Why is word stress important?

Having trouble pronouncing the sounds of words?

While pronunciation is important, sometimes it’s just as important to get the word stress correct.  This is also called a word’s syllable stress.

English words always have one part (syllable) that is stressed more strongly than others, this is called the primary stress.  Correct primary stress helps the listener to understand your speech. 

If you slightly mispronounce a word, but the primary stress is correct, you can often communicate it’s meaning. So stress is important, especially for words you use often.

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The primary stress can change the meaning of words with the same spelling.  For example, PROduce  means food gown to be sold, but proDUCE means to make something.  CONtent means the things inside somthing, but conTENT means to be happy and satisfied . 

But don’t worry, it’s easy to check a word’s primary stress in a dictionary.  You will see a /ˈ /  symbol before it in the phonemes.  For example, if you look up the word pronunciation, its phonemes /prəˌnʌnsiˈeɪʃn/ tell us the  primary stress in on the /eɪ/ syllable. So we pronounce the whole word as pronunciAtion with the stress on the ‘a.’

Luckily, there are patterns that can help us guess word stress without having to check a dictionary.  Here are a few below. 

Is it a noun?

Almost all two-syllable nouns have stress on the first syllable. For example, REcord, INcrease, REfund.  Also, compound (two word) nouns usually have stress on the first word. For example, CELLphone, CAR park, LAPtop

Is it a verb?

Most two-syllable verbs have stress on the second syllable. For example, preSENT, rePEAT, deCREASE. Two-word verbs usually have stress on the second word. For example, clean UP, print OUT, look UP.

Does it have a suffix?

Some suffixes also affect the stress in a word. Here are a few:

  • Words ending with the -ese and –ee usually have stress on that syllable.  For example, JapanESE, employEE.
  • Words ending with -tion, -ic or -logy usually have stress on the syllable before.  For example, accommoDAtion, athLEtic, techNOology.
  • Words ending with -ate, -ity or -ous usually have stress two syllables before. For example, GRAduate, elecTRIcity, SErious.
Extra tip!:  Did you know some words also have a secondary stress? It can sometimes be found in longer words. This syllable is also stressed, but slightly less than the primary one. It’s marked with a /./ symbol. For example, with pronunciation above, we can see it’s on the /nʌn/ (nun) syllable.

Related links:

10min speech quality tips: Be careful with syllable stress  

Three easy ways to help listeners understand you

Do people speak too quickly for you?