both constituents are stressed:

  • in names of streets and buildings, except when the second constituent is street: ˈTimes ˈSquare, ˈRochester ˈRoad, ˈMaplewood ˈTerrace, ˈMadison ˈLane, ˈMary Jane ˈLane, ˈGrand Central ˈStation, ˈGolden Gate ˈBridge, but ˈWall Street, ˈState Street, ˈTwenty-Second Street.
    Note there is a great deal of variation in the names are stressed, however.
  • when the first constituent is arch, ex, non, self, over (too much), under (too little), vice: ˈarchˈbishop, ˈex-ˈwife, ˈnon-interˈvention, ˈself-ˈdiscipline, ˈself-ˈservice, ˈover-compenˈsation, ˈunder-deˈvelopment, ˈunderˈstatement, ˈvice-ˈchancelor, etc.
    Note that those with ex and non-normally have the same pattern
  • when the first constituent refers to place: ˈtown ˈhall, ˈvillage ˈchurch, ˈtop ˈshelf, ˈmiddle ˈfinger, ˈbottom ˈrung', ˈback ˈdoor, ˈfront ˈgarden, ˈnorth ˈpole, ˈworld ˈwar, but not, for instance, ˈtownhouse, in which the first constituent does not refer to place.
  • when the first constituent refers to time: ˈweekend ˈmeal, ˈFebruary ˈwinds, ˈwinter ˈevening, ˈnight ˈwatchman, ˈspring ˈcleaning.
  • when the second constituent refers to a kind of food such as broth (bouillon), chop, curry, cut(let) (lap(je)), pie, pudding, soup, squash, stew, tea, as in ˈchicken ˈbroth, ˈpork ˈchop, ˈvegetable ˈcurry, ˈveal ˈcutlets, ˈapple ˈpie, ˈplum ˈpudding, ˈtomato ˈsoup, ˈwinter ˈsquash, ˈbeefˈ stew, ˈlemon ˈtea.

In addition, there are quite a number of noun compounds with two stresses for which no rule can be given. Among them are ˈanti-ˈclimax, ˈcourt-ˈjester , ˈdry-ˈcleaning, ˈfamily ˈplanning, ˈfour ˈposter, ˈgood ˈwill, ˈkitchen ˈgarden, ˈMiddle ˈAges, ˈpotˈ luck, ˈrevolving ˈdoor, ˈsafe ˈconduct, ˈshop ˈsteward , ˈshop ˈwindow , ˈsliding ˈdoor.

There are also noun compounds with stress on the first constituent that might wrongly be thought to have stress on the second. In such cases the compounds are misinterpreted as combinations of adjective plus noun. Examples are ˈblind spot, ˈcold cream ', ˈdark room', ˈmental institution, ˈnervous system, ˈpostal service, and ˈsolar system.

A noun compound that comes from a verb + particle combination always has the stress on the first constituent. From to ˈpin ˈup, for example, the noun ˈpin up is formed, and from to ˈtip ˈoff the noun ˈtip off . 

Here are a few examples:

close up /ˈkloʊsʌp/ /klo.z ˈʏp/
feedback /ˈfiːdbæk/ /fidˈbɛk/
lay-out /ˈleɪaʊt/ /leˈɔut/
make-up /ˈmeɪk ʌp/ /me.k ʏp/
stand by /ˈstæn baɪ /stɛnd ˈba.j/
teach-in /ˈtiːt͡ʃɪn /titʃˈɪn/
try-out /ˈtraɪ aʊt /tra.j ˈɔut/

The relationship between to pin up and a pin up may be compared with that between to contrast and a contrast discussed above. These noun compounds should be distinguished from formations like ˈpassers ˈby, ˈswearing-ˈin, ˈgoings-ˈon, which are stressed in the same way as the verb + particle combination from which they are derived.

3.6 The stress in verb compounds

Most verb compounds are stressed on the first constituent. Examples are to ˈfreelance (also: to work ˈfreelance), to ˈ, to ˈwindow-shop

In the following cases both constituents are stressed:

  • when the first constituent is out, over (too much), under (too little), as in to ‘out’bid, to ‘over’act, to ‘underde’velop,
  • in a number of others, examples of which are; to ˈbackˈdate, toˈcourt-ˈmartial, to ˈcross-eˈxamine 

    Also to ˈdry-ˈclean, to ˈfree-ˈwheel, to ˈshort-ˈcircuit , to ˈshort-ˈchange.

3.7 The stress in adjective compounds

English frequently agree in the way adjective compounds are stressed, as is illustrated by ˈkleurenblind and ˈcolorblind, and ˈsky-ˈhigh. The following differences should be noted, however:

  • when the first constituent is a noun and the second a verb, English often has stress on the first constituent. Compare ˈheart-warmingˈhair-raising and ˈangstaanjagend, ˈoil- fired and, ˈwater-cooled.
  • when the second constituent is prone , proof, tight or worthy the stress falls on the first constituent: ˈstrike-prone, ˈfoolproof, ˈwatertight, ˈseaworthy.  Their AN equivalents are stressed on both con­stituents.

3.8 Stress shift

In English, compounds that are stressed on both constituents generally lose the stress on the second constituent when another stressed syllable follows. For example, when an English compound like twenty-one is immediately or closely followed by the stressed syllable of another word, e.g. days in English, the stress on the second constituent is suppressed:

ˈtwenty-ˈone ˈtwenty-one ˈdays

Other examples in English are:

ˈNorth ˈSea ‘North Sea ‘oil
ˈhomeˈmade ˈhomemade ‘jam
ˈhigh-ˈspeed ‘high-speed ‘film
unˈknown ‘unknown ‘factors
to ˈfree-ˈwheel to ‘free-wheel down the hill
to ˈmake ˈup to ˈmake up a ˈstory

In English this rule also very frequently applies to words that are not compounds, as in instruˈmental, but ˈinstrumental ˈmusic, or interˈnational, but ˈinternational ˈcontacts

Pronounce the following English examples:

Caliˈfornia  ˈCalifornia ˈwines
Norˈwegian ˈNorwegian ˈtankers
Miˈami ˈMiami ˈVice
photoˈgraphic ˈphotographic ˈmemory
 alˈready  he’s ˈalready ˈdone it
 nineˈteen  (talk) ˈnineteen to the ˈdozen