8 English Word Stress Rules

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.

In this post, we’ll show you just how to do word stress in English correctly! 


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!”

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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.

This guide will take you through the basics of this pronunciation challenge and provide you with eight rules to start doing it right. In addition to word stress, it is important to learn the pronunciation of the English dialect you want to speak.

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/. 

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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) and “ne-ce-ssa-ry” (four syllables).

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.

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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.


table /TA-ble/

scissors /SCI-ssors/

pretty /PRE-tty/,

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clever /CLE-ver/

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:

hotel /ho-TEL/

extreme /ex-TREME/

concise /con-CISE/

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 small 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.

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become / be-COME

provide / pro-VIDE

aside /a-SIDE/

between /be-TWEEN/

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.

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If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see that this rule is a derivation from the prior two sections. However, this is a separate section since these pairs of words are relatively common in English and they’re likely to cause misunderstanding due to the same spelling.


a present /PRE-sent/ (a gift) vs. to present  /pre-SENT/ (give something formally)

He gave me a present.
He presented the prize.

a suspect /SU-spect/ (someone who the police believe may have committed a crime) vs to suspect  /su-SPECT/ (to believe that something is true, especially something bad)

The suspect was caught by the police.
They suspect him of a crime.

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.


orderly /OR-der-ly/

quietly /QUI-et-ly/

manager /MA-na-ger/

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.


creation /cre-A-tion/

commission /com-MI-ssion/

photographic /pho-to-GRA-phic/

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.


democracy /de-MO-cra-cy/

photography /pho-TO-gra-phy/

logical /LO-gi-cal/

commodity /com-MO-di-ty/

psychology /psy-CHO-lo-gy/

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.


classmate / CLASS-mate

armchair / ARM-chair

goldfish / GOLD-fish

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.


old-fashioned /old-FA-shioned/

understand /un-der–STAND/

Resources to Perfect Your Word Stress Skills

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. Other similar ones are HowJSay and How to Pronounce
  • Merriam-Webster — Merriam-Webster is a well-known dictionary and has high-quality definitions. 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.
  • 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 and esl-lounge.


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 English speaking and word stress 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.

And One More Thing...

If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:


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