Stress Placement in English

What Are the Rules for Stressing Words?

In English grammar, the word "stress" refers to the emphasis given to a specific syllable in a word. The stressed syllable is usually louder, longer, and pronounced with a higher pitch than the other syllables. Knowing a word's stress is important because a misplaced stress can change the meaning of a word or confuse listeners.

The best way to learn the stress of a new word is to keep repeating it until the stress comes naturally and a different stress sounds wrong. Remember "repetition is the mother of learning." However, this method is only possible if you are able to hear the new word being pronounced correctly. If you are learning from a book, how do you know where to stress a word?

Table of Contents

  • Two Fundamental Rules for Stress Placement
  • Stress Placement Based on Word Type
  • Stress Placement with Compound Words
  • Stress Placement Based on Word Endings
  • Widget for Pronouncing Words
  • Test Time!
stress placement in English
Fortunately, there are some rules about stress placement in English. Like most rules, there are exceptions, but below are 10 rules that will help you stress most English words correctly. (We have also provided a "speaking tool" for you, so you can hear how any word is stressed.)

Two Fundamental Rules for Stress Placement

The first two rules we will cover are the fundamentals of stress placement.

(Rule 1) One stress per word

There is only one stress in a word. In other words, a word cannot have two stresses. (As you learn more about stress, you will notice that some long words have a secondary stress, but a secondary stress is much smaller than a primary stress.)

(Rule 2) Always a vowel

Only vowels can be stressed. Consonants cannot be stressed. This is true because the stress in any word falls on a single syllable, and there is a vowel sound at the heart of every syllable.

What Is a Syllable?

A syllable is a unit of sound. For example, look at these animal names:
  • "Dog," "cat," and "mouse" are one-syllable words.
  • "Donkey," "dolphin," and "parrot" are two-syllable words.
  • "Elephant," "kangaroo," and "chimpanzee" are three-syllable words.
If you read the animal names aloud, you will hear the individual units of sound, i.e., the syllables. Here is a more formal definition for syllable: "A syllable is a single segment of uninterrupted sound produced with a single pulse of air from the lungs."

There are 7 types of syllable.
Read more about syllables.

Stress Placement Based on Word Type

The next six rules we will cover are related to word type. In other words, the stress depends on whether the word is a noun, an adjective, or a verb. When a word has two syllables (and thousands do), the stress often depends on the word type.

(Rule 3) Stress the first syllable of a two-syllable noun

Most 2-syllable nouns are stressed on the first syllable. For example:
  • WINdow, PENcil, BUCKet, SUNset, CAStle, RIVer, BASket, BUTton, FORest, TUNnel

(Rule 4) Stress the first syllable of a two-syllable adjective

Most 2-syllable adjectives are stressed on the first syllable. For example:
  • HAPpy, QUIet, MODern, YELlow, ANcient, HOLlow, RIGid, SHIny, MELlow

(Rule 5) Stress the last syllable of a two-syllable verb

Most 2-syllable verbs are stressed on the last syllable. For example:
  • to reLATE, to reTURN, to inSIST, to beCOME, to deNY, to preSENT, to exPORT, to deCIDE, to incLUDE, to arRIVE

Stress Is Important

Stress can determine the word type. For example, look at the words below. When stressed at the front, they are nouns, but when stressed at the end, they are verbs.
nounverb
CONtestto conTEST
CONtractto conTRACT
EXportto exPORT
IMportto imPORT
INsertto inSERT
OBjectto obJECT
PREsentto preSENT
REBelto reBEL
REcordto reCORD

Stress Placement with Compound Words

A compound word is a word made of two of more words. For example, "snowman" is a compound word made of "snow" and "man." The stress placement of a compound word often depends on its word type.

(Rule 6) Stress compound nouns on the first part

Most compound nouns are stressed on the first part. For example:
  • BOOKstore, FIREfly, GREENhouse, TOOTHbrush, HAIRbrush

(Rule 7) Stress compound adjectives on the second part

Most compound adjectives are stressed on the second part. For example:
  • old-FASHioned. long-LASTing, high-PITCHED, short-TEMPered

(Rule 8) Stress compound verbs on the second part

Most compound verbs are stressed on the second part. For example:
  • to breakDOWN, to cutBACK, to log IN, to give UP, to overFLOW, to underSTAND

More about Compound Words

Not all compound words are single words. Compound words can be written as one word (called a "closed compound"), with spaces (called an "open compound"), or with hyphens (called a "hyphenated compound"). For example:
typecompound
noun
compound
adjective
compound
verb
closedSHOTgunhandMADEto crackDOWN
openFISH tankpro BOnoto hand OVER
hyphenatedBABY-sitterill-MANneredto double-CLICK
More about compound adjectives and pro bono. It is a good a practice to hyphenate the words in a compound adjective to show they are part of the same adjective. However, if the adjective is a proper noun (e.g., London Eye tickets), in quotation marks (e.g., a "don't you dare" look), or italicized foreign words (e.g., pro bono work), then an open compound adjective is acceptable because the words of the compound are grouped using an alternative method.

Read more about compound nouns, compound adjectives, or compound verbs.

Stress Placement Based on Word Endings

(Rule 9) Stress the penultimate syllable of words ending "-ic," "-sion," and "-tion"

Most words that end "-ic," "-sion," and "-tion" are stressed on the penultimate syllable (i.e., the second to last one). If the word is a two-syllable word, then the penultimate syllable is also the first syllable. For example:

Words ending "-ic"

  • athLETic, BAsic, cerAMic, geoGRAPHic, GRAPHic, metALlic, MYStic, orGAnic, STAtic, TROpic

Words ending "-sion"

  • comPRESsion, conFESsion, deCISion, erOsion, PASsion, teleVIsion, TENsion

Words ending "-tion"

  • ACtion, atTENtion, creAtion, eduCAtion, MOtion, NAtion, reveLAtion, situAtion, solUtion, tradItion

(Rule 10) Stress the ante-penultimate syllable of words ending "-cy," "-ty," "-phy," "-gy," and "al"

Provided they have at least three syllables, most words that end "-cy," "-ty," "-phy," and "-gy" are stressed on the ante-penultimate syllable (i.e., the third from the end). If the word is a three-syllable word, then the ante-penultimate syllable is also the first syllable. For example:

Words ending "-cy"

  • BurEAUcracy, deMOcracy, LEGacy, diplOMacy

Words ending "-ty"

  • dependaBILity, opporTUnity, simPLICity, uniVERsity

Words ending "-phy"

  • biOGraphy, calLIGraphy, phoTOGraphy, toPOGraphy

Words ending "-gy"

  • ALlergy, biOLogy, geOLogy, radiOLogy, STRATegy

Words ending "-al"

  • ANimal, CRItical, DIGital, FESTival, geoLOGical, HOSpital

CONtroversy or conTROversy?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word "controversy" means prolonged public disagreement or heated discussion. This is great example of irony because the pronunciation of "controversy" causes much public disagreement or heated discussion.
  • controversy
  • (This is how your browser's synthesized voice pronounces it.)
Here is a short poem (written by AI) about the pronunciation of "controversy":

In lands both near and far away,
The word "controversy" comes to play.
Some say "CON-tro-ver-sy" with might,
While others claim "con-TRO-ver-sy" is right.

A word with two rhythms, distinct in their dance,
Leaving speakers and listeners to take a chance.
For in language, as fluid as the sea,
Lies the subtle art of controversy.

Widget for Pronouncing Words

You can use this widget to hear the pronunciation of any word(s). (Hint: To ensure you hear a verb add "to" in front. For example, the voice synthesizer treats "export" as a noun but "to export" as a verb.)

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.