I’ve come across countless students who have a decent understanding of English grammar, writing, and vocabulary.
However, many of these same students continue to struggle with speaking and have difficulty being understood by native English speakers.
What is the reason?
They have not taken the time to tackle word stress. What exactly is the concept of word stress in English language, and why is it so important to master?
Brief: What does word stress mean?
Word stress is crucial to properly pronounce words in the English language. It means, that in multisyllabic words, some syllables are spoken with greater emphasis than others.
If you get word stress wrong, it might be difficult to understand you, as there are several words which sound similar and can only be distinguished by word stress (in spoken language).
What Is Word Stress?
English is not a flat language, but one of stresses and varying intonations. And here’s how it works:
Each word in English is broken into a number of syllables.
Short words like dog, car, box and so on are one syllable words. Meaning each of these words only has one sound.
Words such as pretty [pret-ty], quiet [qui-et] and export [ex-port] are broken up into two syllables.
Then there are words with three, four and even five or more syllables. Think of the words important [im-por-tant], realistic [real-is-tic] and communication [com-mun-i-ca-tion].
Each syllable needs to be pronounced, but some syllables are stressed or emphasized on more than others, depending on the word.
In the word ‘important’, the second syllable is stressed, so it is pronounced stronger and should read imPORtant.
The syllables which are not stressed are called the weak or quiet ones.
This is not only a difficult concept to grasp for Asian speakers studying English, but generally for all English as a second language students.
Even if one understands that importance of word stress, knowing exactly where to emphasize stress is no easy task.
General Rules and Patterns for Word Stress
This video lesson provides an introduction into syllable and word stress rules:
English is a very inconsistent language when it comes to rules. Since it is littered with exceptions, you should always keep in mind that there are no definite rules to English, but general rules and patterns that can be followed.
First, only one syllable can be stressed in an English word regardless if it has two, three, or even four or more syllables.
In most two-syllable nouns and adjectives, the stress comes in the firs syllable of the word.
|Rule: stress on first syllable||Example|
|Nouns||PRESent, TABle, DOCtor|
|Adjectives||GIant, UGly, WASTEful|
For most two-syllable verbs, the stress is in the second syllable.
|Rule: stress on second syllable||Example|
|Verbs||exPORT, reGRET, proNOUNCE|
|Adjectives||GIant, UGly, WASTEful|
Three- or More-Syllable Words
For words that have three or more syllables, understanding where to place the stress becomes a little more tricky, but there are some general patterns that can be followed.
The stress comes in the second to last syllable in any word that ends in -ic, -sion or -tion.
|Rule: stress on second to last syllable||Example|
|Words ending in -ic||GRAPHic, geoGRAPHic, geoLOGic|
|Words ending in -sion and -tion||teleVIsion, reveLAtion|
For any word ending in the suffixes -cy, -gy, -phy, -ty or -al, the stress comes in the THIRD syllable from the LAST.
|Rule: stress on third to last syllable||Example|
|Words ending in -cy, -ty, -phy and -gy||deMOcracy, dependaBIlity, phoTOgraphy, geOLogy|
|Words ending in -al||CRItical, geoLOGical, histORical|
Example: Here’s a tricky one!
- Photograph – PHOtograph (3 syllables, first one is stressed)
- Photography – phoTOgraphy (4 syllables, third to last one is stressed)
- Photographic – photoGRAPHic (4 syllables, second to last one is stressed)
Why Word Stress Is So Important
Why exactly is correct word stress so important when it comes to conversing in the English language?
Here are some reasons:
- Word stress heavily affects the sounds of the vowels in a word. Different word stress can make a word sound completely different.
- Native speakers rely on word stress to identify words. Thus, incorrect word stress patterns can lead to miscommunication between non-native speakers and native speakers.
- Knowing the stress pattern of words will help students to learn and remember the correct pronunciation of words.
- Knowing correct word stress will help students to improve their listening comprehension skills.
- Overall, the skill to stress words correctly will help ESL learners more to converse more confidently in English and enjoy it!
While some languages have little or limited stress – like Mandarin –, English is a heavily stress-based language.
Unfortunately, the majority of ESL teachers and students ignore the necessity to practice word stress.
Word stress is not something extra that students should study if they have time. It is an essential part of learning English because it is a major component of the English language.
If I had two dollars for every student I’ve met who was frustrated that his or her speaking skills weren’t improving despite significant gains in the areas of grammar, writing, and vocabulary, I would have a decent amount of savings.
If you are a student out there, then you need to be studying word stress.
If you are a teacher, then you should take time each week to practice it with your students.
How to Practice Word Stress
I wish I could tell something else, but besides the few rules students just have to memorize the correct stress for each word in English language.
They should listen to native speakers – watch movies, listen to podcasts, etc. –, and then repeat the words they’ve heard, imitating their pronunciation. Or they can use the read-aloud function in language learning apps.