Word Stress and Sentence Stress

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Normally when we say “I feel stressed” it means “I feel anxious”. Stress is a kind of worried feeling about life or work. But there is another kind of stress that actually helps us understand. This other kind of stress is an accent that we make on certain syllables and words when speaking English. When words combine to form sentences not all of them are stressed. Sentence stress is the music of spoken English. Sentence stress is what gives English its rhythm or “beat”.

You remember that word stress is accent on one syllable within a word. Sentence stress is accent on certain words within a sentence. For example, in the sentence, She ‘went to the ‘cinema only the words went and the first syllable ‘cinema are stressed. The words she, to, the and the last two syllables of ‘cinema i.e. ne and ma are unstressed. It is on this alteration of stressed and unstressed syllables that the rhythm of English depends. If we stress every word in an English sentence it would sound very odd. Most sentences have two types of word:

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content words
structure words
Content words are the key words of a sentence. They are the important words that carry the meaning or sense. Structure words are not very important words. They are small, simple words that make the sentence correct grammatically. They give the sentence its correct form or “structure”. If you remove the structure words from a sentence, you will probably still understand the sentence. If you remove the content words from a sentence, you will not understand the sentence. The sentence has no sense or meaning. For example, you receive this telegram message ‘Sell Car Gone France’. This sentence is not complete. It is not a “grammatically correct” sentence.

But you probably understand it. These 4 words communicate very well. Somebody wants you to sell their car for them because they have gone to France. We can add a few words: ‘Sell my car I’ve gone to France’. The new words do not really add any more information. But they make the message more correct grammatically. In our sentence, the $ key words (sell, car, gone, France) are accentuated or STRESSED. Why is this important for pronunciation? It is important because it adds “music” to the language. It is the rhythm of the English language. It changes the speed at which we speak (and listen to) the language. In some languages, for example Japanese, people say each syllable with equal force. But in English, and some other languages, we put a big force (stress) on some syllables and no force on other syllables or words. This can make it difficult for speakers of other languages to understand English that is spoken quickly. Of course, for native speakers it is not difficult – in fact, stress actually helps native speakers understand each other. So it is very important.

The rhythm of a sentence depends on the number of stressed syllables and weak or unstressed syllables between them. In the sentence ‘Give them the ‘pearls, the words give and pearls are stressed and there are two unstressed syllables them and the between them. In the sentence It ‘started to ‘rain ‘heavily in the ‘evening there are two weak syllables between ‘start and ‘rain-ed and to, no weak syllable between rain and ‘heav and four weak syllables between ‘heav and ‘even-I, ly, in the. From these sentences it is evident that the number of unstressed syllables between stressed syllables can vary from nil to four sometimes even within the same sentence. The number of stressed syllables and number of unstressed syllables define the rhythm of English sentences. The fewer the unstressed syllables between the stressed, slower and heavier the rhythm.

Larger the number of unstressed syllables, the faster and lighter the rhythm. Sentence stress is another golden key for speaking and understanding English. With sentence stress, some words in a sentence are STRESSED (loud) and other words are weak (quiet). Let’s consider an example. In the sentence ‘We want to go’. We don’t say every word with the same stress or force. We make the important words BIG and the unimportant words small. The important words in this sentence were We WANT to GO. We WANT to GO to WORK.

Basically stress is the force with which we pronounce a syllable in a word. A syllable may consist of a single vowel or a combination of two vowels called diphthongs or it may consist of a vowel or diphthong in combination with one or more consonants. An English word may be divided into a number of syllables. All syllables do not get the same degree of stress. One syllable gets the maximum degree of stress called the primary stress .and the remaining syllables get varying degrees of stress This is the phonic identity of that word. Thus the word examination has five syllables and the primary stress is on the syllable – na -. When the syllables are stressed it has a greater duration, greater resonance, greater loudness or volume.

The unstressed syllables become the central vowel such as you can hear as the first syllable in words like a-bout or a-round. However, when words are put together in sentences they may lose their phonic identity. English does not like two stressed syllables coming close together. In such situations a word may lose its stress distribution pattern Which syllable will lose its stress depends on the speaker’s meaning. WORD STRESS

Word stress is like a golden key to speaking and understanding English.In words of more than one syllable, not all the syllables are equally prominent. Those that are more prominent than others are said to receive the stress. The word stress in modern dictionaries is indicated by putting a vertical line above/below and in front of the stressed syllable. Very often stress and pitch change work together to make a syllable prominent.

The syllable on which there is a pitch change is said to have a primary or tonic stress. Any other prominent syllable is said to have secondary stress. Stress shift in derivatives is quite normal. It should not be assumed that words with the same stem will keep the primary stress on the same syllable. Example, a’cademy, aca’demic, a,cade’mician. To understand word stress more clearly let’s consider an example. Take 3 words: photograph, photographer and photographic. Do they sound the same when spoken? No. Because ONE syllable in each word is STRESSED (stronger than the others). PHOtograph

This happens in ALL words with 2 or more syllables: TEACHer, JaPAN, CHINa, aBOVE, converSAtion, INteresting, imPORtant, deMAND, etCETera, etCETera, etCETera The syllables that are not stressed are “weak” or “small” or “quiet”. Native speakers of English listen for the STRESSED syllables, not the weak syllables. If you use word stress in your speech, you will instantly and automatically improve your pronunciation and your
comprehension. Rules for stress patterns.

All English words have some stress, primary pr secondary on the first or the second syllable. Stress on the first syllable, Example,
• most 2-syllable nouns – china, table, export, pencil
• most 2-syllable adjectives – slender, clever, happy
Stress on the second syllable from the end, Example,
• words ending in “ic” – graphic, geographic, geologic, photographic • words ending in “sion” and “tion” – television, revelation, information Words with weak prefixes are stressed on the root and not on the prefix, Example, a’broad, a’cross, a’head, ad’vice. Stress is not affected by derivational suffixes or inflectional suffixes, Example, -age, -let, -ly, -ness, -or, -ment, ‘ful, ‘fy, ‘ward

Stress on the third syllable from the end, Example,
• words ending in “cy”, “ty”, “phy” and “gy” – democracy, dependability, photography, geology, society • words ending in “al” – critical, geological

Words ending in –ion have primary stress on the last syllable but one, example, ,appli’cation, ,civil’zation, ,compo’sition Words ending in –ic, -ical, -cally have the primary stress on the syllable preceding the suffix, example, a,polo’getic, e’lectric, e’lectrical, gram’matical Words ending in –ity, are stressed on the syllable preceding the suffix, that is, on the third syllable, example, ac’tivity, ,curi’osity, o,rigi’nality Words ending in –ial, -ially have the primary stress on the syllable preceding the suffix, example, ,confi’dential, ,presi’dential, me’morial Compound words (words with two parts), e.g.

• compound nouns, the stress is on the first part – blackbird, greenhouse, bluebird, blackboard, notebook, bookstore, toothbrush, keyboard • compound adjectives, the stress is on the second part – bad-tempered, old-fashioned • compound verbs, the stress is on the second part – to understand, to overflow • nouns + compound nouns (two word compound nouns), the stress is on the first word – air conditioner, computer programmer, nail polish, french fry

Following are the rules guiding us to use the stress correctly. The general rules in word stress are as follows
There is only one stress in one word.
Only vowels are stressed, not consonants
Sentences consist of two types of words, content words and structure words. • Content words – the main words of a sentence that have sense or meaning • Structure words – these are small, simple, not very important words that make the sentence grammatically correct

Sentence stress – specific rules (there are many exceptions to these rules), these rules are for normal or neutral stress

• content words are stressed
• structure words are unstressed
• time between stressed words is always the same

Example of Content words
main verbs – sell, give, employ
nouns – car, music, mary
adjectives – red, big, interesting
adverbs – quickly, loudly, never
negative auxiliaries – don’t, aren’t, can’t

Example of Structure words
pronouns – I, he, she, we, they
prepositions – on, at, into
articles – a, an, the
conjunctions – and, but, because
auxiliary verbs – do, be, have, can, must
“to be” as a main verb – is, are, was

Exception – occasionally a structure word is stressed to correct information. Example:
“Have you seen my shoes?”
“No, I haven’t, but she has.”

Example: Can you do the dishes after you have finished your lunch?

In the above sentence the content words are stressed.The structure words are not stressed. The time between each stressed word is the same. There is one syllable between do and dishes and there are four syllables between dishes and finished. The time between do and dishes and between dishes and finished is the same. This is because you say “the” more slowly and “after you have” more quickly. Saying the structure words more slowly or more quickly keeps the rhythm of the content words the same.

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Word Stress and Sentence Stress. (2016, May 24). Retrieved from


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