“Which syllable do I stress?”

This is a common question from my clients who are very skilled at reading and writing in English but struggle to be understood when they speak. This is particularly true if they learned English in school by studying primarily from books and their teachers weren’t native English speakers themselves.

To someone who is not a native speaker of English, knowing which syllable to stress when a word is two, three or four syllables long can seem like a guessing game at times.  It is well known that English spelling can’t be trusted when it comes to pronouncing a word correctly. There are many examples of words that sound similar but are all spelled differently, such as heard, bird, word. The spelling of English words have a variety of influences that are not easily explained.

Fortunately, there are rules for syllable stress in American English and they can be easily explained. These rules may not even be obvious to native English speakers, since intonation rules are not explicitly taught.  Native speakers of any language just absorb the natural pitch and stress patterns that they are immersed in. So, while well-meaning friends may be able to tell you that you are pronouncing a word wrong, they may not be able to help you break the pattern of pronunciation errors.

For instance, there is a stress pattern rule for compound words. A compound word is when two different words are grouped together to form a new word with a new meaning.

  • The first syllable of a compound word receives the primary stress. The first syllable should receive a higher pitch, a longer vowel and a louder volume.

Your work day is filled with compound words: e-mail, laptop, sick leave, download, network, break room, paycheck. Are you putting the emphasis on the first syllable?

Take a look at the compound word overtime in this sentence:  “I earned a lot of overtime this month.” By putting the stress on the first syllable of the word your listeners knows you meant you put in a lot of extra hours. The stress pattern is different if you say the same words for a different meaning as in,  “Over time, I took on more projects.”

Some English words with the same spelling are pronounced two different ways and have two different meanings.  In fact, the meaning of the word depends on where you put the syllable stress. These words are known as heteronym pairs. There are stress pattern rules for heteronym pairs.

  • If a two syllable word is a noun, the first syllable is stressed with a higher pitch, a longer vowel and a louder volume. “We gave the CEO a present.”
  • If the word is a verb, the second syllable is stressed.  “Did you present the CEO with a gift?”
  • If the word has three syllables, both nouns and verbs stress the first syllable. The noun or adjective has short, unstressed second and third syllables. “I’m a graduate of UNC.”
  • If the three syllable word is a verb, the second syllable has weak stress and the last syllable has a secondary stress. “I was excited to graduate.

These are a sampling of American English stress rules but don’t let it overwhelm you.  This is where an accent trainer or a pronunciation coach can help. We know the rules for American intonation. We can explain why certain syllables are stressed and where you’re making mistakes. Learning the rules and applying them to your own speech will help you correct your mistakes so others can understand you better.


Image “web accessibility word cloud” by Jil Wright, used under CC
Which Syllable Do I Stress?

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