How Americans Speak – Three Rules for Word Stress

image by WTCC instructor ecparent

Over the past few weeks, we have talked about shortened words, sentence stress, and sentence rhythm. This week, we’re going to look at some pronunciation rules for putting stress on the correct syllable in a word. This is important for 2 reasons:

  1. Using incorrect stress causes confusion.
  2. It is important to put the stressed syllable of a content word on the beat when you are speaking in English rhythm.

Let me explain #2 a little more. You know that we stress content words in speaking – nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, negatives, question words, and interjections. In the sentences below, every word is a content word, so each word gets a beat.

Ana works hard.
Ana works VEry hard.
Ana works exTREMEly hard.

Read the first sentence out loud and clap your hands when you say each word. Clap in a steady rhythm. The first sentence is easy because each word has only one syllable, so they all get equal stress. In the second and third sentences, there are words with two or three syllables. The stressed syllable is on the beat (when you clap). The extra syllables must go between the beats. Practice the second and third sentences. Clap in a steady rhythm, and try to put the extra syllables between claps.

Now let’s talk about stress in lots of different words. English pronunciation is a little crazy compared to other languages, but we have a few rules that can really help!

Stress on the Syllable Before Certain Endings

In words with the following endings, the stress usually goes on the syllable before the ending:

  • -ible/-able – flexible (FLEX-ible), dependable (de-PEN-dable)
  • -ious/-eous – suspicious (sus-PI-cious), courageous (cou-RA-geous)
  • -ity – ethnicity (eth-NI-city), audacity (au-DA-city)
  • -ive – expensive (ex-PEN-sive), active (AC-tive)
  • -graphy – geography (ge-OG-ra-phy), photography (pho-TOG-ra-phy)
  • -logy – psychology (psy-CHO-lo-gy),
  • -meter – speedometer (spee-DO-me-ter), thermometer (ther-MO-me-ter)
  • -ic/-ical – geographical (ge-o-GRA-phi-cal), hysterical (hys-TE-ri-cal), ironic (i-RO-nic), photographic (pho-to-GRA-phic)
  • -tion/-sion/-cian – vacation (va-CA-tion), revision (re-VI-sion), musician (mu-SI-cian)

Stress on the Last Syllable

When words have these endings, the endings are usually stressed:

  • -ee – refugee (re-fu-GEE), trainee (trai-NEE)
  • -eer – volunteer (vo-lun-TEER), mountaineer (moun-tai-NEER)
  • -ese – Japanese (Ja-pa-NESE), legalese (le-ga-LESE)
  • -ette – bachelorette (ba-che-lo-RETTE), casette (ca-SETTE)
  • -esque – picturesque (pic-tu-RESQUE), statuesque (sta-tu-ESQUE)
  • -oo – shampoo (sham-POO), tattoo (tat-TOO)

Stress Shift (Verb – Noun)

Some verbs and their related nouns look exactly alike, but their pronunciations are different. Usually, in two-syllable VERBS, the second syllable is stressed.

  • permit (per-MIT)
  • record (re-CORD)
  • present (pre-SENT)
  • increase (in-CREASE)
  • conflict (con-FLICT)
  • escort (es-CORT)
  • address (ad-DRESS)
  • object (ob-JECT)
  • upset (up-SET)

Two-syllable NOUNS, on the other hand, are usually stressed on the first syllable.

  • permit (PER-mit)
  • record (RE-cord)
  • present (PRE-sent)
  • increase (IN-crease)
  • conflict (CON-flict)
  • escort (ES-cort)
  • address (AD-dress)
  • object (OB-ject)
  • upset (UP-set)

There are many more rules for pronunciation and word stress, but these three will help you get started. For further explanation and more examples, here is a video that talks about these rules a bit more.


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