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Sentence Stress – Video

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In this lesson, you can learn about sentence stress in English.

Stress means that you pronounce some syllables more strongly than others. There are many different types of stress in English, and stress is used in many different ways.

Pronouncing sentence stress correctly will make a big difference to how you pronounce English. You’ll immediately sound clearer and more natural when you speak English.

QUIZ: Sentence Stress

Now, test your understanding of the lesson with this 16-question quiz.

You’ll see your score at the end. After you finish, click ‘view questions’ to see the correct answers and explanations.

1. Introduction to Sentence Stress

Look at a sentence:

  • How about we go for a coffee this afternoon?

Sentence Stress - cup of coffee image

In this sentence, there are two kinds of words; let’s call them content words and grammar words.

Content words give you the meaning of the sentence. The content words here are go, coffee, this and afternoon. If you don’t hear these words, you won’t understand the sentence.

Grammar words don’t carry meaning. They’re grammatically necessary; they connect the content words together.

Think about it this way: if someone comes up to you and says, “Go coffee this afternoon?” you can understand what they mean, even if it sounds a bit weird.

If someone comes up to you and says, “How about we for a this?” you’ll have no idea what they’re talking about.

So, why are we talking about this? Aren’t we supposed to be talking about sentence stress?

The difference between content words and grammar words is the foundation of sentence stress.

Content words are usually stressed, and grammar words are usually unstressed.

Listen and try to hear the stress.

Can you read the sentence with the stress?

  • how about we GO for a COFFEE THIS AFTERNOON?

Let’s look at one more example sentence:

  • My phone’s broken, so I’m going to buy a new one.

Which words do you think are content words, and which words are grammar words?

Before you answer, you should know one important point.

Sentence stress is flexible, and the line between content words and grammar words isn’t fixed, so the answers we show you are just the most probable ones; there are other possibilities.

So, think about your sentence, and which words you think are content words or grammar words. Pause the video if you want more thinking time!

Ready? Here’s our suggestion:

  • my PHONE’S BROKEN, so i’m GOING to BUY a NEW ONE.

Again, think about it like this: if you hear the content words, you can understand the meaning of the sentence: “phone broken, going buy new one.”

If you hear only the grammar words, it doesn’t make any sense at all: “my so I’m to a.”

By the way, this idea can also really help your English listening.

You can see that you don’t need to hear every word to understand the meaning of a sentence.

If you focus on listening to the stressed words, you can understand someone’s meaning, even if you don’t hear the unstressed grammar words.

Anyway, let’s practice this sentence. Can you say the sentence with the stress?

  • my PHONE’S BROKEN, so i’m GOING to BUY a NEW ONE.

Okay, now you know the basics about sentence stress. Let’s see what you can do!

2. Recognising and Pronouncing Sentence Stress

Sentence Stress - pronunciation image

Look at three sentences:

  • Could you get some bread from the bakery on your way here?
  • I heard that the weather’s going to be bad tomorrow.
  • He has no idea what he wants to do after he graduates.

In this section, you’re going to find the stressed words in these sentences, and then we’ll practice pronouncing them together.

So, first of all, pause the video, and find the stressed words in these three sentences. Take as much time as you need, and start again when you’re ready.

Okay? Let’s look at our suggested answers. Remember that other answers are possible:

  • could you GET some BREAD from the BAKERY on your WAY HERE?
  • i HEARD that the WEATHER’S going to be BAD TOMORROW.

Next, let’s try reading the sentences together. Repeat after me, and pay attention to the stress:

  • could you GET some BREAD from the BAKERY on your WAY HERE?

Let’s do the next one:

  • i HEARD that the WEATHER’S going to be BAD TOMORROW.

Let’s try the third sentence:


How was that? Easy? Difficult? Remember that you can go back and review this section as many times as you need to.

You can also adjust the video speed to make it easier or more difficult. For example, if you find it difficult, watch this section again at point seven five or point five speed. Practice at a lower speed until you can pronounce the stress easily. Then, try again at full speed!

Now, to pronounce sentence stress well, you also need to pay attention to the unstressed words in a sentence.

Why is this?

3. Stressed vs. Unstressed Contrast

Here’s a very important point about sentence stress, or any stress.

Stress is about contrast.

You heard before that stress means pronouncing some syllables more loudly, more clearly, and more slowly than others.

That means that stress is relative. To pronounce stress clearly, you need a clear contrast between your stressed and unstressed syllables.

So, when you’re practicing sentence stress, you should pay equal attention to the unstressed words.

Let’s look at an example, using a sentence you saw before:

  • could you GET some BREAD from the BAKERY on your WAY HERE?

You need to pronounce the stressed words more strongly, and you need to pronounce the unstressed words at a lower volume and a higher speed.

Often, unstressed words have a weak pronunciation. Knowing how to pronounce weak forms is also important if you want to pronounce sentence stress clearly.

Let’s try something. Read the sentence. Make the stressed words as clear as possible. Exaggerate the stress a little bit.

Pronounce the unstressed words as fast as you can. Try to get a really clear contrast between the stressed and unstressed words.

Listen first, then you try:

  • could you GET some BREAD from the BAKERY on your WAY HERE?

Let’s do one more example, with a new sentence. Look at the sentence:


Try reading the sentence.

It’s worth spending some time practicing this contrast: if you can pronounce the contrast between stressed and unstressed sounds clearly, your English will sound much better and more natural.

We were exaggerating the contrast slightly, so that you could hear it clearly. It’s fine to do this while you’re practicing!

You can go back and review this section, or review the previous section and focus on contrast in your pronunciation.

What’s next? Well, you heard before that sentence stress is flexible.

Let’s talk more about that!

4. Shifting Stress and Tonic Stress

Mikey: Hello, what can I get you?

Kae: One chocolate and raspberry muffin and a small americano with milk, please.

M: Sorry, you said a CHOCOLATE and raspberry muffin?

K: That’s right!


M: Here you are!

K: I said a chocolate RASPBERRY muffin.

M: Oh, I am sorry! I thought you said chocolate and STRAWBERRY.

K: Also, is there milk in this coffee?

M: Did you want MILK? I thought you said an americano with SUGAR!

K: No, with MILK!

M: I’ll make you a new one. One cappuccino with milk coming up.


M: Right, right, just a minute.

Sentence stress is flexible. It doesn’t follow strict rules; instead, it depends on the meaning you want to express.

Sometimes, one idea in your sentence is more important than others. You’ll add extra stress to this idea.

Why does this happen?

One reason is to contradict or correct someone. For example:

M: Buenos Aires is the capital of China.

K: No, Mikey. Buenos Aires is the capital of ARGENTINA. BEIJING is the capital of China.

M: Two plus two is five.

K: No, Mikey. Two plus two is FOUR.

M: Carrots are green.

K: No, Mikey. Carrots are ORANGE.

Another reason to add extra stress is that you want to contrast two ideas. For example:

  • i didn’t want CAPPUCINO; i wanted an AMERICANO.
  • she doesn’t live in PARIS; she lives in ROME.
  • the flight left at TEN? but i thought it left at TWELVE!

Finally, you might add extra stress just to emphasise one idea in your sentence, like this:

  • ARE you going to london tomorrow? –> Meaning: I’m emphasising the question, because I want a yes or no answer from you.
  • are YOU going to london tomorrow? –> Meaning: I know some other people are going to London, but I want to know if you are going. This stress pattern is often used to show surprise.
  • are you going to london TOMORROW? –> Meaning: I know you’re going to London on another day, but I want to know specifically about tomorrow. Again, this suggests that I’m surprised.

In all of these cases, you add extra stress to one word in the sentence.

This doesn’t replace ‘regular’ sentence stress. Instead, it’s like an extra layer on top of it.

In the question Are you going to London tomorrow, the content words going, London and tomorrow are stressed. If you want to add stress to emphasise one idea, then you add this on top of the existing stress.

For example:

  • are YOU going to london tomorrow?

In this case, you add ‘regular’ sentence stress to going, London and tomorrow, and ‘extra’ sentence stress to you.

The ‘extra’ stress should be stronger than the ‘regular’ stress. Try it! Repeat after me:

  • are YOU going to london tomorrow?

Note that this ‘extra’ stress can be anywhere, including on grammar words.

So now, you know the most important points about sentence stress in English.

Thanks for watching!

Keep practicing your pronunciation with another free lesson from Oxford Online English: English Pronunciation Secrets.

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