A Stress-Free Introduction to Word Stress

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.”

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:

Word Noun Verb or Adjective
abstract ab · stract ab · stract
addict ad · dict ad · dict
affect af · fect af · fect
combat com · bat com · bat
commune com · mune com · mune
conduct con · duct con · duct
conflict con · flict con · flict
console con · sole con · sole
content con · tent  con · tent
contest con · test con · test
contract con · tract con · tract
contrast con · trast con · trast
convert con · vert con · vert
convict con · vict con · vict
defect de · fect de · fect
desert de · sert de · sert
discount dis · count dis · count
escort es · cort es · cort
export ex · port ex · port
increase in · crease in · crease
insert in · sert in · sert
insult in · sult in · sult
intrigue in · trigue in · trigue
object ob · ject ob · ject
permit per · mit per · mit
present pre · sent pre · sent
produce pro · duce pro · duce
project pro · ject pro · ject
progress pro · gress pro · gress
protest pro · test pro · test
rebel re · bel re · bel
record re · cord re · cord
refund re · fund re · fund
refuse re · fuse re · fuse
reject re · ject re · ject
subject sub · ject sub · ject
suspect sus · pect sus · pect
transport trans · 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.

Do you have more questions about stress in American English, or are you interested in accent training? Reach out and contact me!