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Word stress in English

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SIX BASIC RULES of word stress

Correctly place the tonic accent on multi-syllable words in English.

These rules do not cover all the aspects of word stress in English; but they do cover the large majority of plurisyllabic words in the language.

The problem

Should you say:  difficult or difficult or difficult?

Here are the six essential rules that determine how words are stressed or accentuated in English.

1.  A word is normally stressed on the first syllable, unless there is a reason to put the stress somewhere else.
2. The "reasons" are either suffixes (like -ity or -ion) or prefixes (like con-, dis-, ex- or in-).


3.  If the suffix (ending) starts with the letters i or u this will affect the position of stress in a word. [Exceptions: the endings -ist, -ism, -ize and -ing.]
Sample suffixes: -ion, -ual, -ial, -ient, -ious, -ior,  -ic, -ity, etc.
The stress comes on the syllable before the suffix.
Examples: Atlantic, comic, sufficient, explanation, residual.
There are only a very few exceptions to this rule.
4.  Other suffixes do not affect the stress of a word. Sample suffixes: -al, -ous, -ly, -er, -ed, -ist, -ing, -ism, -ment etc.
Examples: Permanent,  permanently, develop, development

  • Prefixes

    5. Prefixes are not normally stressed in two-syllable words, except in  some nouns or adjectives.
    Examples:  To ex'pand, to de'fend; but an 'expert, a report.
    Two-syllable nouns starting with a prefix need to be learned individually. There is no rule.
    6. Prefixes are usually stressed in three-syllable nouns and adjectives, but not always stressed in verbs.
    Examples: 'Continent, 'incident, 'exercise;  
       to con'sider, to en'visage but to 'indicate
    Note: All three syllable verbs ending in -ate are stressed on the first syllable).

    Rule 3
    takes priority over all others, notably when a "rule 3 ending" is followed by a "rule 4 ending",
    Examples :  perpetually, deliciously, conditional, conditioner, illusionist.

    This list of rules is not complete, but it does explain where to place the main accent  in  the majority of  words in English.
    Generally speaking, these rules are very easy to apply. There are however some word families where it is necessary to take care. The classic example of this is the family of words based on the root noun nation. The main stress will be on different syllables depending on the way the word ends; what is important to remember, however, is that the rules above apply in each case.

    nation, national, nationally, nationalise, nationalising, nationalist, international

    Can you situate  the tonic syllable (main stress) in these words which all obey the rules?

    Britain,  England,  Edinburgh,  region, regional, economic, to complain, community, to refuse, considering.

    Cette page en français:
    L'accentuation des mots en anglais

    Word stress in English can seem to be a very complicated issue. Where do we put the accent on multi-syllable words in English? English people don't often make mistakes, but they never learn any rules! Obviously therefore there must be some fairly simple basic "rules" that apply .

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