English stress patterns (overview)

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The stress system of English is notoriously complicated, consisting of multiple levels of word-level lexical stress, which itself is complicated. On top of the lexical stress, English has stress prominence on different parts of compounds, such as compound nouns, and on different parts of grammatical phrases.

English has several kinds of stress, some of which are introduced in this section.

  • unstressed syllables
  • word stress (lexical stress) – main or primary stress
  • word stress – secondary stress
  • phrasal stress (e.g., in predicates, noun phrases, etc.)
  • compound stress (e.g., compound nouns)
  • sentence stress

1 Stress as rhythm

Stress is realized by the following:

  • volume (amplitude) – stressed syllables are louder
  • length (duration) – stressed syllables are longer
  • pitch change – the intonation rises and/or falls on stressed syllables

Stressed syllables are pronounced with greater volume, they are noticeably longer than unstressed syllables, and they are marked by a rising and/or falling intonation with the stress. Asians tend to make the following errors:

  1. not hearing short, unstressed syllables;
  2. pronouncing all syllables equally strong – no stress / unstressed rhythm;
  3. putting stress on the wrong syllables; or
  4. omitting unstressed syllables in speaking.

Longer words can have a main (primary) stress and a secondary (minor) stress. In words like these, there should be a clear difference between stressed and unstressed syllables.

  • abóut /əbˈaut/
  • ùnaccéptable /ˌʌnæksˈɛptəbəl/

English syllables have three different stress levels:

primary stress e.g., [ á ] or [ˈa] accéntuate the pósitive, elíminate the négative, látch on to the affírmative
secondary stress e.g., [à] or [ˌa] accéntuàte the pósitive, èlíminàte the négative, látch on to the affírmative
unstressed the weak schwa vowel /ə/ & other unstressed vowels accéntuàte thə pósitive, èlíminàte thə négətive, látch on to thə əffírmətive

Furthermore, there are several kinds of stress in English:

Word stress (lexical stress) accéntuàte the pósitive
Compound stress báckbòne, fíeld mòuse, the Whíte Hòuse
Phrasal stress a whìte hóuse
Sentence stress (nuclear stress) I grew up in a white house, but I doubt I’ll ever live in the White House.

2 Above the word level

2.1 Compound stress

Compound words most often have the main stress on the first component.

ónion chòpper

2.2 Sentence stress

Within sentences, the major words, called content words (nouns, main verbs, adjectives, adverbs) are more strongly stressed than the other minor words, or function words. On top of that, clauses and sentences have intonation patterns, which are connected with the sentence stress pattern: the most important word of a clause is more strongly stressed than the other words – often the last major word of a clause that is most important. The stressed words (in bold) below would coincide with falling intonation, and these nouns would be more strongly stressed than other major word in these clauses.

The mechanic cheated the unsuspecting customer, so the customer then sued the mechanic.

3 Primary lexical stress

The English word stress patterns are very complicated, and present formidable challenges to learners from stressless languages. Stress is crucial for English rhythm, and English is often described as a stress-timed language, because syllables have different lengths, depending on the stress. Other languages like Korean are described as syllable-timed (or syllable weight timed), because each syllable has more or less the same length. The pronunciation of stressed syllables is marked by the following acoustic features:

  • volume (amplitude) – stressed syllables are louder
  • length (duration) – stressed syllables are longer
  • pitch change – the intonation rises and/or falls on stressed syllables

Koreans and other learners from stressless languages tend to make the following errors: (1) pronouncing all syllables with the same length; (2) placing stress on the wrong syllables; (3) being unable to hear unstressed syllables, such as ‘a’ or ‘the’; or (4) omitting or “swallowing” unstressed syllables in speaking. Such stress errors can cause communication breakdowns, as one phrase ends up sounding like a very different phrase.

A: Who will lead?

B: Willy.

If ‘Willy’ is pronounced with equal stress on both syllables, it can sound like ‘will lead’ or ‘Will Lee’ in this context, as if B is echoing A’s question.

The English stress system is complex, and we will not learn a lot of stress rules here. One reason for the complex stress system is that English words and the English language come from different languages, and in English we have Germanic, Latin, Greek, and French stress patterns. So learning a lot of rules will be of little value. Stress, like language in general, works according to patterns, not rules, often overlapping or intersecting patterns. Thus, it seems that language consists of rules and exceptions to rules, which is not the case; rather, it is a matter of different patterns operating in parallel in the language. So in this page, a few basic patterns will be presented.

3.1 Terminology

One note on terminology: The placement of the primary stress of English words is done with respect to the end of the word. That is, stress placement often depends on the final syllables of words (how long their vowels are and such). So in describing stress patterns, we refer to syllables as last, next-to-last, and so on, rather than the first, second, etc. syllables of the word. So we will use the following terminology, where, for example, ‘ultima’ is the noun and ‘ultimate’ is the adjective referring to these positions[1].

A few stress patterns are presented here, rather than rules, as the linguist rules are too complex or are not fully understood. Stress placement is relative to the final syllable, so we will describe these syllable positions as follows (the technical terms are mainly of use to linguists).

Symbol Description Linguistic terminology Example
[-1] final syllable ultima balóon
[-2] next-to-last, pre-final syllable penultimate advénture
[-3] three syllables from end antepenult ánalyze
[-4] four syllables from end preantepenult cóntroversy

3.2 Polysyllabic (multi-syllable) word patterns

Stress patterns of multisyllabic words get complicated, and generally follow Latin or Greek stress patterns for the main stress. The stress patterns get complicated, because they can be affected in some ways by certain suffixes, and unaffected by other suffixes; and they sometimes are affected by different vowels. In general, though, for words from Latin and Greek, and most academic and technical terms in English, the primary stress typically falls on the penultimate [-2] syllable or on the antepenultimate [-3] syllable.

4 Stress shifts

Some suffixes can cause the main stress to shift rightward. These are the more common suffixes that cause these stress shifts. The rules or patterns of stress placement are too complicated, and these will be examined in more detail in a future section. In brief, though, the primary stress will fall on the syllable before the suffix, or two syllables before the suffix. Note that the pronunciation of the vowels changes with the stress shifts.

Suffix Root word Suffixed word
-eous advántage advantágeous
-graphy phóto photógraphy
-ial próverb provérbial
-ian Páris Parísian
-ic ecólogy ecológical
-ical clímate climátic
-ious ínjure injúrious
-ity tránquil tranquílity
-tion éducate educátion

5 See also

  1. In Latin, ultima = ‘last’; pen- = ‘almost;’ ante = ‘before’. I occasionally use numerical abbreviations for these positions, for reasons that have to do with the stress complexities of longer words, which may be discussed in a future section.