What is Word Stress in English?
1.7.1 Word stress is the system of stress within an individual word. Word stress is important because English is a stress-timed language, which means that we speak with rhythm, pronouncing the stress in each content word. Each content word is broken into parts called syllables. One of the syllables in a word will have a stronger stress than the others. We pronounce the stressed syllable more loudly and with more power, while the other syllables are pronounced more quietly and with less power. Every content word in English has one strong stress. For example:
teacher has two syllables: tea cher Tee ch (Clear Alphabet)
The first syllable has strong stress, while the second syllable does not. It is weak.
1.7.2 Word stress is not regular in English. The positioning of word stress varies, although it is very often on the first syllable of a word, so if you need to have a guess you should choose the first syllable! This is mainly because suffixes – word endings – in English are not usually stressed. For example, a two syllable word ending with the suffix ing must be stressed on the first, because ing is never stressed:
Click here for 100 of the most common suffixes in English: most-common-suffixes-in-english
1.7.3 Suffixes can also help us to find word stress because there are many suffixes which follow a rule that the stress must be on the syllable before, for example:
These suffixes are very common, so it’s reassuring to know that the stress will always be before each one. Read and learn the full list here: suffixes-and-word-stress
There are also a number of common suffixes which are stressed. (Click here: most-common-suffixes-in-english.) They are the exception to the rule that suffixes are unstressed. For example:
1.7.4 Other rules of word stress include:
a) Compound nouns are usually stressed on the first syllable. These are words which combine two words, such as:
airport air + port
football foot + ball
popcorn pop + corn
strawberry straw + berry
There is a list of 300 common compound nouns here: common-compound-nouns.
b) Both parts of phrasal verbs are stressed, for example:
c) Acronyms are usually stressed on the final syllable, for example:
d) There is a small group of words called homographs which are pairs of words with the same spelling, but different stress depending on the type of word, (whether it is a noun or a verb), for example:
Click here for a longer list of noun-verb homographs: noun-verb-homographs.
e) As we can see in the table above, it is very common for two-syllable verbs to be stressed on the second syllable.
This advice can help us to find word stress because modern English often consists mainly of:
- words of one syllable – where the word stress is obvious
- words with suffixes, which guide us because they are not stressed or follow a word stress rule
- words which are compound nouns
Click here for an analysis of a newspaper article that proves this point: working-out-word-stress.
1.7.5 Apart from the helpful guidance above, the best place to start if you want to find the stressed syllable in a word is the final syllable. In general, a word is stressed on the nearest strong syllable to the end. We must work from right to left, beginning with the final syllable, and assess whether each syllable is strong or weak. It depends on the vowel sound: a strong syllable is one with a long vowel sound (e.g. ar, ee), a diphthong (e.g. ai, ei), or a short vowel sound (e.g. a, o, but not a schwa sound). If it is strong, we have found the stressed syllable. If it is weak, we must move along until we find a strong syllable. Click here to read examples of this process: english-stress-rules.
Ex. 1.7.1 Reading Put the words into groups depending on how many syllables there are:
Ex. 1.7.2 Writing Write more words on the topic of Learning English in each group:
Ex. 1.7.3 Reading Underline the stressed syllable in each word:
Ex. 1.7.4 Reading Underline the suffix in each word and put the words into groups:
Ex. 1.7.5 Reading Match the words to make 20 compound nouns:
Ex. 1.7.6 Reading Add a word to each word to make a compound noun:
- basket _______________
- green _______________
- under _______________
- super _______________
- land _______________
- dust _______________
- sales _______________
- news _______________
- tooth _______________
- wind _______________
- work _______________
- play _______________
- life _______________
- ward _______________
- paper _______________
- milk _______________
- every _______________
- hair _______________
- day _______________
- wall _______________
Ex. 1.7.7 Reading Use a dictionary to help you complete the table and underline the stressed syllable(s) in each item: