Word Stress and the Conditions for Stressing - Onyeji Nnaji

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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:
WordType of wordTendencyExceptions
apple
table
happy
two-syllable nouns and adjectives
stress on the first syllable
O o
apple
hotel
lagoon
suspect
import
insult
words which can be used as both
nouns and verbs
the noun has stress on the first syllable
O o
"You are the suspect!"
the verb has stress on the second syllable
o O
"I suspect you."
respect
witness
hairbrush
football
compound nounsfairly equally balanced but with stronger stress
on the first part
O o
hairbrush
 
There are two very simple rules about word stress:
  1. 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.)
  2. 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
ruleexample
Most 2-syllable nounsPRESent, EXport, CHIna, TAble
Most 2-syllable adjectivesPRESent, SLENder, CLEVer, HAPpy
B. Stress on last syllable
ruleexample
Most 2-syllable verbspreSENT, exPORT, deCIDE, beGIN
There are many two-syllable words in English whose meaning and class change with a change in stress. The word present, for example is a two-syllable word. If we stress the first syllable, it is a noun (gift) or an adjective (opposite of absent). But if we stress the second syllable, it becomes a verb (to offer). More examples: the words exportimportcontract and objectcan all be nouns or verbs depending on whether the stress is on the first or second syllable.
C. Stress on penultimate syllable (penultimate = second from end)
ruleexample
Words ending in -icGRAPHic, geoGRAPHic, geoLOGic
Words ending in -sion and -tionteleVIsion, reveLAtion
For a few words, native English speakers don't always "agree" on where to put the stress. For example, some people say teleVIsion and others say TELevision. Another example is: CONtroversy and conTROversy.
D. Stress on ante-penultimate syllable (ante-penultimate = third from end)
ruleexample
Words ending in -cy-ty-phy and -gydeMOcracy, dependaBIlity, phoTOgraphy, geOLogy
Words ending in -alCRItical, geoLOGical
E. Compound words (words with two parts)

ruleexample
For compound nouns, the stress is on the first partBLACKbird, GREENhouse
For compound adjectives, the stress is on the second partbad-TEMpered, old-FASHioned
For compound verbs, the stress is on the second partunderSTAND, overFLOW

Morphological Stress Conditions

Prefixes

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. 
Examples -
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.

Suffixes

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 or , 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

Conclusion
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.

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