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Using correct word stress

Using correct stress
Two men sitting at a table and chatting
© Macquarie University

In the previous step, we saw how Miguel mispronounced some words because of problems with word stress. Let’s learn about how to avoid these.

Word stress

Words in English vary in length based on the number of syllables or sounds they have. When a word has two or more syllables, one of them is pronounced with an additional emphasis, and this is what is known as word stress. Look at the following examples:

  • car: this is a one syllable word and therefore the stress is on the one syllable
  • wa / ter: this is a two syllable word and the stressed syllable is ‘wa’
  • ex /am / i / na / tion: this is a four syllable word and the fourth syllable ‘na’ is stressed

Placing stress on the wrong syllable can lead to mispronounced words and unclear speech.

You can improve how you use word stress by:

  • listening to how native or proficient speakers of English pronounce words. You can do this by speaking to native and proficient speakers, regularly watching TV programs or listening to podcasts.
  • using a dictionary. The stressed syllable is often preceded by the symbol (‘). For example: about (/əbaʊt/); water (/wɔːtə(r)/)

In addition to these, you can also learn and implement the following simple rules:

Tip: Record yourself reading the words aloud and applying the following rules. Then play the recording to check your pronunciation.

Word stress rules

Rule 1 – Nouns, adjectives and adverbs with two syllables: In most cases, the first syllable is stressed. For example:

  • Nouns: father, member, language, nature, centre Audio

  • Adjectives: simple, local, awkward, lower, useful Audio

  • Adverbs: maybe, often, kindly, weekly, always Audio

Rule 2 – Verbs and prepositions with two syllables: In most two-syllable verbs and prepositions, the second syllable is stressed. For example:

  • Verbs: announce, contain, dislike, receive, include Audio

  • Prepositions: among, without, unlike, behind, before Audio

Rule 3 – Nouns and verbs with two syllables: In some cases, one single word can either be a noun or a verb, depending on where it is placed within a sentence. Rules 1 and 2 above still apply.

  • Nouns: discount, contrast, object, present, desert Audio

  • Verbs: discount, contrast, object, present, desert Audio

Rule 4 – Nouns ending in -sion/-tion, -graphy, -ency/-ancy, -ity, -logy: For multi-syllable nouns, you need to stress the syllable before the endings -sion/-tion, -graphy, -ency/-ancy, -ity, -logy. For example:

  • -sion/-tion: comprehension, position, addition Audio

  • -graphy: geography, biography, demography Audio

  • -ency-ancy: agency, tendency, pregnancy Audio

  • -ity: responsibility, electricity, productivity Audio

  • -logy: ideology, analogy, psychology Audio

Rule 5 – Adjectives ending in -ic, -ical, -tial/-cial, -tional: For multi-syllable adjectives, you need to stress the syllable before the endings -ic, -ical, -tial/-cial, -tional. For example:

  • -ic: atomic, electronic, electric Audio

  • -ical: classical, economical, grammatical Audio

  • -tial/-cial: confidential, beneficial, commercial Audio

  • -tional: intentional, national, optional Audio

Rule 6 – Verbs ending in -ify: For multi-syllable verbs, you need to stress the syllable before the ending -ify. For example:

  • satisfy, qualify, certify, diversify, notify Audio

Rule 7 – Compound words: In many compound words (i.e. words made from two smaller words put together), the stress is on the first part of the word. For example:

  • bookshop, airport, sunglasses, traffic light, travel agent Audio
© Macquarie University
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