When you speak English, do you say the words evenly or do you sing them?
You should be singing!
No, I’m not talking about karaoke.
What I mean is that your intonation and pitch should fluctuate (go up and down)
You should produce some sounds longer than others.
There should be a rhythm to English sentences. It shouldn’t sound flat, monotone (all in the same tone) and boring!
I know it sounds like an additional challenge, especially when speaking English is already difficult.
However, when you pronounce every bit of a word and sentence with the same pitch, volume and length, it might make it difficult for native speakers to understand you.
Let’s start with a real-life example.
Why Word Stress Matters
In her head, this sentence was understandable to Saskia:
“Dessert is my favorite thing!”
But when she said this to a friend, a native English speaker, he looked confused and asked her:
“Why? It’s just sand and has no life. It could also be dangerous!”
Then it was Saskia’s turn to be puzzled.
Can you guess the source of the problem?
Well, the problem here is word stress. Saskia got the word (“dessert”—the sweet heavenly thing) right, but she said it with the emphasis in the wrong place and the word sounded like “desert”—a dry perilous place.
This is just one example of how important word stress is to improving your pronunciation and speaking English like a native speaker. Perhaps you don’t know much (or anything at all) about the stress in English words yet, but trust me, it’s the key to improving your communication skills, both with speaking to a native English speaker and listening to English.
Also, I’m not just telling you how important word stress is. This guide will take you through the basics of this pronunciation challenge and provide you with eight rules to start doing it right.
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!
Resources to Perfect Your Word Stress Skills
Before going into the eight rules of word stress, here are some resources to learn about this important factor of English pronunciation:
- Forvo — Forvo is definitely one of the more popular audio dictionaries on the market. Translations are provided if you type in a word in English, and a map is shown to give you audio clips of how people say the particular word in varying dialects. For your convenience, we’ve linked the words in the guide to this resource so you’ll be able to hear the pronunciation immediately.
- Merriam-Webster — Merriam-Webster is a well-known dictionary and has high-quality definitions—all available offline. It lets you save favorites, has a word of the day and keeps track of recent searches you did. It’s also available as an app on both iOS and Android devices. Other dictionaries with pronunciation citations you can check out are MacMillan and Cambridge.
- FluentU — FluentU is an incredible source to hear natural, native English word stress—without ever getting lost or confused. FluentU provides real-world English videos, like movie trailers, TV commercials, inspiring speeches and more, that have been supercharged with English learning tools.
Click any word in the interactive subtitles, and the video will pause to show you the definition and play a native pronunciation.
That way you can listen carefully to a word, understand what it means and then get right back to your video.
For example, tap on the word “brought,” and you’d see this:
There are also flashcards, fun quizzes and vocabulary lists built into every video.
FluentU has thousands of videos for beginner through advanced learners. Best of all, you can hear authentic English anytime, anywhere with the FluentU mobile apps for iOS and Android.
- English Club — English Club is a popular site for both English learners and teachers. It provides grammar lessons in small, easy-to-understand parts. There are also fun quizzes and games so you can practice the knowledge you learn. It’s entirely free. You can also find more word stress quizzes and exercises from Word Stress Rules and esl-lounge.
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.
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.
These eight rules in this guide might seem a bit overwhelming but they work as references. Next time you hear a word or look something up in a dictionary, come back to these rules.
Make it a habit to be more aware of what you learn and soon you’ll perfect your pronunciation.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.