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April 15, 2004 - Lida Baker: Stress in American English - 2004-04-15

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: April 15, 2004

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER -- we take some of the stress out of learning which words to stress in American English.

RS: We turn to Lida Baker. She's an instructor at the American Language Center at the University of California at Los Angeles. She says the basic rule when speaking is to put emphasis on what she calls "content words" like nouns and verbs -- the words that convey information.

BAKER: "Words that are part of the grammatical structure of the language tend to be unstressed. So words like articles and prepositions and pronouns. So let me give you an example, if I say something like 'I have to go to the store,' the most prominent word in that sentence is the word 'store.' It's a noun. It's also stressed because it is the last content word of the sentence.

"One of the normal patterns of American English is that you stress the last content word, the last information-conveying word, of the sentence. Now in contrast to that, let's look at the words that are not stressed. The very first word is a pronoun. 'I' tends to be unstressed. The next two words, 'have to,' if we were to write those words out, we would write 'have to.' In conversation we run them together and we pronounce them very quickly, and we say 'hafta.'"

AA: "Like h-a-f-t-a."

BAKER: "Exactly."

AA: "And that's perfectly acceptable."

BAKER: "It's more than acceptable, it's required. This is what native speakers of English do. And by the way, a lot of people all over the world learn English by reading. They memorize lists of vocabulary and they're tested on their reading skills and so on. Well, when I get them in my classroom and they're in an English-speaking country for the first time in their lives, and they're hearing the language all around them, they don't understand a word. And one of the reasons they can't understand the spoken language is that they're not familiar with this alternating stress and unstressed pattern."

RS: As Lida Baker explained, the word you choose to stress also lets you change the focus of a sentence in order to convey a specific meaning.

BAKER: "Let's take a simple sentence like this: 'I put my red hat away.' Now what was the focus word in that phrase?"

AA: "Hat."

BAKER: "Right, because 'hat' is the last content word of the sentence. So if you were to ask me, 'what did you put away?' I would answer you, 'I put my red hat away.' But what if I say it like this, 'I put my red hat AWAY.' What question is that answering?"

ARDITT: "What did you do with your red hat?"

BAKER: "Or 'where did you put your red hat,' right? Now what if I say it like this, 'EYE put my red hat away.' What question is that answering?"

AA: "Who put your red hat away."

BAKER: "That's right. Let's move the focus one more time and say it like this, 'I put MY red hat away' ... 'I put MY red hat away.'"

AA: "As opposed to someone else's."

BAKER: "Right, so we can voluntarily focus on any word in the sentence that we want to in order to convey a specific meaning."

AA: "And, in fact, if you're not familiar with the sort of natural patterns and you stress the wrong words, you might end up confusing the listener."

BAKER: "That's exactly the point. As a matter of fact, people who are learning English have a tendency, for example, to stress pronouns. For them the normal stress pattern that they employ would be 'EYE put my red hat away.' And to a native speaker of English, as you say, that would be very confusing, because they would be wondering 'well, why are you stressing the pronoun there?'"

AA: One way Lida Baker helps her students learn normal speech patterns is by listening to music and singing along. She says music also helps people remember things. She says the basic rule when speaking is to put emphasis on "content words" like nouns and verbs -- the words that convey information.

RS: She plays classic songs, like one that Julie Andrews made famous in the movie soundtrack to "My Fair Lady."

BAKER: "'The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly in the Plain' is a great example of a normal speech pattern. It's divided into two thought groups, 'the rain in Spain,' 'falls mainly in the plain.' Each thought group has a focus word -- in fact it has two focus words, rain/Spain, mainly/plain. And the function words -- the prepositions and the articles and so on -- are not stressed, and so they're what we call reduced. They're pronounced at a lower pitch, they're pronounced quickly ...

MUSIC: "The Rain in Spain"

RS: If you have a question for Lida Baker at UCLA's American Language Center, send it to us -- she might be able to answer it on the air.

AA: Our e-mail address is or write to VOA Wordmaster, Washington, DC 20237 USA. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

[Originally on VOA December 12, 2001]