Now that we have reviewed the various sounds of English, we must discuss syllable and word stress or another way to put it, the rhythm of English. It is important to keep in mind that English is a time-stressed language. As opposed to Spanish, which is a syllable-timed language in which an equal amount of time is given to each syllable, English adjusts the timing of stressed and unstressed syllables and words. In English, some syllables are longer and some shorter. By stressing certain syllables and words, we can better understand the meaning of the word or sentence. Understanding time stress and intonation in English will help the learner both better understand English and be better understood.
Words are made up of syllables. Syllables are units of sound which almost always have, with few exceptions, at least one vowel sound. In words of two or more syllables, one syllable is stressed while the others are said quickly and without emphasis.
The only fixed rules for syllable stress are: 1) words can only have one stress and 2) the stress is always on a vowel.
Interestingly, related words can have different syllable stresses (PHOto, phoTOgrapher, photoGRAPHic) and the stress pattern of homographs change their meaning (see note below). For the moment, what’s important is to understand what we mean by syllable stress and to recognize the different syllable stress patterns in English.
Note: Some dictionaries indicate the stressed syllable of a word with an apostrophe (’) either before or after the stressed syllable. In the examples below, the apostrophe is located before the stressed syllable.
One Syllable: Stressed
One syllable words logically have the stress on the one syllable.
Two Syllables: 1st Syllable Stressed
In most two syllable nouns and adjectives, the first syllable is generally stressed.
Two Syllables: 2nd Syllable Stressed
Two syllable verbs are normally stressed on the second syllable.
Three Syllables: 1st Syllable Stressed
Most three syllable words (nouns, adjectives or verbs) are stressed on the first syllable. Three syllable words terminating with the “-er”, “-or”, “-ly” or “-y” are generally stressed on the first syllable.
Three Syllables: 2nd Syllable Stressed
Words ending in “-tion”, “-sion”, “-ic” or “-al” among other suffixes, generally have the stress on the syllable found before these terminations. This is the case for both three and four syllable words.
Three Syllables: 3rd Syllable Stressed
Words with the following suffixes have the stress on the final syllable (the suffix): “-ee”, “-eer”, “-ese”, “-ette” or “-ique”.
Four Syllables: 2nd Syllable Stressed
The stress in four syllable words is either on the second or third syllable. The second syllable is generally stressed if the word ends in “-cy”, “-ty”, “-phy”, “-gy” or “-al”.
Four Syllables: 3rd Syllable Stressed
Words ending in “-tion”, “-sion” or “-ic” generally have the stress on the syllable found before these terminations. As notes above, this is the case for both three and four syllable words.
The stress in compound words depends on whether the word is a noun, adjective or verb. Compound nouns take the stress on the first word, adjectives and verbs on the second.
Phrasal verbs always have the stress on the second word or the preposition. As we will see below, this is an exception to the rules for sentence stress, where the stress is generally on the principle verb.