English lexical stress patterns

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English lexical stress patterns

English words can have the main stress on the final or pre-final syllable, or three or four syllables from the end. We will refer to the stressed syllables with the following simplified terms like “-1” and “-2” and so on.

term description ! examples
[-1] final syllable stress cheese, baguette, vinaigrette
[-2] pre-final stress pizza, banana, mozzarella
[-3] stress on third syllable from end hamburger, barbecue
[-4] stress on fourth syllable from end pumpernickel

1 Anglo-Saxon patterns

These patterns usually work for bisyllabic (two-syllable), trisyllabic (three-syllable words), and of course, monosyllabic (single syllable words) from Old English, or over half of common English words with 1-3 syllables. They also work on common, shorter words from Latin (those that came into English long ago).

Some words have neutral suffixes – these are suffixes that do not affect the stress; for purposes of locating stress, they are like “0” syllables in the stress system.

[-1] stress verbs inflame, engulf

require, decide, desert

[-2] stress nouns, adjectives climate, knowledge

flippant, spacious

[-2] stress + neutral suffix noun & adj. suffixes

-er, -ly, -ery

manager, carpenter

orderly, dastardly

bakery, adultery

2 Latin patterns

This set of patterns is more common in more academic and technical words, which mostly came from Latin[1]. The [-2] or [-3] syllable is usually stressed, depending on which syllable is heavier, e.g., because it has a long vowel, or ends with two consonants (but deciding which syllable is heavier is linguistically tricky and complex, so do not try to analyze this too much). Generally, if a [-2] syllable has a long vowel or is heavier, it tends to be stressed; otherwise, if the [-2] is a lighter syllable, the [-3] syllable is stressed. The [-3] stress can apply to Latin prefixes (pre-, con-, etc.)

[-2] stress [-2] is heavier thesis, structure, neurosis, silicosis
[-3] stress [-2] is a light syllable antithesis, anagram, cognitive, decadent, accident, incident, exercise, prejudice, confident, complicate, indicate

As mentioned, evaluating whether the [-2] is light or lighter is tricky, and sometimes the pattern will seem unclear (unless you know Latin, and linguistic theories of stress placement), e.g.: consíder, envísage.

Some neutral Latin and Greek suffixes act like “0” syllables, that is, it is as if you ignore these suffixes, and locate the stress on the [-2]/[-3] syllable of the original base word.

[-2] stress (base) -ist, -ism, -ize anarchist, anarchism, socialist, socialism, socialize

determinist, determinism,

[-3] stress (base) -ist, -ism, -ize cannibalism, cannibalize, republicanist

This also seems to work for Latin / Anglo-Saxon suffixes like these.

-able, -ible addable, habitable, terrible, abominable
-al optimal, minimal

2.1 Special Latin suffixes

A few common Latin suffixes force the stress into [-2] or [-3] position. First, here are some simpler suffix patterns.

[-2] stress -ic, -ics, -(os)is graphic, ecstatic, democratic, comic, Atlantic, iconic, endoscope, microscopic, photographic, pediatrics,
neurosis, neurotic
[-3] stress -y, -al democracy, alacrity, uncertainty, oddity, rarity, community, commodity, iconicity, endoscopy, microscopy, photography, radiology, geography,
critical, logical

We have an i-stem pattern consisting of (1) the -ion suffix (as in ‘nation’), and (2) suffixes beginning with <i> ; these are essentially variants of suffixes without the i-stem, e.g.: -ous -ious. Similarly, we also have e-stem and u-stem suffixes, which are counterparts of stemless suffixes, e.g, -ous eous, -ous-uos. Sometimes the stem vowel is pronounced as a separate syllable (e.g., ‘lineal, sensuous’) and sometimes not, especially with the i-stems (‘spacious, nation’). In all cases, the main stress is on the syllable before the suffix. This is actually an easy pattern to learn, as the main stress is reliably found on the syllable before the prefix in at least 99% of all cases[2].

[-1] stress pattern [-1] of base word, e.g.:
-ion nation, vision, degradation, implication, incision
-ium, -ia media, bacteria, bacterium
-ior exterior, behavior
-ian, -ial meridian, quotidian, musician, radial, spatial, interstitial, differential
-ious egregious, devious, prestigious
-iant/-ient, -iance/-ience, -iancy/-ency, etc. radiant, luminescent, sufficient, radiance, luminescence, deviancy, sufficiency
-ual sensual, residual
-uous continuous, sensuous, assiduous
, -uant, -uance continuant, pursuant, pursuance
-ul+, etc. modular, molecular

3 French [-1] pattern

Many words borrowed from modern French have [-1] stress, as the French language in general follows this pattern. This includes some common word endings in French-English words[3].

[-1] stress -ade, -é, -ee, -ese,
-que, -ette, -oon
lemonade, resumé, fiancé, fiancée, employee, guarantee, puppeteer, Siamese,
picturesque, towelette, baguette, buffoon, macaroon
other French words garage, Renaissance, savoir-faire, noblesse-oblige

4 Greek [-3/-4] patterns

This is less common, and shows up mainly in medical terms, other technical terms, metric prefixes, and a few other prefixes. If a [-3] has a longer vowel or a heavier syllable, it is stressed; otherwise, the [-4] is stressed. However, some prefixes can have their own stress. Not all words from Greek follow this pattern, as some were latinized to [-3] stress patterns.

[-4] stress metric prefixes milliliter, kilonewton, kilopascal, microtesla
other prefixes television
[-3/-4] stress names [-3]: Herodotus, Aristophenes

[-4]: Anaximander

other Greek words [-4]: carcinogen

5 Compound word patterns

In most compound nouns, the first word has primary stress, and is more stressed than the others. This includes compounds formed from two or more nouns, or from an adjective plus a noun. For compounds, it does not matter if they are written as one word or separately. See also: Compound & phrasal stress.

2 nouns keyboard, coffee shop, hard drive
noun + adj. the White House, the Blue House, greenhouse
3 nouns hard drive recovery, computer repairman
4+ nouns motherboard manufacturing process

A number of specialized patterns exist for specialized meanings.

Type Stress pattern Examples
Compound verbs & adjectives Often the second or last word is stressed old-fashioned

reverse engineer

Compound nouns derived from phrasal verbs Prepositional element is stressed overflow, uptake
Material nouns as modifiers In some cases, the first noun indicating a material is not really part of the compound, but is used more like an adjective, and does not receive the main stress gold(en) ring

wood(en) crate

Personal names The family name receives the main stress Barack Obama

Moon Jae-in

Abbreviations The last letter of an abbreviation is often stressed FBI, CIA, UN
Names of streets & buildings The last word is usually stressed (except for generic nouns) Lincoln Avenue

Elm Drive

Lincoln Hall, Elm Theater

Generic nouns in street, building, organization names When the nouns street, building, organization, society, etc. are the final elements of compound names for such items, they are generic in those contexts and often unstressed, and a more important word in the phrase has the main stress. Lincoln Building

Lincoln Street

Canadian Linguistics Association

Canadian Linguistics Society

Canadian Linguistics Organization

  1. Some Greek words came into English via Latin, or became latinized in English later (i.e., came to be treated like Latin words as they became more commonly used), and thus follow the Latin patterns as well. For example, the word kilometer is from Greek, originally with the main stress on the [-4] or first syllable, according to the Greek stress pattern (kílometer), but because it is a more common term than other metric units, it is commonly latinized to kilométer.
  2. There may be a few cases, say, where a Greek stress pattern trumps the Latin pattern, like télevision.
  3. In certain cases, the word has become common enough that it has been anglicized or latinized to a [-2] or [-3] pattern in some English varieties or dialects, e.g.: employée / emplóyee (both are possible in the US), gárage (UK), mácaroon (US), Renáissance (UK).