How to place stress in a word
It sounds easy, right? Knowing which word to stress when we’re speaking our native tongue is something that comes naturally. However, for English language learners this may not come as easily. The way we place stress words is called prosody, and learning how this works can greatly improve your communication skills as an English learner.
Back to basics
Let’s start with the very basics of a sentence: the words. Each individual word contains its own stress pattern, with one syllable, emphasized more than others. Syllables are the individual units of words that are made up of one vowel and sometimes one or more consonants. For example, the word “water” has two syllables: “wa-” and “-ter”.
In English, it can be hard to know which syllable should be stressed. If the speaker chooses the wrong syllable to stress, this can often lead to misunderstandings and communication breakdowns.
Sometimes, words can have two totally different meanings if the emphasis is placed on different syllables of the word. These kinds of words are called heteronyms, and they are one of the many intricate and confusing elements of the English language (as if there weren’t enough already). Let’s take a look at a few examples:
- Minute: MINNit (60 seconds) vs. myNOOT (small)
- Object: ubJEKT (to complain) vs. AHBjekt (a thing)
- Polish: POElish (from Poland) vs. PAHLish (to shine)
- Rebel: REBBell (someone who resists) vs. rihBELL (to resist)
At this point, you may be thinking, “That’s all great, but how do I know when to stress the right syllable?”. We’ve got the answer for you, but it’s not always simple: look for the vowels! You can usually find the emphasis in a word where the vowels are.
After all, our vowels are so complicated and stressful (there are 15 vowel sounds in English – yikes!) that it only makes sense that they’re the point of stress in words. For more about our complicated system of vowels, check out this page.
So I found the correct syllable to stress, now what?
You may be wondering how to even perform the act of “stressing” a syllable. Here are 5 key rules to remember when stressing a syllable:
- produce a longer vowel
- raise the syllable’s pitch
- say the syllable louder
- say the syllable more clearly
- create a more distinct facial movement
Use these 5 key rules to help you place emphasis on a syllable in a word, and it will help increase your clarity and fluency as an American English learner!
The Bottom Line
To conclude, without any word stress, we would sound like monotone robots. Without correct word stress, we may miscommunicate our message. By learning the tips and tricks we mentioned, English language learners can make sure to communicate more effectively and accurately!
If you missed us last week, check out our last post, What does a Pacific Northwest dialect sound like?
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