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In phonology, the term stress generally refers to an abstract property of syllables within the word domain by which they are pronounced with more prominence than unstressed syllables. Prominence may involve greater amplitude, higher pitch, greater duration or greater accuracy of articulation (most notably in vowels).

The degree of prominence of a syllable is marked by loudness, length and pitch. Lexical stress refers to the prominence relations within a word which distinguishes lexical meanings by means of stress, as in 'inCREASE' (verb) vs 'INcrease' (noun). The term stress is also more generally used to indicate which words or phrases in a sentence bear accent, or focus.

Stress in English nouns

Intonation, the “music” of a language, is perhaps the most important element of a correct accent. Pronunciation is another element constituting an accent, but correct intonation is also necessary in order to make an accent sound indistinguishably native. In many cases non-native speakers who have developed near-native second language skills in the fields of grammar, pronunciation of sounds and words of English, clearly remain recognizable as non-native speaker because of slight variations in intonation.

Therefore, it is necessary to realize that, besides pronunciation and linking, intonation is an important element to attain a native-like accent.

Rules of Word Stress in English

Two major rules for word stress

  1. There is only one main stress per word. (One word cannot have two stresses. However, there can be a "secondary" stress in some words, but a secondary stress is much prominent than the main [primary] stress, and it is only used in long words.)
  2. Only vowels are stressed, never consonants.

Further rules for word stress

There are also some more rules that help to find out where to put the primary stress. However, note that there are many exceptions, so that these rules should rather be used as guidelines. It is better to try to "feel" the music of the language and to add the stress naturally.

a. Stress on first syllable

Most 2-syllable nouns PRESent, EXport, CHIna, TAble

b. Stress on last syllable

Most 2-syllable verbs to preSENT, to exPORT, to deCIDE, to beGIN

c. Stress on penultimate syllable

Words ending in -ic GRAPHic, geoGRAPHic, geoLOGic

Words ending in -sion and -tion teleVIsion, reveLAtion

d. Stress on ante-penultimate syllable

Words ending in -cy, -ty, -phy and -gy deMOcracy, dependaBIlity, phoTOgraphy, geOLogy

Words ending in -al CRItical, geoLOGical

Stress for modifying adjectives and compound nouns

In cases of groups of two or more words, the place of stress depends on whether it is a description or a compound noun. If it is a description, the adjective is usually less prominent whilethe main stress is put on the noun:

a nice guy

a big house

a good idea

If two nouns form a compound noun, the stress is put on the first word:

a hot dog

a notebook

a picture frame

The difference is also illustrated in the following examples:

  1. He lives in a white house.

He lives in the White House.

a 'greenhouse = place where we grow plants (compound noun)

a green 'house = house painted green (adjective and noun)

a 'bluebird = type of bird (compound noun)

a blue 'bird = any bird with blue feathers (adjective and noun)

Lexical Stress - stress determining word class

There are many two-syllable words in English whose meaning and class is distinguished by stress, e.g. present. If the stress is put on the first syllable, it is a noun (gift) or an adjective (antonym for "absent"). But if the stress is put on the second syllable, it becomes a verb (to offer, to give a presentation).

Further examples: the words export, import, contract and object can all be nouns or verbs depending on whether the stress is on the first or the second syllable.

Cases of stress variation among native speakers

For a few words, native English speakers don't always "agree" on where to put the stress. For example, some people say teleVIsion and others say TELevision. Another example is: CONtroversy and conTROversy

Intonation: Noun or Verb

Knowing when and where to stress the words you use is very important for understanding, and is part of a good accent. A clear example is that of the different stress in nouns and verbs. Usually (although there are some exceptions), the stress of a verb is on the last syllable, and that of a noun is on the first syllable.

to susPECT: meaning, to have an opinion a SUSpect: meaning, a person under suspicion

to preSENT: meaning, to give, to introduce a PREsent: meaning, a gift, now