Sound Stress in English


Sound Wave PatternsStress is used to talk about the emphasis given to certain sounds, words or phrases‏‎ when we speak.

In English there are basically 2 times we talk about stress: on words in an utterance; and on syllable‏‎s in a word.

Stress on Syllables

Take the word, august, as an example. It is made up of 2 syllables:

au + gust

If we stress the first syllable then the word is pronounced august and refers to a month in the year. However, if we stress the second syllable thus, august, then it is an adjective meaning majestic or awesome.

In the case of the word above the meaning changes depending on where the stress lies but for most words the the stress is normally placed on one syllable and is never changed.


Note, however, that some accent‏‎s or varieties of English‏‎ will put the stress on different syllables. In American English‏‎, for example, people say:


with the stress on the second syllable whilst in British English the stress comes on the third syllable:


Stress on Words

Stressing an individual word emphasizes the importance of that word in the meaning of the utterance. To talk a simple example, we can say the same thing with different word stress and change the meaning of the subtext within it.

I love you.
I love you.
I love you.

The first means that I love you, maybe nobody else does, but I do.

The second means that I love you and I don’t hate you or dislike you. You might doubt it, but I’m telling you now that I really do love you.

The third means that I love you and you alone; I don’t love the person living next door or the person you saw me talking to at the bus stop last night. No, it’s you and you alone whom I love.

Stress in the TEFL Classroom

The most common problems with stress come with individual words. Students may experience mother tongue influence‏‎ where the stress pattern of their own language affects the way they pronounce English. For example, 4 syllable words in Greek‏‎ generally have the stress on the 3rd syllable. Take the name, Penelope:

Pe + ne + lo + pe

But in English the stress comes on the 2nd syllable:

Pe + ne + lo + pe

It’s probably best to bring up the subject of stress on an as-needs basis. If a word comes up in class which is said with the wrong stress, then have your students learn the correct stress and explain to your students that whilst there are good general rules about word stress, there are always exceptions to be found.

Note also that most words longer than two syllables have two stresses in English. There is a primary stress and a secondary stress. For the general language classroom it’s usually best to keep things simple and concentrate on the primary stress as we have done here.

Dealing with stress within an utterance is different, however, and is worth exploring with your more advanced classes when they are ready.

Notes on Writing Stress

In this article we’ve shown the dominant word stress by underlining bold text. However, you will also see an accent used. For example:


The accent comes just before the syllable where the primary stress is placed.

Useful Links

Intonation‏‎ in English – about intonation in pronunciation

Intonation in Practice – intonation activity – an activity to practice different intonation in utterances

Image © Iwan Gabovitch

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