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Word stress in English

SIX BASIC RULES of word stress

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

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English word stress
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 . These apply to both British and American forms of spoken English.

The six essential rules of word stress or accentuation 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-).

Suffixes

3. The "-ion" rule: strong endings. This rule takes priority over all other rules.

Well it's not quite an "iron rule", but it is the most important rule of word stress in English.  If the suffix (ending) starts with the letters i or u , as with the common ending -ion, this will determine 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, known as weak endings,  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
Special case: adding the endings -al or -ary to words ending in -ment.  
-al  and -ary behave as strong endings when added to words ending in -ment, so we say government but governmental, parliament but parliamentary,  department but departmental.

  • Prefixes 

    Words beginning with: a- ab- be- con- com- de- dis- e- ex- in- im- per- pre- and re, except for those whose stressed syllable is determined by rule 3 above.
       Unless the presence of a suffix means that rule 3 must be applied, rules 5 and 6 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 express, dismay
      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.... and never on the ate syllable.
    Examples: to indicate, indicated, to conjugate, conjugating, to complicate complicated

    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

    And for information, a seventh principle, concerning words with four syllables.
       The stress pattern of most four-syllable words in English will be determined by one of the rules above, often rule 3. But if no prefix or suffix rule applies, the norm is that a four syllable word will be stressed on the second syllable. This is notably the general rule with words beginning with "Greek" or "Latin"  morphemes,
    Examples: analysis, anaesthetist,  circumference, diameter, ecology, geographer, parameter, paralysis,  phenomenal, philosophy, phonology, psychiatrist,
    But take care: there are plenty of exceptions to this principle, and it is best to check the pronunciation of any long words that do not include recognisable prefixes or suffixes, using a good dictionary.


    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
    nationality
    nationalistic
    nationalisation

    For more about spoken English, read and listen to the text on Accents and dialects of English.

    Test yourself

    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.

    Click to show answers


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