Word Stress

Contents

What is stress?

Stress is an important feature of spoken English. Clear, accurate pronunciation of all English words relies on correct articulation and placement of stress.

Additionally, listeners rely on stress as a way to identify words. For instance, if you say “Arabic” instead of the correct “Arabic,” listeners might hear “a rabbit.”

Stress is a quality of vowel sounds. It has three primary characteristics:

  1. Length ↔
  2. Volume 🔊
  3. Pitch ↑

Stressed vowel sounds are longer, louder, and/or higher in pitch than vowel sounds without stress. You can use just one of these features, or any combination of these features at the same time. Overall, stressed sounds are “stronger” than unstressed sounds.

How do I use stress?

Stress and syllables are closely related. Almost all syllables in English contain a vowel sound; therefore, we usually say that syllables are stressed or unstressed. Every multi-syllable English word contains at least one stressed syllable. For example:

  • Embarrassing
  • Academic
  • Backpack

When you learn new vocabulary words, it’s important to learn stress placement. Listeners depend on stress as a cue to recognize words.

Word Stress Rules for pronunciation

There are two very simple rules about word stress:

  1. One word has only one stress. (One word cannot have two stresses. If you hear two stresses, you hear two words. Two stresses cannot be one word. It is true that there can be a "secondary" stress in some words. But a secondary stress is much smaller than the main [primary] stress, and is only used in long words.)
  2. We can only stress vowels, not consonants.

Here are some more, rather complicated, rules that can help you understand where to put the stress. But do not rely on them too much, because there are many exceptions. It is better to try to "feel" the music of the language and to add the stress naturally.

A. Stress on first syllable

rule examples

Most 2-syllable nouns

PRESent
EXport
CHIna
TAble

Most 2-syllable adjectives

PRESent
SLENder
CLEVer
HAPpy

B. Stress on last syllable

rule examples

Most 2-syllable verbs

preSENT
exPORT
deCIDE
beGIN

There are many two-syllable words in English whose meaning and class change with a change in stress. The word present, for example is a two-syllable word. If we stress the first syllable, it is a noun (gift) or an adjective (opposite of absent). But if we stress the second syllable, it becomes a verb (to offer). More examples: the words export, import, contract and object can all be nouns or verbs depending on whether the stress is on the first or second syllable.

rule examples

Words ending in -ic

GRAPHic
geoGRAPHic
geoLOGic

Words ending in -sion and -tion

teleVIsion
reveLAtion

For a few words, native English speakers don't always "agree" on where to put the stress. For example, some people say teleVIsion and others say TELevision. Another example is: CONtroversy and conTROversy.

C. Stress on ante-penultimate syllable (ante-penultimate = third from end)

rule examples

Words ending in -cy, -ty, -phy and -gy

deMOcracy
dependaBIlity
phoTOgraphy
geOLogy

Words ending in -al

CRItical
geoLOGical

D. Compound words (words with two parts)

rule examples

For compound nouns, the stress is on the first part

BLACKbird
GREENhouse

For compound adjectives, the stress is on the second part

bad-TEMpered
old-FASHioned

For compound verbs, the stress is on the second part

underSTAND
overFLOW

In English, there are certain suffixes (e.g.; -ion, -ic) that affect the placement of stress in a word. These suffixes are very common in academic and business vocabulary, often appearing in families of words, e.g. specific, specify, specification. Correctly placing word stress is critical for helping your listeners recognize your words, so it’s a good idea to learn the rules for predicting word stress based on suffixes.

“i” suffixes: -ial, -ian, -ion, -ious, -ient, -ical, -ic, -ity, -ify, -ive, -itive, -itude

Can you figure out the pattern in the pronunciation of words with these suffixes? Listen to the two example sentences:

The presidential campaign has been competitive, in the opinions of many, and politicians are not eager to mollify voters just yet.

If you’re curious about astronomical phenomena, you’ll find substantial information online.