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Concourse 2

Word stress (/ˈwɜːd ˌstres/)


There are two small marks in the heading for this guide that you need to be aware of before we begin: ˈ and ˌ.
These are the conventional ways to show stress in words and used in what follows.  The raised mark (ˈ) is shown immediately before the stressed syllable and the lowered mark (ˌ) comes before a secondary (or less obvious) stress.
For example, in the word pronunciation, there are two stresses (a secondary one on the second syllable and a main stress on the penultimate syllable: /prə.ˌnʌn.sɪ.ˈeɪʃ.n̩/.  It sounds like proNUNciATION.
(An alternative way to mark stress sometimes used by professional phoneticians is to place an acute accent over the onset vowel of a stressed syllable and a grave accent over a secondarily stressed item.  In this case, the syllable borders are usually ignored.)
If you are not familiar with phonemic transcription, do not worry now.  In what follows, we will be using very little except these two stress indicators.
There is a course in learning to transcribe English sounds phonemically on this site (new tab).

Where's the main stress in the following?  Click on the table when you have marked it in your head.

word stress

As you can see, we can stress the first, second, third or fourth syllable on words in English (and even the fifth or sixth) and there are, unfortunately, no hard-and-fast rules for which is right.


What is stress?

It is often assumed that stressed syllables are simply spoken in a louder voice but that's only partly right.  There are, in fact, three elements which vary:

  1. Loudness: how much force is used when saying the syllable
  2. Pitch: stressed syllables are often pronounced in a higher tone
  3. Length: stressed syllables take longer to utter than unstressed ones

You'll find more on pitch and tone in the guide to intonation.

We also need to be aware of the concept of unstress.
Clearly, if we can have stressed syllables in a word, the other syllables will, by definition be unstressed.  For example:
In a word like geographical, we have a primary stress on the third syllable (graph) and a secondary stress on the first syllable (ge).
The stress pattern looks like this: GEoGRAphical.  This word transcribes as /ˌdʒɪə.ˈɡræ.fɪk.l̩/ and even if the phonemic transcription is mysterious to you, you need to notice two important phenomena:

  1. The pronunciation of the second syllable is not an 'o' as in open but is reduced to a very short sound /ə/ which is the same sound as begins words like about and alive.
  2. The pronunciation of the final syllable is transcribed as /k.l̩/ showing that there is no vowel at all between the /k/ sound made by 'c' and the /l/ sound made by the letter 'l'.  This is known as a syllabic consonant, by the way.

These two changes to the sound expected from the spelling of the word happen because they occur in the unstressed syllables of the word.  Weak forms like the /ə/ and the loss of a vowel as in /k.l̩/ can only occur in unstressed syllables.  Compare this with, e.g.:

In this, the first syllable is now taking the main stress and the pronunciation of the 'o' assumes the form of the 'o' in go or show (/ɡəʊ/, /ʃəʊ/).  The secondary stress has now moved to the third syllable.


Is stress entirely random?

No.  There are some rules and we are going to look at them here.  It will however, remain true that in many cases the stress in a multisyllable word cannot be guessed or deduced from any rule at all so our learners will need all the help they can get.
A simple rule of thumb, and certainly the way to guess, is to assume that any common two-syllable word in English will be stressed on the first syllable (unless it's a verb, when the stress falls on the second syllable, conventionally [see below]).

Occasionally, stress may be moved on a word for contrastive reasons as in, for example:
    A: Why did you shut the door?
    B: Because of the noise you were making.
    A: Oh, sorry about that.
    B: I was
COMplaining, I was EXplaining.
in which the stress in B's second contribution is unusual because the speaker is placing emphasis on the first syllables of the words complaining and explaining to mark the difference.  In normal circumstances the words are stressed on the second syllable, of course.


Word roots

Words which have early roots in English are the simplest to stress because the stress generally remains fixed on the stem regardless of how many affixes we use with them.  For example:

ˈplease ˈpleasant unˈpleasant unˈpleasantly unˈpleasantness disˈplease disˈpleasing
ˈstand underˈstand underˈstanding misunderˈstand misunderˈstanding underˈstandable underˈstood

The problem for learners, of course, is to recognise such words and that is not easy.
Learners from Germanic language backgrounds often have fewer difficulties because they can look for cognates and these will normally be words which maintain the stress.
Those from Romance language backgrounds can often make guesses because of a lack of a cognate in their languages.
Those from non-European language backgrounds have no such resources to call on but words like these are often short, describe simple concepts and are non-academic or non-technical.
That helps a little.
An even simpler rule is that in English we rarely stress an affix:

disaˈppoint reˈcover unˈdo misrepreˈsent underˈestimate preˈmeditate coˈoperate


tail end

Word endings

-ment, -ness, -less, -en
Nouns formed with the suffixes -age, -ful, -ing, -ly, -y, -ment, -ness and -less have no effect on words stress.  Similarly, verbs formed with -en suffix do not affect word stress.  For example:
ˈpostage ˈhopeful ˈdriving ˈlively ˈsmelly disˈappointment ˈhappiness ˈhopelessness ˈwiden

Words which are more formal, academic or technical often have their roots in Latin or Greek and with these words the stress may shift with affixation but all is not lost because there are some rules.
It is also true that many thousands of words fall into these categories and, once learnt, the rules can be applied with almost 100% success.


penultimate syllable

-tion, -sion
nouns formed with these two endings always follow the rule of stressing the last-but-one syllable:
confˈusion susˈpicion deˈrision misrepresenˈtation estiˈmation mediˈtation conˈversion
adjectives formed with this suffix also follow the penultimate syllable rule:
ecoˈnomic photoˈgraphic undiploˈmatic empaˈthetic symˈbolic phoˈnetic emˈphatic

antepenultimate syllable

-ology, -ography
nouns in technical (and not so technical) registers often end with these two suffixes.  The stress falls on the syllable before the one before last:
anthroˈpology phoˈtography onˈtology biˈology geˈography epistemˈology phonˈology
nouns ending with this suffix are often formed from adjectives and stressing follows the same pattern
curiˈosity aˈbility diˈversity conditionˈality faˈtality humˈanity insensiˈtivity
these words are formed from other nouns and denote a person, and adjective or a philosophic standpoint
libˈrarian utiliˈtarian orˈwellian darˈwinian phoneˈtician cliˈnician mathemaˈtician ˈSyrian
The suffix -ite, which often has a similar meaning, does not affect the stress: Trotskyite, Castro-ite, Thatcherite, Hitlerite etc.
There are some who aver that the stress falls on the syllable before the suffix.  That's slightly misleading.  Use the antepenultimate rule or move the stress to the last syllable of the stem.
these are generally verbs.  When they have three or more syllables, they follow the antepenultimate rule:
ˈcultivate ˈhesitate ponˈtificate disˈseminate ˈaggravate necˈessitate ˈvegetate

A simpler (but not fully accurate) way to explain this in the classroom is to say that in all these penultimate / antepenultimate cases, the stress moves to the syllable before the suffix.


word stress

last syllable

-ee, eer
although it was said above that we do not, in English, normally stress the affix, these two are common exceptions because they are 'borrowed' suffixes (from the French -ier).  They form nouns for people frequently and also verbs:
enginˈeer electionˈeer escapˈee employˈee racketˈeer puppetˈeer auctionˈeer

There are other exceptions, and they include:

Chinˈese, managementˈese, journalˈese etc.  (Many of these refer to languages or types of language.)
grotˈesque, burlˈesque etc.  (Many of these make adjectives taken from people, genres or movements [Kennedyˈesque, Pythonˈesque, McCarthyˈesque etc.].)
mystˈique, antˈique, critˈique, technˈique etc.
discˈette, launderˈette, bankˈette, cassˈette, corvˈette, marionˈette etc.  (Many of these refer to diminutives of nouns.)

noun verb

Stress shifting

noun / adjective verb  
ˈpresent preˈsent  

There is a large group of words which shift stress from the second syllable (as verbs) to the beginning (as nouns or adjectives).  This can be expressed the other way around according to your taste as a shift from the first syllable to the second or last syllable, moving from the noun/adjective to the verb.
Common ones are, for example

exˈport (verb) ˈexport (noun) conˈvict (verb) ˈconvict (noun)
abˈsent (verb) ˈabsent (adjective) perˈfect (verb) ˈperfect (adjective)
deˈcrease (verb) ˈdecrease (noun) reˈfund (verb) ˈrefund (noun)

and there are lots more of these (some quite obscure).  Here's a list of 100 of these (which may even be reasonably complete):

The verb confine also takes a stress shift when converted to a noun but the noun only occurs in the plural.
A recent addition to this list is the word invite which is now frequently used as a noun and, predictably, is stressed on the first syllable when it is a noun and on the second when it performs its usual role as a verb.  The conversion to a noun is unnecessary because the language already contains the word invitation, incidentally.  Also incidentally, the verb itself is probably a mistaken back formation from the noun invitation.
If you would like that list as a PDF document, you can download it here.


Compound nouns

Compound nouns are usually stressed on the first element with a secondary stress (if any) on the second element.  This is one of the tests for a compound noun rather than a pre-modified noun.  Compare, e.g.:
    ˌgreen ˈhouse
In the first, we are referring to a glass construction but in the second, we are referring to the colour of a house.
The first is a true compound; the second is a pre-modified noun.

There are hundreds of examples which follow this pattern:
    ˈcandleˌstick, ˈdishˌwasher, ˈblackˌboard, ˈheartˌbeat, ˈwindˌmill
and, of course
A few compounds have retained their stress on the second item:
archˈbishop and vice ˈchancellor are two.
Where the stress falls is often a marker of whether an item is a true compound or a pre-modified noun but the test is not at all reliable.  There is, in fact, no single criterion which we can use to distinguish a pre-modified noun from a compound.

Compound verbs

Compound verbs are much more rarely two verbs combined but most follow the same pattern:
ˈbabyˌsit, ˈkickˌstart, ˈforceˌfeed
However, in common with the general tendency to stress verbs on the second syllable (see above), some compound verbs take the stress on the second element:
backˈfire, waterˈproof
but there is a good deal of variation between speakers.

Compound words formed from multi-word verbs

The stress pattern on multi-word verbs is not simple because prepositional verbs and phrasal verbs are stressed differently.
One test for whether we are dealing with a prepositional or phrasal verb is, in fact, that in the former case the particle is usually unstressed but in the latter the adverb may carry stress.

Because the preposition is often unstressed in prepositional verbs and realised with a weak form as in, for example:
    He laughed at the idea
which is often pronounced:
with secondary stress on the verb and with a weak-form preposition (/ət/).
So, when making compounds from the prepositional verb we can get
    A much laughed at idea
with the stress falling on laugh, not on the preposition.

Nouns and adjectives formed from phrasal verbs (i.e., those using an adverb particle rather than a preposition) usually exhibit the stress pattern of main then secondary so we get, e.g.:
    ˈoffˌputting, ˈbreakˌdown, ˈknockˌout, ˈdropout
The stress on the first element remains whether it is the particle or the verb that comes first.
Phrasal verbs in particular are a rich source of adjectives and they follow the same pattern with the stress either falling on the adverb or being evenly distributed across the item.  For example:
    a mixed up kid /ə.mɪkst.ˈʌp.ˌkɪd/
    a broken down car /ə.ˌbrəʊkən.ˈdaʊn.ˈkɑː/
    a washed out colour /ə.wɒʃt.ˈaʊt.ˈkʌ.lə/

Phrasal-prepositional verbs reveal the same pattern with the adverb taking stress and the preposition often weakened.  However, such verbs do not form compounds.

For more, see the guide to multi-word verbs.

Compound adjectives and adverbs

Compound adjectives and the rarer compound adverbs often exhibit the opposite stress patterns:
Adjectives: ˌtopˈclass, ˌsecondˈrate, ˌbackˈhanded, ˌfarˈfetched, kneeˈdeep, flatˈfooted
Adverbs: ˌthereupˈon, ˌhenceˈforth, ˌupˈstairs

However, when these are used attributively, the pattern reverses and we get:
a ˈtop-ˌclass act, a ˈsecond-ˌrate act, an ˈupˌstairs room, a ˈfar-ˌfetched story

AmE usage is somewhat more reliable because it has a strong tendency to stress all compounds on the first syllable.  As is often the case, this tendency is increasingly observable in BrE.  How would you stress:
    lawn tennis?


Focusing on stress in the classroom

As we saw above, word stress in English is highly mobile.
Learners will, of course, especially at lower levels, be tempted to transfer the rules and patterns of their first languages into English, resulting in mistaken stress very often.
The following cannot cover all languages but here is a list to give you some idea of the possibilities:

Languages with predictable stress
  • in French (allegedly) the stress always falls on the final syllable (although some will say that there is, in fact, no word stress in French).
  • in Hungarian, again allegedly, the stress is always on the first syllable.
  • in Polish, the stress almost always falls on the penultimate syllable (although loan words will vary the pattern).
  • in Italian and Spanish the stress also falls frequently on the penultimate syllable but there are some complex rules to determine where the stress should be placed.
  • most Swedish polysyllabic words have the stress on the first syllable.
  • in Portuguese, most stresses fall on the last syllable but there are rules for words where it is in a different place.
Languages with unpredictable stress include:
  • Russian
  • Greek (although stress is always marked in lower-case writing)
  • Arabic (but stress is variable across dialects of the language which are not always completely mutually comprehensible)
  • Portuguese (in which dialect, South American vs. European varieties, also plays a role)
  • German, in which stress is frequently on the first syllable but there are exceptions all over the place depending on suffixation, prefixation (whether separable or not) and so on.
Languages with alternative systems:
  • Japanese does not have a stress accent like English.  In English, as we saw above the stress affects pitch, loudness and length of the syllable.
    Japanese, by contrast, has what is called a pitch accent which can be high or low.  The syllable, however, is pronounced with the same loudness and takes the same amount of time to utter.
  • in tonal languages, such as Chinese languages and many South-East Asian languages such as Thai, the stressed syllable is denoted by a larger than usual tone swing.

Learners whose first languages have predictable and dominant stress patterns (the first group) will be tempted to transfer the rules to English.
Learners whose languages have unpredictable stress patterns (the second group) may be confused by the fact that English orthography does not mark the stress for them.
Learners whose languages exhibit alternative systems may have difficulty stressing words at all and sound very flat or monotonous.

Every time a new multisyllable word is introduced in a classroom, therefore, the stress needs to be explicitly highlighted and practised.
Here are three ways to highlight.  Pick one and keep to it so your learners know what it signifies.

highlight highlight highlight
Simply doing this on the board is helpful, of course, but you need to make sure that the learners can actually say the words with the stress in the right place.
Speakers of most European languages will be able to do this but speakers of other languages may encounter trouble.

This is the index of other guides in the in-service pronunciation section.
the overview of pronunciation connected speech consonants
intonation minimal pairs (PDF) minimal pairs transcription test
sentence stress syllables and phonotactics teach yourself transcription
teaching pronunciation IP teaching troublesome sounds verb and noun inflexions IP
vowels word stress identifying word-stress IP
Guides marked IP are in the initial plus section.