In linguistics, stress is the
relative emphasis that may be given
to certain syllables in a word. The
term is also used for similar patterns
To understand word stress, it helps to understand
syllables. Every word is made from syllables.
Each word has one, two, three or more syllables.
It would have been logically possible for every
syllable to have exactly the same loudness, pitch, and so on.
(Some early attempts at speech synthesizers sounded like
this.) But human languages have ways to make some
syllables more prominent than others. A syllable might be
more prominent by differing from the surrounding syllables in
Prominence is relative to the surrounding syllables, not
absolute. (A stressed syllable that is nearly whispered will be
quieter than an unstressed syllable that is shouted.)
The realization of stress in English
In English, the three ways to make a syllable more
prominent are to make it:
higher pitched (usually)
In many languages, changing which syllable is
stressed can change the meaning of a word.
TYPES OF STRESS:
The ways stress manifests itself in the speech stream are
highly language dependent. In some languages, stressed
syllables have a higher or lower pitch than non-stressed
syllables — so-called pitch accent (or musical accent). In
other languages, they may bear either higher or lower pitch
than surrounding syllables (a pitch excursion), depending on
the sentence type. There are also dynamic accent
(loudness), qualitative accent (full vowels) and quantitative
accent (length). Stress may be characterized by more than
one of these characteristics. Further, stress may be realized
to varying degrees on different words in a sentence;
sometimes the difference between the acoustic signals of
stressed and unstressed syllables may be minimal.
In English, stress is most dramatically realized on focussed or
accented words. For instance, consider the dialogue
"Is it brunch tomorrow?"
"No, it's dinner tomorrow."
In it, the stress-related acoustic differences between the
syllables of "tomorrow" would be small compared to the differences
between the syllables of "dinner", the emphasized word. In these
emphasized words, stressed syllables such as "din" in "dinner" are
louder and longer. They may also have a different fundamental
frequency, or other properties. Unstressed syllables typically have a
vowel which is closer to a neutral position, while stressed vowels
are more fully realized.
Stressed syllables are often perceived as being more forceful
than non-stressed syllables. Research has shown, however, that
although dynamic stress is accompanied by greater respiratory
force, it does not mean a more forceful articulation in the vocal
One reason to move the tonic stress from its utterance final position
is to assign an emphasis to a content word, which is usually a
modal auxiliary, an intensifier, an adverb, etc. Compare the
following examples. The first two examples are adapted from.
i. You mustn't talk so LOUDly. (unmarked)
ii. You MUSTN'T talk so loudly. (emphatic)
Some intensifying adverbs and modifiers (or their derivatives) that
are emphatic by nature are
Indeed, utterly, absolute, terrific, tremendous, awfully, terribly,
great, grand, really, definitely, truly, literally, extremely, surely,
completely, barely, entirely, very (adverb), very (adjective),
quite, too, enough, pretty, far, especially, alone, only, own, -self.
In contrastive contexts, the stress pattern is quite
different from the emphatic and non-emphatic
stresses in that any lexical item in an utterance
can receive the tonic stress provided that the
contrastively stressed item can be contrastable in
that universe of speech. No distinction exists
between content and function words regarding
this. The contrasted item receives the tonic stress
provided that it is contrastive with some lexical
element (notion.) in the stimulus utterance.
Syllables that are normally stressed in the
utterance almost always get the same treatment
they do in non-emphatic contexts.)
Consider the following examples:
a) Do you like this one or THAT one?
b) b) I like THIS one.
Many other larger contrastive contexts (dialogues) can be found
or worked out, or even selected from literary works for a
study of contrastive stress. Consider the following:
She played the piano yesterday. (It was her who...)
She played the piano yesterday. (She only played (not.
She played the piano yesterday. (It was the piano that...)
She played the piano yesterday. (It was yesterday..
An intonation unit almost always has one peak of stress, which is
called 'tonic stress', or 'nucleus'. Because stress applies to
syllables, the syllable that receives the tonic stress is called 'tonic
syllable'. The term tonic stress is usually preferred to refer to this
kind of stress in referring, proclaiming, and reporting utterances.
Tonic stress is almost always found in a content word in utterance
final position. Consider the following, in which the tonic syllable is
I'm going to London.
I'm going to London for a holiday.
A question does arise as to what happens to the previously tonic
assigned syllables. They still get stressed, however, not as much as
the tonic syllable, producing a three level stress for utterances.
Then, the following is arrived at., where the tonic syllable is further
I'm going to London for HOliday.
New Information Stress
In a response given to a wh-question, the information supplied,
naturally enough, is stressed,. That is, it is pronounced with more
breath force, since it is more prominent against a background given
information in the question. The concept of new information is much
clearer to students of English in responses to wh-questions than in
declarative statements. Therefore, it is best to start with teaching
the stressing of the new information supplied to questions with a
a) What's your NAME
b) My name's GEORGE.
a) Where are you FROM?
b) I'm from WALES.
a) Where do you LIVE
b) I live in BONN
a) When does the school term END
b) It ends in MAY.
a) What do you DO
b) I'm a STUdent.
The questions given above could also be answered in short form
except for the last one, in which case the answers are:
English is a stress-timed language; that is, stressed
syllables appear at a roughly constant rate, and nonstressed syllables are shortened to accommodate this.
English does this to some extent with noun-verb pairs
such as a récord vs. to recórd, where the verb is stressed
on the last syllable and the related noun is stressed on the
first; record also hyphenates differently: a réc-ord vs. to recórd.
DEGRESS OF STRESS:
It is the stronger degree of stress.
Primary stress gives the final stressed syllable.
Primary stress is very important in compound words.
Secondary stress is the weaker of two degrees of stress in the
pronunciation of a word.
Secondary stress gives the other lexically stressed syllables in a
Secondary stress is important primarily in long words with several
It includes the fully unstressed vowels. An unstressed
vowel is the vowel sound that forms the syllable peak of a
syllable that has no lexical stress.
It includes the reduced vowels. Vowel reduction is the
term in phonetics that refers to various changes in the acoustic
quality of vowels, which are related to changes in stress,
sonority, duration, loudness, articulation, or position in the word
which are perceived as "weakening
Two Word Stress
Knowing when and where to stress the words you use is very
important for understanding, and therefore, as part of a good
accent. A clear example is that of stress in two word expressions.
According to whether it is an ordinary two-word expression or a
special, set expression, the place of the stress changes. In an
ordinary expression the two words are used to describe something
like a "white HOUSE" (meaning a house that is painted white, and
not blue or gray). In this case the most important note is the noun
because we are talking about a house that happens to be white.
Similarly, a "fat BOY" is an overweight young male.
But sometimes short two word expressions are set or
"consecrated", (that is, they mean something special) and have to
be made different from similar expressions. One example is "the
WHITE house" where Mr. Bush lives. In this case, the emphasis is
on the adjective because we are more interested in stressing that it
is the house that is known because it is white. In the same way,
"FAT boy" is the nickname of a boy, chosen because the word fat
emphasizes his weight.
It will be useful for you to be aware of both types of two word
expressions. Here is a list of a few that will get you thinking and give
you some practice in identifying them and using them correctly.
Underline the syllable that is stressed, and write a brief explanation,
for both uses of each phrase. I start the exercise with two
examples. You do the rest. Make sure you say the phrases OUT
House painted white
Shines with electricity
A bulb that is not heavy
Different systems exist for indicating syllabification and stress.
In IPA, primary stress is indicated by a high vertical line
before the syllable, secondary stress by a low vertical line.
Example: [sɪˌlæbəfɪˈkeɪʃən] or /sɪˌlæbəfɪˈkeɪʃən/.
In English dictionaries which do not use IPA, stress is
typically marked with a prime mark placed after the stressed
In ad hoc pronunciation guides, stress is often indicated
using a combination of bold text and capital letters. Example:
si-lab-if-i-KAY-shun or si-LAB-if-i-KAY-shun
Rules of Word Stress in English
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
We can only stress vowels, not consonants.
Where do I put a word stress?
These rules are rather complicated! Probably the
best way to learn where to put a word stress is from
experience. Listen carefully to spoken English and try to
develop a feeling for the "music" of the language.
When you learn a new word, you should also
learn its stress pattern. If you keep a vocabulary book,
make a note to show which syllable is stressed. If you do
not know, you can look in a dictionary. All dictionaries
give the phonetic spelling of a word. This is where they
show which syllable is stressed, usually with an
apostrophe (') just before or just after the stressed
syllable. (The notes at the front of the dictionary will
explain the system used.)
Word Stress Quiz
Can you pass me a plas/tic knife?
I want to take a pho/to/gra/phy class.
Chi/na is the place where I was born.
Please turn off the tel/e/vi/sion before you
I can't de/cide which book to borrow.
Do you un/der/stand this lesson?
Sparky is a very hap/py puppy.
It is cri/ti/cal that you finish your essay.