Word Stress in English

January 27th, 2010

Watch Your Mouth

In the last 2 posts, I’ve talked about pronunciation as a function of the position of the mouth when speaking English. There is, of course, more to it than that, although I believe mouth position makes the biggest difference in speaking English clearly and understandably.

But, it is not the only thing. Also very important is where the stress is placed in a word, and the music, or intonation of the language. Today I’m going to give you the bad news about word stress in English, and the best way to cope with it.

Bad Habits

English, Russian and Greek have the same bad habits when it comes to word stress. That is, just like most else in English, it is irregular. Which syllables are stressed varies from word to word. There are no rules. This is very difficult for speakers of other languages to understand, since most languages have very specific rules about stress, with few exceptions.

For example, in French, the last syllable is stressed. In Spanish, it is normally the next to last syllable. In German, it is the first syllable, with some exceptions, and in Japanese, the stress is even.

One of the things that makes speakers of English as a foreign language difficult to understand (but also what makes their accents so charming) is that they continually stress the wrong syllables in a pattern familiar to them. In English, the syllables in a single word can be stressed in a number of different ways, with each way having a different meaning. So, it is very important to stress the syllables correctly.

Here are some examples of words that look like they would be pronounced the same, but are not:

noble: honorable, distinguished, aristocratic
Nobel: a prestigious award of achievement

invalid: a sick or disabled person
invalid: not valid, void

personal: individual, private
personnel: a group of people employed in an organization or place of work

pronouns: parts of speech that subsititute for nouns, such as he and she
pronounce: to say words

advantages: benefits or gain
advantageous: beneficial, useful

content: subject matter of a book, speech, etc.
content: satisfied and happy

So, you can see how important it is to stress the correct syllables in order to convey the correct meaning.

As Ususal, Listen!

As usual, the best thing you can do is listen and listen and listen to spoken English. You can memorize some pronunciations, but with enough listening, the correct pronunciation will sound right intuitively. Soon, it will become habit.

Also, it is very helpful if you become aware of the stress rules in your own native language. Once you are aware, then you can guard against using your habitual stress rules to pronounce English words while you word to make the correct stresses habit.

One Response to “Word Stress in English”

  1. I’ve got to say, this is a great post and a great blog alltogether. wty1d8

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