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Linguapress English Grammar
Advanced level reading resources Intermediate reading resources English grammar online Language games and puzzles
Linguapress English Grammar

Word stress in English

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.

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

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. The "-ion" rule: this rule takes priority over all other rules.

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, -uous, -ial, -ient, -ious, -ior,  -ic, -ity, etc.
The stress comes on the syllable before the suffix.
Examples: Atlantic, comic, sufficient, relation, 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 

    Words beginning with: a- ab- be- con- com- de- dis- e- ex- in- im- per- pre- and re, and to which rule 3 does not apply.
    5. Prefixes in two-syllable words  are not normally stressed  except in  some nouns or adjectives.

    Two-syllable  verbs  starting with a prefix are almost all stressed on the second syllable.
    Examples -  To address,  to become, to complete, to contrast, to discuss, to export  to improve, to present  

     Two-syllable nouns and adjectives  starting with a prefix need to be learned individually. 
    Examples -
    Adjectives and nouns stressed on the prefix: 
    Absent, complex, distant,  an 'expert, a contract, a permit, a record,  
    Adjectives and nouns not stressed on the prefix:   extreme, concise  a report, an export, an expert
      In many cases, such as to export / an export, or to conflict / a conflict, verb and noun are distinguished by being stressed differently. But unfortunately this is not always the case, as in to report  / a report ,  to design / a design.
    This is why all such words need to be learned individually  (and also why even native English speakers sometimes make mistakes! )

    6. Prefixes in three-syllable words.
    Prefixes are usually stressed in three-syllable nouns and adjectives,
    They are not always stressed in verbs, which need to be learned individually
    Examples nouns and adjectives : Accident, confident, decadent,  exercise, infamous,  incident,  permanent;  
    Examples verbs :    to consider, to envisage but to complicate, to 'indicate
    Useful 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.
    Or when a rule 3 ending is added to a two-syllable word stressed on the first syllable,
    Examples :  complex > complexity, contract, > contractual

    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.
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    Word stress in English
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