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English Word Stress

In this blog we’ll consider the importance of word stress patterns to good pronunciation of English. Alongside the mechanics of producing particular sounds (or phonemes), stress patterns at word and sentence level are a key aspect of English phonology, which, through study and practice, will help learners achieve a better pronunciation.

Stress at word level is represented by the emphasis given to a syllable and we can observe word stress patterns in any word of 2 syllables or over in length. A stressed syllable is characterised as slightly louder and higher in pitch than its de-stressed counterpart. The vowel quality of a stressed syllable is also longer and fuller. A useful way to initially introduce word stress to learners is through the use of homographs: these are words where the verb and noun form are spelt identically, but where the placement of the stress differs according to the part of speech you are using. Let us consider the following examples (stressed syllable marked in bold).

We keep a record of all meeting minutes. (re.kəd)

We will need to record the interview. (rə.kɔ:d)

The fields were as dry as a desert. (de.zət)

They were quick to desert her when the going got rough. (də.zɜ:t)

Observing the phonetic transcriptions of the above homographs, we can observe the role of word stress on vowel quality. As mentioned above, stressed syllables are emphasised while unstressed syllables are de-emphasised. This de-emphasis often occurs by replacing vowel letters (a,e,i,o,u) with the weak mid central /ə/ sound, known as the schwa sound. Stressed syllables conversely maintain their full vowel quality.

Record (n.) /e/ /ə/

Record (v.) /ə/ /ɔ:/

We can see that the position of the weak form shifts according to the de-emphasised syllable, while the stressed syllable maintains its vowel quality in consistency with spelling ('e' as /e/ and 'or' as /ɔ:/).

Stress patterns at word level show a certain predictability in English. In general, we can observe the following two patterns:

Word stress in two syllable words:

There is a tendency in English to stress 2 syllable nouns and adjectives on their first syllable and 2 syllable verbs on their second. Take for example the following:

Apple   present (verb.)

Orange   provide

Modern   repeat

Perfect (adj.)   sustain

However, we should note that this is not a watertight rule and exceptions can be found.

Happen, visit, measure

With words longer than 2 syllables the stress pattern is relative to the penultimate syllable. Words exhibiting a strong penultimate syllable will stress that syllable. Conversely, words with a weak penultimate syllable (usually a syllable with the schwa sound), will 'jump back' a syllable and stress the antepenultimate. In the following examples we can see some definitions of what constitutes a weak or heavy syllable.

Strong: ending in full vowel e.g., recorder, diploma, computer

Strong: any syllable ending in a consonant sound e.g., tobacco, dismantle, oppressive

Weak: a syllable ending in a schwa sound e.g., animal, suitable, camouflage

In the case of suffixes, we can observe, broadly speaking, consistency with the above rule (stress falls on a strong penultimate syllable). However here, exceptions can be noted. We will save these for a future blog.