The Importance Of Word Stress
Updated: Nov 13
Are some words more important than others in English?
To answer the previous question briefly, yes! English words always have one part - which we usually refer to as a syllable - that is stressed more emphatically than others. This is known as primary stress. However, it's not the only level of stress that can be found in English. The other two levels are known as secondary stress and weak stress.
This is the most important level of stress in English as it helps the listener understand your speech. If you mispronounce a word, but you get the primary stress correct, chances are you will still be understood. But if you get it wrong, not only might people not understand you, but you might also change the meaning of the word you are using.
Take a look at the word pairs below and notice how the change in stress also changes the meaning of the words.
Studying primary stress is not something you should only do when you have time. It's an essential part of the English language and one of the main reasons why non-native speakers are oftentimes not understood.
The good news is primary stress will always make the stressed syllable longer, louder, and higher in pitch. The bad news is it's not always easy to identify, but here are some tips that can help you:
Stress the first syllable of:
Most two-syllable adjectives and nouns. For example:
Stress the second-to-last syllable of:
a. Words ending in -(s)sion and -tion. For example:
b. Words ending in -ic. For example:
Stress the third-from-last syllable of:
a. Words ending in -al. For example:
b. Words ending -gy, -cy, -phy, and -ty. For example:
Stress the last syllable of:
Most two-syllable verbs: For example:
Secondary stress also makes syllables a little louder, but not as long or as high in pitch as primary stress. Here are some examples of words with primary stress (BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS), secondary stress (CAPITAL LETTERS), and weak stress (low-case letters):
The main characteristic of weak stress is that syllables are completely unstressed and, in most cases, the vowel in them is dropped. This vowel is known as the Schwa sound and is the most common vowel sound in English. The official symbol for this sound is /ə/, but I use a more simple version: /uh/.
While it might seem unimportant because it's categorized as the "weak" stress, it's just as important as primary and secondary stress because it's closely related to the rhythm of English. You can make several pronunciation mistakes, but if you use the right stress and, therefore, the right rhythm, you will probably still be understood.
Here are some examples of words containing this last level of stress:
You can watch my YouTube video about the Schwa sound here.
Knowing stress rules will not only help you pronounce words correctly, but it will also help you avoid miscommunication with native and advanced speakers of English. The human ear is used to hearing a specific pattern of stress, and when that pattern is disrupted, the brain is unable to process what it hears and, therefore, confusion arises.
This is one of the concepts that I teach my students in our private pronunciation sessions, so if you think you can benefit from my services, click here to learn more about what I do and how we can work together to help you achieve your professional, academic and personal goals with English.
You can also schedule a speech assessment here to ask me questions about the coaching process and determine what areas of English pronunciation I can help you with.
See you in the next post!