RULES OF WORD STRESS: Essential Guide for Improving English Pronunciation

Learning the rules of word stress in English can be both fun and challenging. The English language, unlike any other language, has complicated rules especially when it comes to pronunciation particularly word stress.

For some people, learning the different rules of word stress is not quite a necessity but it is otherwise. Technically, not being able to correctly stress a particular word can result in a very unnatural and reprehensible rhythm of the English language.

For example, when you hear your friend saying BAnana or banaNA as opposed to saying banana sounds laughable and very unpleasant, right?

Generally, learning the rules of word stress in English can be a little stressful especially to those who are still new learners of the English language but learning the basic yet completely useful tips can surely hasten your progress in English.

How are syllables and word stress connected?

Where you put the stress on the word banana? Is it on the first, second, or third syllable?

Well, you got it right, neither banana nor banana is right. Because this fruit name which I think we all love is pronounced banana. /bəˈnæn.ə/

As you noticed, the stress of the word is in the second syllable, it’s in the middle.

By simply, considering the example word we have there, we can conclude that syllable and stress are related to each other in a sense that we out the stress of the word on the syllable. This sounds like a piece of very first-grader information but surprisingly, several people don’t know the true relationship between these two.

To segue, always remember that a syllable in English has only one vowel sound and one or more consonant sounds.

For example:

How many syllables are there in the word pen? There’s only 1.

The word pen has only 1 syllable

The word teacher has 2 syllables: tea-cher;

Afternoon has 3: Af-ter-noon;

Presentation has 4: Pre-sen-ta-tion

But how are syllables and stress connected?

Think about the word banana. Do you pronounce all the syllables the same? Do you say BA-NA-NA? Definitely NOT! We can hear that one syllable is stronger and more emphasized, right? ba-NA-na. That’s what we call WORD STRESS in English!

 BA- NA – NA

ba – NA – na

Benefits of learning the rules of word stress

In linguistics,  STRESS is referred to as the relative emphasis that may be given to certain syllables in a word, or certain words in a phrase or sentence. Stress is typically signaled by such properties as increased loudness and vowel length, full articulation of the vowel, and changes in pitch.

Pronouncing words with the correct stress can make a big difference to your English. Your English will immediately sound clearer and more natural.

The great news is that there are simple rules that will help you pronounce these words correctly when you use them in spoken English. Simple English rules!

Learning the rules word stress in English can greatly help you to sound more like a native English speaker. When you learn to properly stress the word will help you:

(1) To emphasize the words that need emphasis

(2) To be understood easily and quickly

(3) And also; it gives English its rhythm.

So, when we speak, we speak those words more clearly. They’re the important words, they must be heard for the sentence to be understood.

Moreover, if you use the wrong word stress in English, you could pronounce a completely different word than the one you mean to, and that can be pretty confusing to someone you are listening to.

And when you’re listening to a native English speaker, recognizing what words are stressed will help you understand the meaning more easily too.

Stress on the Content Words

Interestingly, we stressed syllables differently in English. In most times, those words which we stress when speaking have one thing in common: They are important for you will not get the complete thought of the sentence if you don’t hear them clearly. We call these types of words Content Words. They are nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and negatives.

Now that you already know what a syllable and word stress are and how are they related, let’s get down to the business and learn the SIMPLE YET ESSENTIAL RULES of WORD STRESS in English!

The Essential Rules of Word Stress in English

Stress Rule for 2-syllable Nouns and Adjectives

Two-syllable adjectives

As you can see, the last four words in the list are two-syllable adjectives.

present
record
object
import
vibrant
happy
pretty
hungry

We say Vi-brant, Happy, Pretty, and Hungry. When you listen closely, you’ll hear that the stress of each two-syllable adjective is on the first syllable. (VI-brant, HA-ppy, PRE-tty, HUNG-ry.)

present
record
object
import
vibrant
happy
pretty
hungry

Two-syllable Nouns

On the other hand, the first four words we have on the list are nouns, but they’re also verbs.

present
record
object
import
vibrant
happy
pretty
hungry

And they’re pronounced differently depending on the type of word that they are. If these words are nouns, which syllable do you think must be stressed? First or second?

If your answer is on the FIRST SYLLABLE, spot on! Your answer is correct! The first syllable in a two-syllable noun receives the stress in the word.

Listen closely. PRE-sent… RE – cord…OB-ject...IM-port…

present
record
object
import
vibrant
happy
pretty
hungry

The first rule of Word Stress in English, always remember THIS.  Most 2-syllable nouns and adjectives have stress on the first syllable.

For 2-syllable Verbs

The next essential rule you need to remember has something to do with two-syllable verbs.

Now, let’s bring back the words in the first example we have earlier.

present
record
object
import

As previously mentioned, if the word is a two-syllable noun, the stress of the word is on the first syllable. Clearly, since these words only have two syllables, it is given that the stress is not on the FIRST syllable BUT the SECOND syllable.

As nouns, we say PRE-sent… RE – cord…OB– ject … IM-port…

However, as verbs, the stress of the word is transferred to the second syllable. Thus, we say pre – SENT… re – CORD… ob – JECT… im – PORT…

The SECOND RULE on WORD STRESS is this. Most 2-syllable verbs have stress on the second syllable.

present
record
object
import
suspect

Now, let’s check out these sentences containing the word comment. Can you apply the proper word stress and read the sentence correctly?

Please comment on this and drop the comment sheet in the comment box.

As you can see,  we have 3 comments in the sentence. Yes, they are the same but they function differently in the sentence. The first comment we have there is a verb. While the second and third comment function as an adjective that modifies the nouns “sheet” and “box”. What kind of sheet? A comment sheet. What kind of box? A comment box.

Easy, right?

Stress Rule for words ending in –tion and -sion

We are done talking about words containing two syllables but what about words that have 3 or more syllables? Or words with varying suffixes?

Let’s check out these words.

education
amalgamation
cooperation
decision
conclusion
vision

What suffix do you see in the examples above? Can you tell me where the stress in the following words?

You’re right, we have -tion and -sion. But did you know that there’s s a specific word stress rule with words ending in -tion and -sion regardless of how many syllables they contain?

For words ending with these suffixes, we put the stress on the second from the last syllable.

education
amalgamation
cooperation
decision
conclusion
vision

This is the THIRD RULE we have in word stress. Words ending in -sion and -tion have stress on the penultimate, that is in the 2nd from the last syllable.

For Words ending in -ety, -ity, ify, ical and –ive

Besides the suffixes -tion and -sion, another group of suffixes also follows a definite rule in word stress. These are the words ending in -ety, -ity, ify, ical and –ive.

Let’s take a look at our sample words.

society
sobriety
probability
identity
clarify
intensify
critical
clerical
decisive
intensive

Can you spot the suffixes we have in the words we have on the list?

We have -ety in Society and Sobriety;

See also  Linking and Reduction Rules in English: Useful Tips You Need to Know

-ity in Probability and Identity;

-ify in Clarify and Intensify;

-ical in Critical and Clerical;

And last, we have -ive in Decisive and Intensive.

Now, let’s consider the words we have below.

Society
Sobriety
Probability
Identity
Clarify
Intensify
Critical
Clerical
Decisive
Intensive

But on which syllable do we stress when we read words ending with these suffixes? First? Second? Third? Or fourth?

Notice that when I read the words, I emphasize the syllable before the suffixes -ety, -ity, ify, ical and -ive. As in soCIety, probaBIlity, claRIfy, CRItical and deCIsive.

The FOURTH RULE on WORD STRESS is this. Words ending in -ity, -ety, -ify, -ical, -ive have stress on the syllable immediately before these.

For Words ending in –ate

Another common rule we have in WORD STRESS is the rule that applies to the words ending in the suffix -ate.

Sometimes, non-native English speakers would put the stress on words ending in –ate on the last syllable. But do you think that’s right? Well, I bet may you are not that sure as well.

So, what is the stress rule to pronounce words ending in -ate?

The FIFTH RULE is THIS. Words ending in -ate are stressed on the antepenultimate, that is the 3rd from the last syllable.

Now, listen carefully while I pronounce the words correctly.

estimate
separate
conjugate
cultivate
dedicate

When we count in reverse, we can say:

mate – ti – ES = EStimate
rate – pa – SE = SEparate
gate – ju – CON = CONjugate
vate – ti – CUL = CULtivate
cate – di – DE = DEdicate

Again, the stress in on the antepenultimate or the third is FROM the last syllable.

The Rule for Nouns containing 3 or more syllables

Finally, the last essential rule there is about word stress is for most nouns containing 3 or more syllables.

My question to you is this: WHERE DO WE PUT THE STRESS on words, PARTICULARLY NOUNS containing 3 or more syllables, do you have any idea?

Well, the safest answer would be this: There is NO DEFINITE RULE.

IMPORTANT REMINDER: Unlike grammar, pronunciation sometimes has no definite rules because its nature is developing and changing.

I repeat, there is no definite rule because unlike grammar. That’s simply because it’s the nature of the English language – it’s complicated, it’s developing from time to time, and it’s constantly changing.

However, the SIXTH RULE will also be essential for you. And the rule is THIS. In SOME cases, most nouns containing 3 or more syllables often are stressed on the antepenultimate or the 3rd from the last syllable.

Example words with 3 or more syllables Nouns

Next time, you can read nouns containing 3 or more syllables like this.

Note: The colored syllable receives the stress in the word.

photography
democracy
photosynthesis
accident
metamorphosis
borderline
syllable

The Bottom line

Now, you might ask me, do I need to learn all these? Well, my honest would be this. If you want to bring your English communication skills to a whole new level, THIS IS A MUST. And I understand that spoken English can be quite challenging to master but trust me, what you will get if you start learning and practicing what you have learned is life-changing.

Regardless of how knowledgeable you are in grammar or how excellent you are in constructing sentences in English, if you don’t know how to distinguish and stress the words correctly, and then you become unclear to the people you are talking with because they may get something a little different from what you mean.

IMPORTANT REMINDER: If you don’t know how to distinguish and stress the words correctly, you become unclear to the people. And you don’t want that to happen. That is not the goal of why you are learning English. Also, you want people to understand you and what you’re trying to say.

So, if you want to sound like a native English speaker, you must learn THIS and practice what you have learned.

If you want to read about the tips on how to learn English fast, read THIS.

You can also read our article about the 8 ways to learn English Grammar easily. 

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