How Americans Speak – Sentence Stress

image by WTCC instructor ecparent

I have a 15- month-old baby. She is learning to speak, and she knows a lot of words, but she can’t speak in sentences yet. She says only the words she needs to communicate basic things. When she wants water, she says, “Water.” When she wants cheese, she says, “Cheese please.” When she is finished with something, she says, “All done!” In English, we call these kinds of words content words. Content words are necessary for communication.

Content words include:

  • main verbs – the verbs that show the action
  • nouns – people, places, things, ideas
  • adjectives – words that describe nouns
  • adverbs – words that describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs
  • negatives – no, not, never, nor, etc.
  • question words – who, what, where, when, why, how
  • interjections – Wow! No! Yay!

We also have function words – words that are necessary for grammar. Function words include:

  • articles – a/an/the
  • conjunctions – and, but, or, so, etc.
  • prepositions – of, to, from, in, etc.
  • pronouns – he, she, you, we, they, I, him, her, us, etc.
  • auxiliary verbs – have/has (in present perfect verbs), is/are/am (in present continuous verbs), modal verbs (would, could, should, can, might, must)

Function words are necessary for grammar to be correct, but without them, we can probably still understand the meaning of a sentence. Look at these words:

WANT BROTHER PLAY

Imagine you are at a soccer game with a friend. Your friend’s brother is on one of the teams, but he is not playing in the game right now. It is very loud at the game, and you can’t understand every word your friend says. You only hear, “want brother play.” What is he saying?

I WANT my BROTHER to PLAY.

You probably understood that because the content words made sense in this situation. Imagine the same words in a different situation. A 2-year-old child has a baby brother. The 2-year-old wants to play, but the baby is too little. He can’t play yet. The 2-year-old looks at his mother and says, “Want brother play!” This child is also saying, “I want my brother to play,” and we understand him because we know the situation, and it makes sense.

How is this related to MY pronunciation?

Americans pronounce content words louder and more clearly than function words. In the sentence, “I want my brother to play,” Americans will pronounce the content words (want/brother/play) very clearly, but the function words (I/my/to) will not be loud or clear.

In these sentences, the content words are in CAPITAL ITALIC letters. Try to read the sentences out loud. Say the content words loudly and clearly. Say the function words softly. You can cover your mouth when you say the function words if you want.

  1. I HAVE to GO to WORK.
  2. He TOLD me he would CALL.
  3. It’s NOT a GOOD IDEA.

Find the Content Words

Now let’s practice finding the content words. In these sentences, which words are content words? Which words are function words? Look at the lists above to help you decide.

  1. I told you not to do it.
  2. We’re going to the park.
  3. Raleigh is a great city.
  4. Hannah and her brother are playing outside.
  5. What would you like for dinner?

Here are the answers:

Sentence Content Words Function Words                                    
1 told, not, do I, you, to, it
2 going, park We’re, to, the
3 Raleigh, is, great, city a
4 Hannah, brother, playing, outside and, her, are
5 What, like, dinner would, you, for

Circle or highlight the content words. Read the sentences again, and put a strong emphasis on those words. Say the function words quietly and quickly.

Your Turn

Look in a book, magazine, or newspaper. Choose a few sentences to practice. Circle the content words. Then practice reading the sentences out loud. Pronounce the content words loudly and clearly. Pronounce the function words more quietly and less clearly. Ask your teacher if your pronunciation is correct.

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