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Syllables and Word Stress – English Pronunciation Lesson

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

Do you know what stress means? It’s one of the most important pronunciation points in English.

When you speak English, do other people find it difficult to understand what you’re saying? If so, you might not be using stress correctly.

Pronouncing words with the correct stress can make a big difference to your English: your English will immediately sound clearer and more natural.

QUIZ: Syllables and Word Stress

Now, test your knowledge of what you learned in the lesson by trying this quiz.

For some questions, you need to listen to the audio in order to answer. In other cases, you can listen to the audio as extra help.

You will get your score at the end, when you can click on ‘View Questions’ to see all the correct answers.

1. How to Count Syllables

You’ll learn all about stress in this lesson, but first, we need to talk about syllables. Listen to four words:

  • fast
  • person
  • beautiful
  • information

Do you know how many syllables these words have? Fast has one syllable: fast. /faːst/ Person has two syllables: per-son. /ˈpɜːsən/ Beautiful has three syllables: beau-ti-ful. /ˈbjʊːtɪfəl/ Information has four syllables: in-for-ma-tion. /ɪnfəˈmeɪʃən/ A syllable has one vowel sound (and only one vowel sound) and one or more consonant sounds. Let’s do some more practice. Look at four more words:

  • breakfast
  • banana
  • tomorrow
  • university

How many syllables do they have? Breakfast has two syllables: break-fast. /ˈbrekfəst/ Banana has three syllables: ba-na-na. /bəˈnaːnə/ Tomorrow has three syllables: to-mor-row. /təˈmɒrəʊ/ University has five syllables: u-ni-ver-si-ty. /jʊːnɪˈvɜːsɪti/ So, this lesson isn’t really about syllables; it’s about stress. What’s the connection between syllables and stress? Think about the word banana. Banana has three syllables.

Do you pronounce all the syllables the same: bah-nah-nah? No, you don’t—one syllable is stronger: ba-NA-na. This is stress. If a word has one syllable, you don’t need to think about stress. But, if a word has two syllables or more, one syllable is always stressed: it has a strong, clear pronunciation.

Let’s practice pronouncing word stress correctly.

2. How to Pronounce Stress

Let’s look at an example you just saw.

  • banana

Do you remember where the stress is? It’s on the second syllable: ba-NA-na. What makes the stressed syllable different? There are three things you need to do to pronounce stress correctly. One: the stressed syllable should be louder. Two: the stressed syllable should be a little higher. Three: the stressed syllable should be a little longer in time. Let’s practice. First, listen to three words you saw before:

  • PERson
  • BEAUtiful
  • inforMAtion

Here, I was exaggerating the stress so that you can hear it clearly. You don’t need to pronounce the stress this strongly. However, when you practice, it’s a good idea to try to overpronounce the stress a little bit. This will make sure that you are pronouncing it correctly. So, where is the stress in these three words? Listen again, and this time, repeat the words after me: PERson, BEAUtiful, inforMAtion. Let’s try one more time: PERson, BEAUtiful, inforMAtion. How was that? Could you pronounce the stress clearly? Next, let’s look at four more words you saw before:

  • BREAKfast
  • baNAna
  • toMOrrow
  • uniVERsity

This time, I pronounced the stress in a more natural way. Could you hear it? Where is the stress in these four words? Listen again, and this time, repeat the words after me: BREAKfast, baNAna, toMOrrow, uniVERsity. Let’s try one more time: BREAKfast, baNAna, toMOrrow, uniVERsity.

When you look up a word, you can find the stress by looking at the phonetic transcription. The thing that looks like an apostrophe /ˈ/ shows you where the stress is. When you see this apostrophe, the next syllable is the stressed syllable. When you write down new English vocabulary, make sure you record the stress, too. You can put a mark over the stressed syllable, or underline it.

Syllables and Word Stress - definition image

At this point, you might be thinking: are there any rules about word stress? How do I know where the word stress is if I don’t have a dictionary? Let’s talk about that.

3. Stress in Two-Syllable Words

We’ve got good news and bad news for you. The good news is that there are some rules about word stress in English. The bad news is that the rules don’t cover everything, and even the rules which you do have don’t work all the time. Here’s one rule which is quite useful. It’s about words with two syllables. Look at five words:

  • PICture
  • MInute
  • MOney
  • DOCtor
  • WAter

All these words have two syllables. Where’s the stress? In all the words, the stress is on the 1st syllable. There’s a reason for this: can you work it out? What connects these five words? These words are all nouns. Nouns with two syllables usually have stress on the 1st syllable. Let’s practice saying the words together. Repeat after me: PICture, MInute, MOney, DOCtor, WAter. This is also true for most adjectives with two syllables:

  • happy
  • YEllow
  • USeful
  • FORmal
  • TIring

What about verbs? Look at some examples and try to work out the rule:

  • decIDE
  • forgET
  • explAIN
  • arrIVE
  • repEAT

Can you hear the stress? The stress is on the second syllable. Let’s practice saying the words together. Repeat after me: deCIDE, forGET, exPLAIN, arRIVE, rePEAT. So, most nouns and adjectives with two syllables have the stress on the first syllable, and most verbs have the stress on the second syllable. Be careful, because there are many common exceptions, like hoTEL, HAPpen, exAM, or FINish.

What about longer words? Are there any rules you can use to find the stress?

4. Stress in Longer Words

In three-syllable words, the stress can be anywhere; it can be at the beginning:

  • ANyone
  • BEAUtiful
  • POssible

It can be in the middle:

  • comPUter
  • toMOrrow
  • exPENsive

It can also be at the end, although this is less common:

  • afterNOON
  • emploYEE
  • japanESE

Let’s practice! Repeat after me: BEAUtiful, toMOrrow, emploYEE. Let’s try three more: ANyone, comPUter, JapanESE. In words with four or more syllables, the stress is almost always in the middle of the word, not on the first or last syllable. For example:

  • inforMAtion
  • comMUnicate
  • phoTOgrapher

Try saying the words after me: inforMAtion, comMUnicate, phoTOgrapher. There are some other rules which can help you to find the stress in longer words. Let’s look together. If a word ends -tion, -sion or -cian, then the stress is always on the second last syllable:

  • inforMAtion
  • disCUssion
  • poliTIcian

Can you think of three more words like this? There are many, but here are three more suggestions: situAtion, reVIsion, elecTRIcian. The same rule is true for words ending -ic:

  • ecoNOmic
  • draMAtic
  • atLANtic
  • scienTIFic

Again, all these words have the stress on the second last syllable. If a word ends with the letter -y and has three or more syllables, then the stress is two syllables before the last one. For example:

  • biOLogy
  • LUCKily
  • acTIVity
  • possiBILity

That means, if a word has three syllables and ends in -y, the stress is almost always on the first syllable:

  • CHEMistry
  • PREGnancy
  • ROBbery

There’s one more rule which could help you here: if a longer word is made from a shorter root word, then the stress is generally in the same place as the root word. For example:

  • COMfort
  • COMfortable
  • disCOMfort
  • unCOMfortable
  • COMfortably
  • COMforting

In all these words, the stress is in the same place as the root word, COMfort. However, the rules you saw before take priority. This means that the stress can move when you make a longer word from a root word. For example:

  • PHOtograph -> phoTOgraphy -> photoGRAphic
  • eCOnomy -> ecoNOmic
  • EDucate -> eduCAtion

Okay, now you’ve learned about stress, how to pronounce it, and how you can find the stress in different words. But, there’s still one more very important thing you should know about.

5. Contrasts and Vowel Reductions

Want to know a secret that will improve your English pronunciation really fast? Here’s the most important point about word stress: it’s about contrast. That means, when you pronounce word stress, it’s not just about the stressed syllable. You also need to think about the unstressed syllables. Remember that to pronounce stress, you make the stressed syllable louder, higher and longer. Stress is about contrast, so the opposite is true for unstressed syllables: you need to make them quieter, lower and shorter.

Let’s look at three words you’ve already practiced:

  • baNAna
  • PERson
  • inforMAtion

To pronounce the words well, you need to think about the unstressed syllables, too. Often, the vowel sounds in the unstressed syllables are reduced to schwa sounds–/ə/, or short /ɪ/ sounds. ‘Reduced’ means the vowel sounds are shorter and weaker. For example, in the word banana, the stress is on the second syllable: ba-NA-na. The stressed ‘a’ has an /aː/ sound, but the other two ‘a’s’ have schwa sounds: b/ə/nan/ə/. In the word person, the first syllable is stressed, and the second syllable has a schwa sound: pers/ə/n. And in information, the syllables before and after the stressed syllable reduce to schwas: inf/ə/mat/ə/n.

Get more practice with vowels in this Oxford Online English lesson: How to Pronounce Vowel Sounds.

Unstressed syllables can’t always be reduced, but they often can be. If a vowel sound is reduced, it most often shortens to a schwa sound. We’ll finish with a simple tip to help you pronounce word stress clearly and naturally. Focus on the stressed syllable, and put more stress on it than you think you need. Pronounce the unstressed syllables as fast as you can. If you do this, you’ll have contrast in your pronunciation, and this will make your word stress sound natural and clear.

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