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The Rules of Word Stress, Part 1


The Rules of Word Stress, Part 1
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In English, syllable stress is hugely important for communication. The word “stress” here means saying part of a word louder and holding the sound a little longer than other parts.

For example: movie. I said MO- a little louder and longer than -vie. If I had said, mo-VIE, people probably would have had no idea what I was saying.

In today’s Ask a Teacher, we will tell you some rules of English word stress, a request from our reader Larissa.

Answer:

Hello Larissa,

Thanks for asking! The good news is that English has a few word stress rules. The bad news is that English also breaks those rules from time to time. Still, the rules can act as useful guides.

Before we start, you need to be familiar with syllable counting. If you are not, visit our Ask a Teacher page and read “How to Count Syllables.”

For today, we will focus on two-syllable words.

Ok, let’s begin.

  1. Most two-syllable nouns and adjectives stress the first syllable. Listen to some examples. The word meaning is not important:

    quiet

    enzyme

    coffee

    playdate

    fussy

    table

Some exceptions include “asleep” “machine” and “hotel,” which stress the second syllable. But don’t try to memorize exceptions. You will get to know them from exposure and practice.

2. Two-syllable words that end in -er or -en almost always stress the first syllable, too. It does not matter whether the words are nouns, verbs or adjectives. Have a listen:​

smarter

father

writer

listen

open

spoken

3. Most two-syllable verbs and prepositions stress the second syllable. Take a listen:

within

enjoy

involve

around

escape

beneath

Again, there are some exceptions, like the verbs “follow” and “cancel.”

4. Here’s where it gets a little tricky: Some English words can be nouns or verbs, depending on stress. With stress on the first syllable, the following words act as nouns. And on the second, they act as verbs:

record - record

present - present

produce - produce

suspect - suspect

desert - desert

Again, there are exceptions. Some two-syllable words act as nouns or verbs with no change in stress, like “answer,” “promise,” “visit” and “reply.”

All in all, listening and speaking are the best ways to get comfortable with word stress in English. In time, your ear will tell you what sounds correct.

And that’s Ask a Teacher.

I’m Alice Bryant.

Do you have a question for Ask a Teacher? Write to us in the comments area and be sure to tell us what country you’re from.

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Practice

Now, test yourself! Say the following words aloud and listen for the stress in each. Is it on the first syllable or second syllable? Write your answers in the comments area.

parent
darken
unless
about
July
alone
maybe
police
never
member
expose
agree

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Words in This Story

syllablen. any one of the parts into which a word is naturally divided when it is pronounced

familiar adj. easy for you to recognize because you have seen, heard or experienced it many times in the past

practice v. to do something again and again in order to become better at it

comfortable adj. causing no worries, difficulty, or uncertainty

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