One important aspect of pronunciation which is often overlooked is stress. Stress is the emphasis given to a part of a word, or to a whole word within a sentence. In this post, we’ll discuss stress within individual words, specifically stress patterns of 2 syllable nouns and verbs.

A word can be broken down into individual syllables, which are units of speech containing one vowel sound plus the consonant(s) surrounding that vowel, if any.

Some examples of words broken down by syllable:

  • “Purple” has 2 syllables: pur · ple
  • “Internet” has 3 syllables: in · ter · net
  • “Pronunciation” has 5 syllables: pro · nun · ci · a · tion

If you’re not sure how many syllables are in a word, you can look up the word in an online dictionary and the word will be broken down as above, with dots between each syllable. Or, another trick is to think of the word as set to music – each syllable would be its own note or beat.

When we talk about “stress in words” in English, we’re talking about the fact that in multisyllabic words, one syllable is pronounced louder and slightly longer than the other syllable(s) in that word. This louder, emphasized syllable is called the stressed syllable of a word. Any remaining syllables in the word are called unstressed syllables.

Here are the same examples above, with their stress indicated by bold letters:

  • “Purple” has 2 syllables: pur · ple
  • “Internet” has 3 syllables: in · ter · net
  • “Pronunciation” has 5 syllables: pro · nun · ci · a · tion

Stress is a very important element of clear English pronunciation, and stressing the wrong syllable can even cause misunderstandings.

In fact, there are a number of word pairs where 2 different words are spelled the same, but sound different due to having different stress. (Stress also affects the actual sounds of the vowels in words, a phenomenon known as vowel reduction, which will be discussed further in a future blog post.) The list below shows some common 2-syllable words that are spelled the same but have different pronunciations and meanings: these words have first syllable stress if they’re nouns, and second syllable stress if they’re verbs (or sometimes adjectives.) For example, the written word “record” has 2 pronunciations: the noun is re·cord and the verb is re·cord.  For example: “The band is excited to re·cord a new re·cord.”

It is useful to memorize the most common words which fall into this pattern:

 

WordNounVerb or Adjective
abstractab · stract ab · stract
addictad · dict ad · dict
affectaf · fect af · fect
combatcom · batcom · bat
communecom · mune com · mune
conductcon · duct con · duct
conflictcon · flict con · flict
consolecon · sole con · sole
contentcon · tent  con · tent
contestcon · testcon · test
contractcon · tract con · tract
contrastcon · trast con · trast
convertcon · vert con · vert
convictcon · vict con · vict
defectde · fect de · fect
desertde · sert de · sert
discountdis · count dis · count
escortes · cort es · cort
exportex · port ex · port
increasein · crease in · crease
insertin · sertin · sert
insultin · sult in · sult
intriguein · trigue in · trigue
objectob · ject ob · ject
permitper · mit per · mit
presentpre · sent pre · sent
producepro · duce pro · duce
projectpro · ject pro · ject
progresspro · gress pro · gress
protestpro · test pro · test
rebelre · bel re · bel
recordre · cord re · cord
refundre · fund re · fund
refusere · fuse re · fuse
rejectre · ject re · ject
subjectsub · ject sub · ject
suspectsus · pect sus · pect
transporttrans · port  trans · port


Interestingly, although there are few hard-and-fast rules about stress in English that are always true, one helpful guideline is that most 2 syllable nouns have stress on the first syllable, and most 2 syllable verbs have stress on their second syllable. The above examples are a stark illustration of this pattern in action.

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