Word stress

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Word stress is the specific stressed syllable in the pronunciation of a particular word.

A great number of words in English only have one syllable (for example go, eat, wait, eight, house, prince, friends, thieves, straight, etc.). In these cases the stress can only be located in that syllable.

In longer words the stress can lie in any syllable:

  • First syllable: doctor; handicap; testimony; capitalism;
  • Second syllable: alone; delete; comparison; sophisticated;
  • Third syllable: understand; controversial; university;
  • Fourth syllable: configuration; experimental; responsibility

While on the subject, as in all aspects of language, a constantly-evolving mode of communication among human beings, the stress on words can also shift over time.[1]

IPA symbol[edit]

IPA vowels
æ ɑː
trap father - start
e
dress face square
ɪ ɪə
kit fleece near
ɒ əʊ ɔː
lot goat taught
ʊ ʊə
foot goose mature
juː jʊə
cute cure
ʌ ə ɜː
strut comma nurse
ɔɪ
price mouth choice
IPA consonants
Normal sound: /b, d, f, g, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, v, w, z/
 ʃ  ŋ
show church sing
ʒ  j 
usual judge you
θ ð s
think that see
IPA Stress
ˈ Primary stress
hotel /həʊˈtel/
ˌ Secondary stress
understand
/ˌʌndərˈstænd/
IPA Syllabification
. nitrate /ˈnaɪ.treɪt/, night-rate /ˈnaɪt.reɪt/

In IPA the primary stress is marked with a small raised vertical line preceding the stressed syllable: doctor /ˈdɒktər/, hotel /həʊˈtel/, experience /ɪkˈspɪərɪəns/, professional /prəˈfeʃənəl/.

Secondary stress[edit]

Long words may have an extra stress, the second most stressed syllable in the word.

The secondary stress is marked with a small lowered vertical line preceding the stressed syllable: information /ˌɪnfərˈmeɪʃən/, understand /ˌʌndərˈstænd/, represent /ˌreprɪˈzent/.

Words with secondary stress are pronounced as if they were two different words, and one of them has the primary stress: infor-mation, under-stand, repre-sent. If a word has two secondary stresses it is pronounced as three small words: onomatopoeia /ˌɒnəˌmætəˈpiːə/ ono-mato-poeia; heterosexuality /ˌhetərəˌsekʃuːˈælətɪ/ hetero-sexu-ality.

Some general rules[edit]

First syllable Second syllable
Nouns coffee - expert - water canal - hotel
Verbs argue - follow agree - complain - regret

Nouns, etc.[edit]

What is said here about nouns is also valid for other parts of speech, except verbs.

Two syllables[edit]

  • Two-syllable nouns often, but not always, have the stress on the first syllable:
Nouns: coffee - country - effort - engine - exit - expert - export - increase - level - morning - number - people - pepper - problem - record - rescue - second - sentence - system - water
Other parts of speech: after - any - central - little - many - mental - only - other - over - something - very

Exceptions:

Nouns: aˈmount - atˈtack - atˈtempt - caˈnal - conˈtrol - deˈfence - deˈmand - diˈsease - eˈclipse - efˈfect - exˈcept - exˈtinct - hoˈtel - Juˈly - maˈchine - poˈlice - reˈceipt - reˈply - reˈport - reˈsearch - reˈsult - sucˈcess - supˈport
Other parts of speech: aˈbove - aˈbout - aˈgain - aˈgainst - aˈhead - aˈlone - alˈthough - aˈmong - aˈround - aˈware - aˈway - beˈcause - beˈfore - beˈhind - beˈlow - beˈtween - eˈnough - perˈhaps - toˈday - unˈtil - uˈpon - withˈin - withˈout

Three or more syllables[edit]

  • Stress in the first syllable
animal - company - definitely - ˈexerˌcise - family - general - gentlemen - government - handicap - recipe - secretary /ˈsekrətrɪ,BrE ˈsekrəˌteriAmE/ - yesterday /ˈjestərˌdeɪ, ˈjestərdɪ/
  • Stress in the second syllable:
aˈnother - comˈposer - Deˈcember - deˈparture - deˈtective - eˈmotion - eˈxample - exˈpensive - exˈperience - goˈrilla - reˈmainder
  • In nouns ending -isation or -ization, we stress the /eɪ/:
ˈciviˌlise – ˌciviliˈsation; ˈimprovise – improviˈsation; organise – organiˈsation; privatise – privatiˈsation;
  • Stress in the third syllable:
ˌafterˈnoon - ˌcontroˈversial - ˌenterˈtainment - ˌindisˈtinguishable - ˌinforˈmation - ˌuniˈversity
  • Stress in the fourth syllable:
ˌcharacteˈristic - conˌfiguˈration - ˌetymoˈlogical - exˌperiˈmental - reˌsponsiˈbility

Verbs[edit]

Two syllables[edit]

  • verbs with two syllables often, but not always, have the stress on the second:
aˈgree - apˈply - arˈrive - beˈcome - beˈgin - beˈlieve - comˈpare - comˈplain - comˈply - deˈcide - deˈclare - deˈfy - deˈpend - disˈcuss - enˈjoy - exˈplain - exˈport - forˈget - imˈprove - inˈclude - inˈcrease - inˈvite - preˈpare - preˈtend - preˈvent - proˈvide - reˈceive - reˈcord - reˈfer - reˈfuse - reˈgret - reˈmain - reˈpeat - reˈply - reˈport - reˈspect - reˈturn - reˈveal - reˈwind - sugˈgest

Exceptions: argue - cancel - centerAmE/centreBrE - colorAmE/colourBrE - differ - edit - enter - exit - follow - happen - issue - level - limit - market - offer - open - order - question - reason - silence - study - value - visit

Three or more syllables[edit]

  • Stress in the first syllable
ˈdomiˌnate - ˈeduˌcate - ˈhesiˌtate - ˈinterest - ˈmultiˌply
Many verbs ending in "-iseBrE/-ize": civilise/civilize - realise/realize - recognise/recognize
  • Stress in the second syllable
conˈsider - coˈmunicate - exˈperience - eˈvaluate - reˈcover - reˈmember
Some verbs ending in "-iseBrE/-ize": comˈmercialise/comˈmercialize - faˈmiliarise/faˈmiliarize - priˈoritise/priˈoritize
  • Stress in the third syllable
deconˈtaminate
last: decomˈpose - recomˈmend - underˈstand

The letter e[edit]

There are many words which have "e" in the first syllable. In many cases if you know the stress you can predict the pronunciation and viceversa

Stress in first syllable Stress in second syllable
/e/ general - level - yesterday technique
/ɪ/ pretty belief - prepare - refuse
  • Most words with the first e pronounced like /ɪ/ are stressed in the second syllable.
Nouns: belief - December - defence - demand - departure - detective - eclipse - ellipse - emotion - example - except - expensive - experience - extinct - receipt - report - research - result
Verbs: become - begin - believe - decide - declare - defy - depend - enjoy - evaluate - explain - experience - prepare - pretend - prevent - receive - recover - refer - refuse - regret - remain - remember - repeat - reply - report - respect - return - reveal - rewind
Other parts of speech: because - before - between
  • When the first e is the stressed syllable, it is usually pronounced /e/:
Nouns: beggar - benefit - celery - ceremony - effort - engine - exercise - exit - expert - general - gentlemen - level - mechanism - pepper - recipe - record - rescue - second - secretary - sentence - vegetable - yesterday
Verbs: detonate - edit - educate - enter - exit - hesitate - level
Other parts of speech: central - definitely - federal - mental

This is particularly noticeable in many verbs which have the same spelling for the noun; See Heteronym.

export (v.) - export (n.); record (v.) - record (n.);

Exceptions:

First syllable
/ɪ/: England - English - pretty
/iː/: decent - detail - even - female - legal - Peter - previous - recent - region - retail - secret - sequence - vehicle
Second syllable
/iː/: replay
/e/: technique
Third syllable
/e/: celebration

Heteronyms[edit]

Many heteronyms have a difference in stress. In many cases a noun is stressed in the first syllable and a verb is stressed in the second.

  • arithmetic (n.) - arithmetic (adj.); export (n.) - export (v.); insult (n.) - insult (v.); invalid (n.) - invalid (adj.); record (n.) - record (v.);

Variant pronunciations[edit]

Some words may be pronounced with stress in different syllables. In some cases there is a regional variation.

  • address/addressAmE - adult/adult - advertisementBrE/advertisementAmE - compositeBrE/compositeAmE - controversy (traditional pronunciation, both BrE and AmE)/controversy (new pronunciation, peculiarly BrE)[2] - kilometre/kilometre - transferenceBrE/transferenceAmE

This is particularly noticeable in French borrowings.

Many words that have a secondary stress in American English don't pronunce that vowel in British English:

  • cemetery /ˈseməˌteriː/AmE - /ˈsemətriː/BrE
  • military /ˈmɪləˌteriː/AmE - /ˈmɪlətriː/BrE
  • ordinary /ˈɔːrdənˌeriː/AmE - /ˈɔːrdənriː/BrE
  • secretary /ˈsekrəˌteriː/AmE - /ˈsekrətriː/BrE
  • temporary /ˈtempəreriː/AmE - /ˈtemprəriː/BrE
  • laboratory /ˈlæbrəˌtɔːriː/AmE - /ləˈbɒrətriː/BrE

In other cases the vowel is a schwa in British English.

  • adversary /ˈædvərˌseri/AmE - /ˈædvərsəri/BrE
  • capillary: /ˈkæpəˌleriː/AmE - /kəˈpɪləriː/BrE
  • category /ˈkætəɡɔːriː/AmE - /ˈkætəɡəriː/AmE
  • customary /ˈkʌstəˌmeri/ - /ˈkʌstəməri/BrE
  • literary /ˈlɪtəˌreriː/AmE - /ˈlɪtərəriː/BrE
  • necessary /ˈnesəˌseriː/AmE - /ˈnesəsəriː/
  • rosemary /ˈrəʊzˌmeriː/AmE - /ˈrəʊzməriː/BrE

Other words don't have a secondary accent even if they end in "ry":

  • adultery /əˈdʌltəriː/
  • delivery /dɪˈlɪvəriː/

Unstressed words[edit]

Main article: Weak form

Many common words can be unstressed in a sentence. For example, "ˌI can ˈswim" has stresses in "I" and in "swim". In "ˌYes, ˌI ˈcan" all words are stressed.

Anticipated pronunciation difficulties depending on L1[edit]

Preconceived ideas and other interferences from L1 obviously interfere in many cases with how students perceive - and pronounce - sounds/words in English. The following sections aims to point out some of the most typical difficulties teachers and students may encounter regarding pronunciation.

Spanish[edit]

Many Spanish speakers think that all English words are stressed in the first syllable, and they pronounce *canal, *hotel, *perhaps, *between, or *preliminary. Even the word cartel is pronounced "cártel" by many people when speaking Spanish.[3]

References[edit]

  1. Crystal, David, "A pronounced change in British speech" PDF format
  2. The Telegraph, The 'conTROversy' over changing pronunciations, 5 Feb 2011
  3. Real Academia Española, Diccionario de la lengua española (DLE) cartel2