Syllabic Stress Patterns

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Syllabic Stress Patterns
I love to tell the story of my friend Guy Raimbeau, who asked for water in an American
restaurant. He asked the waiter for wah-TER, but the waiter couldn’t understand, even after
Guy had repeated the word. Finally, he pantomimed drinking, and the waiter said, “Oh! You
mean
WAH-ter!”
Even minor differences on syllabic stress can interfere with communication. These
minor differences can be a major problem, especially for students who have studied English in
their home countries. They are often taught by non-native speakers who teach language as if it
were a science, with more emphasis on grammar than on verbal communication. There is no
quick and easy solution to this problem. See the section “Practice, practice, practice” on the
topics page on the navigation toolbar.
I am reluctant to give any rules, because students sometimes waste a lot of time and
energy learning rules which often don’t apply, and which are practically useless while speaking
because there isn’t enough time to recall and apply them. Nevertheless, there are a few rules
which can be briefly noted.
If the word is composed of a stem, plus a prefix or suffix, it is nearly always in the stem
that the stress is placed.
admit
return
insure
untrue
absurd
forget
illness
childish
awesome
wonderful
really
bulbous
Most two-syllable English words are stressed on the first syllable.
teacher
pretty
little
women
mister
English
under
maybe
crowded
frankly
clever
story
A compound noun is an expression made up of two or more words. For example, girl
and friend make up girlfriend. In compound nouns the stress usually falls on the first part. The
compound noun may sometimes be written as two words, as in post office.
classroom
bookstore
flashlight
textbook
girlfriend
phone call
post office
White House
blackboard
drug store
keyboard
running shoes
Stress in compound nouns is different from stress in a phrase consisting of adjective and
noun. The adjective and the noun are usually stressed about the same.
Compound Noun
classroom
flashlight
boyfriend
White House
basketball shoes
Adjective + Noun
big room
bright light
old friend
white house
new shoes
What two syllable words are stressed on their second syllables?
Two syllable verbs are more likely to have the second syllable stressed than are two
syllable nouns. This is especially true if the first syllable is a prefix, such as a-, ad-, re-, con-, be-,
etc. All of the verbs below have their stresses on the second syllable.
forget
receive
discuss
admit
advance
relax
accuse
regard
repeat
become
decide
assume
begin
conclude
reduce
explain
suppose
concern
Some verbs and nouns are spelled the same, but pronounced differently. In nearly every
one of these words, the noun is stressed on the first syllable and the verb on the second syllable.
Verb
increase
object
permit
progress
rebel
Noun
increase
object
permit
progress
rebel
If the first syllable of a two syllable word is the letter a only, it is usually unstressed and
pronounced uh (ə). All of the words below have their stress on the second syllable.
along
annul
about
apart
afford
arise
ahead
around
aloud
assure
amend
awake
Multisyllabic words
Stress is usually, but not always, on the syllable before -ion, -tion, -cion (that make a
noun from a verb) or -ic (that makes an adjective from a noun).
Frank Jones/Belmont/2006
multipli ca tion
a cid ic
dupli ca tion
astro nom ic
repu ta tion
Slav ic
Americani za tion
philan throp ic
Stress is usually, but not always, two syllables before -ly (which makes an adverb from an
adjective), unless there are only two syllables in the word.
care fully
Frank Jones/Belmont/2006
in cred ibly
mod estly
unfor get tably
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