Word Stress and the Conditions for Stressing - Onyeji Nnaji
To communicate clearly when you are speaking in English, it’s important to stress the correct syllables in each word. This is called word stress, which means pronouncing one syllable of a multisyllabic word with greater emphasis (stress) than the other syllables in the word.
Word stress therefore is the verbal emphasis placed on one syllable of a word. This occurs in every English word that has more than one syllable. It’s not always the same syllable but there are a couple of rules to be familiar with when it comes to word stress. First, word stress is only ever on a vowel of a word; it’s never on a consonant. Second, there is only one word stress per word.
There are patterns in word stress in English but, as a rule (!), it is dangerous to say there are fixed rules. Exceptions can usually be found.
- Here are some general tendencies for word stress in English:
|Word||Type of word||Tendency||Exceptions|
two-syllable nouns and adjectives
|stress on the first syllable|
|words which can be used as both|
nouns and verbs
|the noun has stress on the first syllable|
"You are the suspect!"
the verb has stress on the second syllable
"I suspect you."
|compound nouns||fairly equally balanced but with stronger stress|
on the first part
There are two very simple rules about word stress:
- One word has only one stress. (One word cannot have two stresses. If you hear two stresses, you hear two words. Two stresses cannot be one word. It is true that there can be a "secondary" stress in some words. But a secondary stress is much smaller than the main [primary] stress, and is only used in long words.)
- We can only stress vowels, not consonants.
Here are some more, rather complicated, rules that can help you understand where to put the stress. But do not rely on them too much, because there are many exceptions. It is better to try to "feel" the music of the language and to add the stress naturally.
A. Stress on first syllable
|Most 2-syllable nouns||PRESent, EXport, CHIna, TAble|
|Most 2-syllable adjectives||PRESent, SLENder, CLEVer, HAPpy|
B. Stress on last syllable
|Most 2-syllable verbs||preSENT, exPORT, deCIDE, beGIN|
C. Stress on penultimate syllable (penultimate = second from end)
|Words ending in -ic||GRAPHic, geoGRAPHic, geoLOGic|
|Words ending in -sion and -tion||teleVIsion, reveLAtion|
D. Stress on ante-penultimate syllable (ante-penultimate = third from end)
|Words ending in -cy, -ty, -phy and -gy||deMOcracy, dependaBIlity, phoTOgraphy, geOLogy|
|Words ending in -al||CRItical, geoLOGical|
E. Compound words (words with two parts)
|For compound nouns, the stress is on the first part||BLACKbird, GREENhouse|
|For compound adjectives, the stress is on the second part||bad-TEMpered, old-FASHioned|
|For compound verbs, the stress is on the second part||underSTAND, overFLOW|
Morphological Stress Conditions
Words beginning with: a- ab- be- con- com- de- dis- e- ex- in- im- per- pre- and re, except for those whose stressed syllable is determined by the rules of suffix stress above. Unless with the presence of a suffix, no rule of suffix stress must be applied.
Prefixes in two-syllable words are not normally stressed except in some nouns or adjectives.
Two-syllable verbs starting with a prefix are almost all stressed on the second syllable.
Examples - To address, to become, to complete, to contrast, to discuss, to export to improve, to present
Two-syllable nouns and adjectives starting with a prefix need to be learned individually.
Adjectives and nouns stressed on the prefix: Absent, complex, distant, an 'expert, a contract, a permit, a record,
Adjectives and nouns not stressed on the prefix: extreme, concise a report, an export, an expert
In many cases, such as to export / an export, or to conflict / a conflict, verb and noun are distinguished by being stressed differently. But unfortunately this is not always the case, as in to report / a report , to design / a design.
This is why all such words need to be learned individually (and also why even native English speakers sometimes make mistakes! )
Prefixes in three-syllable words.
Prefixes are usually stressed in three-syllable nouns and adjectives,
They are not always stressed in verbs, which need to be learned individually
Examples nouns and adjectives : Accident, confident, decadent, exercise, infamous, incident, permanent;
Examples verbs : to consider, to envisage but to complicate, to 'indicate
Useful note: All three syllable verbs ending in -ate are stressed on the first syllable.
The "-ion" rule: this rule takes priority over all other rules.
Well it's not quite an "iron rule", but it is the most important rule of word stress in English. If the suffix (ending) starts with the letters i or u , as with the common ending -ion, this will affect the position of stress in a word. [Exceptions: the endings -ist, -ism, -ize and -ing.]
Sample suffixes: -ion, -ual, -uous, -ial, -ient, -ious, -ior, -ic, -ity, etc.
The stress comes on the syllable before the suffix.
Examples: Atlantic, comic, sufficient, relation, explanation, residual.
There are only a very few exceptions to this rule.
Other suffixes do not affect the stress of a word. Sample suffixes: -al, -ous, -ly, -er, -ed, -ist, -ing, -ism, -ment etc.
Examples: Permanent, permanently, develop, development
The best way to learn word stress is to listen carefully and make a note of patterns as you notice them. For additional help, all dictionaries give the phonetic spelling of words. With practice and greater awareness of word stress, you will significantly improve your grasp of the English language.