Word Stress In English – Rules For Stress Placement
What Is Word Stress?
In English, the individual sounds of a word (i.e. syllables—which we’ll discuss in just a moment) aren’t pronounced with the same weight. One syllable receives more emphasis than the others.
For example, there are three syllables in the word “beautiful” /BEAU-ti-ful/ and the word stress falls on the first one /BEAU/. (Please note that in this guide, I’ll demonstrate the stress in a word by capitalizing all the letters that make up the syllable.)
Now that you have the definition of word stress, let’s dive deeper into syllables to comprehend word stress.
Identifying syllables to understand word stress
A syllable is a unit of pronunciation that has one vowel sound. A word might have one syllable (like “an” or “can”) or more, such as “po-lice” (two syllables), “com-pa-ny” (three syllables), “ne-ce-ssa-ry” (four syllables), etc.
Just for fun, do you know the English word with the most syllables?
The answer is “antidisestablishmentarianism.” (The opposition of the belief that there shouldn’t be an official church in a country.)
The word has 12 syllables!
Remember that syllables aren’t similar to letters. For example, “scratch” has seven letters but one syllable, while “umami” has five letters but three syllables. Whatever the word, pay attention to the vowels because one of them will be where you find the stress of a word.
Features of a stressed syllable
Now you know that you need to emphasize a particular vowel in a specific syllable of a word. However, you might still wonder exactly how to do so. Let’s take a look at a native speaker’s speech pattern.
When a native speaker stresses a syllable in a word, this is what they do:
- Produce a longer vowel
- Raise the pitch of the syllable to a higher level
- Say the syllable louder
- Pronounce it with clarity
- Create a more distinctive facial movement
Don’t forget these five features next time you pronounce a word!
8 Word Stress Rules to Improve Your English Pronunciation
1. Nouns and adjectives with two syllables
The rule: When a noun (a word referring to a person, thing, place or abstract quality) or an adjective (a word that gives information about a noun) has two syllables, the stress is usually on the first syllable.
Exceptions: Unfortunately, there are exceptions to this rule. It could be that a word was borrowed from another language or it could be totally random. You just have to learn these “outsiders” by heart. Here are three words you can start with:
2. Verbs and prepositions with two syllables
The rule: When a verb (a word referring to an action, event or state of being) or a preposition (a word that comes before a noun, pronoun or the “-ing” form of a verb, and shows its relation to another word or part of the sentence) has two syllables, the stress is usually on the second syllable.
3. Words that are both a noun and a verb
The rule: Some words in English can be both a noun and a verb. In those cases, the noun has its word stress on the first syllable, and with the verb, the stress falls on the second syllable.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see that this rule is a derivation from the prior two sections and notice some of the same words. However, this is a separate section since those pairs of words are relatively common in English and they’re likely to cause misunderstanding due to the same spelling.
present /PRE-sent/ (a gift) vs. present /pre-SENT/ (give something formally)
export /EX-port/ (the practice or business of selling goods to another country or an article that is exported) vs. export /ex-PORT/ (to sell goods to another country)
suspect /SU-spect/ (someone who the police believe may have committed a crime) vs suspect /su-SPECT/ (to believe that something is true, especially something bad)
There are, however, exceptions to this rule. For example, the word “respect” has a stress on the second syllable both when it’s a verb and a noun.
4. Three syllable words ending in “er” and “ly”
The rule: Words that have three syllables and end in “-er” or “-ly” often have a stress on the first syllable.
5. Words ending in “ic,” “sion” and “tion”
The rule: When a word ends in “ic,” “sion” or “tion,” the stress is usually on the second-to-last syllable. You count syllables backwards and put a stress on the second one from the end.
6. Words ending in “cy,” “ty,” “phy,” “gy” and “al”
The rule: When a word ends in “cy,” “ty,” “phy,” “gy” and “al,” the stress is often on the third to last syllable. Similarly, you count syllables backwards and put a stress on the third one from the end.
7. Compound nouns
The rule: In most compound nouns (a noun made up of two or more existing words), the word stress is on the first noun.
8. Compound adjectives and verbs
The rule: In most compound adjectives (a single adjective made of more than one word and often linked with a hyphen) and compound verbs (a multi-word verb that functions as a single verb), the stress is on the second word.
Mastering the subject of word stress isn’t easy, as there are many rules and exceptions. While native speakers do it naturally, English learners have to get there through a lot of practice and repetition.
Word Stress Rules
There are two very simple rules about word stress:
- 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.)
- 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
|Most 2-syllable nouns||PRESent, EXport, CHIna, TAble|
|Most 2-syllable adjectives||PRESent, SLENder, CLEVer, HAPpy|
B. Stress on last syllable
|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.
C. Stress on penultimate syllable (penultimate = second from end)
|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.
D. Stress on ante-penultimate syllable (ante-penultimate = third from end)
|Words ending in -cy, -ty, -phy and -gy||deMOcracy, dependaBIlity, phoTOgraphy, geOLogy|
|Words ending in -al||CRItical, geoLOGical|
E. Compound words (words with two parts)
|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|