Word Stress: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 Word Stress
  • 0:42 General Rules and English
  • 1:32 Word Stress in English
  • 2:16 2-Syllable Words &…
  • 3:55 Compound Words
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Language can be stressful, but it's also important to understand stress in language. In this lesson, we'll explore the concept of word stress and look at some common examples.

Word Stress

Say this sentence aloud:

  • I bought you a present.

Now say this one:

  • I present you with this gift.

What's the difference? Both contain the same word spelled the same way, but both are pronounced differently. All languages have rhythms in them, natural patterns of inflection that are essential to being able to speak and understand that language. But you don't have to stress about finding these inflections because the language does it for you. Word stress is a linguistic term for the natural patterns of inflection and emphasis within a spoken language. We hope you're content with this content.

General Rules and English

When you read this sentence, which syllables do you emphasize in each word? Word stress occurs in all languages, and it always occurs in consistent ways. This means that every language has its own pattern of word stress. Once you've learned the basic pattern, you can figure out how to correctly say pretty much any word in that language. We know a syllable is stressed if it's louder, longer, or higher pitched than the others.

While all languages are different, there are two basic rules of word stress that are consistently found in most human languages. First, there can be only one main stressed syllable per word. Some long words will have a secondary stress, but it is still emphasized much less than the main syllable. Second, stress occurs on vowels, not consonants. Syllables are defined by the vowels in a spoken language, so this is where the stress officially occurs.

Word Stress in English

For the rest of this lesson, we'll be focusing on English. We'll go over some of the most common rules, but keep in mind that English is a notoriously inconsistent language, so there are exceptions to every rule. That's what happens when you take a Germanic language and infuse it with Latin-based French vocabulary and spelling over a few centuries. English is also difficult because we don't mark our stresses the way other languages do. Take Spanish, for example. Spanish is very consistent with its use of word stress, and they have a neat system for letting you know whenever a word deviates from the norm: they put an accent over the stressed syllable. That's how we know that estas and estás are pronounced differently. The accent tells us when we're deviating from the rule.

2-Syllable Words & Word Endings

English doesn't use accents like Spanish does, so we have to get used to the rules on our own. The simplest of these rules are based on our 2-syllable words (since they are very common in English and 1-syllable words always obviously carry the stress on that one syllable). The basic rule in English is this: stress falls on the first syllable of nouns and adjectives, but on the second syllable of verbs. Consider the words ''sofa'', ''joyous'', and ''begin''. Say them aloud. Where are the stresses? If you said these words SOfa, JOYous, and beGIN, then you followed the normal speech patterns of English.

Another trick to help know where word stress normally falls in English is to look at the suffix of complex words. Here's the basic rule: the penultimate (second-to-last) syllable is stressed in words that end in -ic, -sion, and -tion. Consider the words LOGic, VIsion, and BAStion. Or, check out some 3-syllable words like geoGRAPHic, adMISsion, and senSAtion.

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