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
- 2 Secondary stress
- 3 Some general rules
- 4 The letter e
- 5 Heteronyms
- 6 Variant pronunciations
- 7 Unstressed words
- 8 Anticipated pronunciation difficulties depending on L1
- 9 References
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/.
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
|First syllable||Second syllable|
|Nouns||coffee - expert - water||canal - hotel|
|Verbs||argue - follow||agree - complain - regret|
What is said here about nouns is also valid for other parts of speech, except verbs.
- 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
- 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
- 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 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
- 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
- last: decomˈpose - recomˈmend - underˈstand
The letter e
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.);
- 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
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.);
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) - kilometre/kilometre - transferenceBrE/transferenceAmE
This is particularly noticeable in French borrowings.
- balletBrE/balletAmE - chauffeurBrE/chauffeurAmE - fiancé(e)BrE/fiancé(e)AmE - garageBrE/garageAmE - lingerieBrE/lingerieAmE
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
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/
- 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
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.
Many Spanish speakers think that all English words are stressed in the first syllable, and they pronounce *, *, *, *, or *. Even the word cartel is pronounced "cártel" by many people when speaking Spanish.