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Word stress and why it is the key for a perfect pronunciation in English

As we all know, speaking English is essential and it's never too late to learn it. If you're reading this you're probably an English learner wishing to improve your pronunciation. I didn't realize the importance of it until I was in my twenties and realized that I was able to travel to over 30 countries or have great job opportunities specifically because of this language. I ended up studying English language and literature degree where I could study a lot about word stress.

One thing I learned from my professors in college and which I pass on to my students made me lose the fear of speaking in English. There are some key little secrets to mastering the language and giving you more confidence in it. If you know the simple terms and rules about word stress that I will be sharing with you in this post, then congratulations! because you will instantaneously take your English pronunciation to the NEXT LEVEL.


It is basically the stress that the speaker will put on a specific part of the word (syllable). It will be the LONGER, HIGHER and LOUDER sound you hear.

Every word has stress, no matter how many syllables it has. Also, bear in mind that only vowels can be stressed.

Many other languages have word stress. In French, for instance, the most stressed syllable of the word is - very often - at the last syllable, but, in the case of English, it can be at the beginning, middle, or at the end, which can cause lots of confusion to learners. Let's look at these examples:

WORD STRESS French x English

NormanDIE NORmandy

MéditerranEE MediteRRAnean

AtlanTIQUE AtlANtic

CanaDA, canadiEN

CAnada, caNAdian

PaRIS, parisiEN

PAris, paRIsian

To identify them you need to know that the tonic (or sressed) syllable will always be the HIGHEST, LONGEST and LOUDEST sound we hear. An exercise to train your ear and pronunciation at the same time while reading is to pronounce the English words out loud, respecting the syllable that is stressed, as we will see below.

Rules for stressing words in English

Should you say a) difficult or b) difficult or c) difficult?

The answer is a) difficult. Often in English, the word stress is placed on the first syllable of a word, but there are exceptions.

1) A few examples of words with stress on the last syllable...

Im-prove, a-bout, be-low, s-mile, po-lice.

In English, the syllables are not separated like in French. The last syllable can only be stressed in English if the word has only two syllables.

2) ...On the penultimate syllable...

English, phone, video, revolution, important.

3) ...On the ante-penultime syllable...

Incredible, photograph, photographer, useful, monitor.

More cases:

the tonic accent can also fall on the third syllable before the last:

approximately, significantly, intelligible, objectionable.

And even have a primary and a secondary tonic accent:

approximation, refrigerator, characteristic, category, necessary, dictionary, fundamental, introductory, overnight, Vietnamese, fifteen, seventeen, etc

A few rules for word stress

How to learn word stress?

You can learn the word stress in two ways.

The first is to study by yourself by paying close attention to the words you hear in English each time you listen to the language. After listening, the second way is to write by identifying the strongest syllable, so that it is easier to remember. A phonetic dictionary like

Forvo or will be a good friend when you are studying on your own. You type in the word "incredible" for example and it will give you the phonetic transcription of the word: ɪnˈkrɛdəbl.

The ' in ɪnˈkrɛdəbl means that the next syllable is the strongest. You can also listen to the pronunciation in British or American accent to avoid making mistakes in the syllable stress.

And, of course, there is a number if YouTube channels and websites where you can listen to words and practice word stress.

The second way to learn word stress and English pronunciation is to choose an online English tutor or teacher. When your teacher or anyone else speaks to you in English, pay special attention to their pronunciation. Try repeating and even recording yourself reading a text with marked tonal accents like this:

The We Language method of pronunciation focuses on word stress from level A1.

In the We Language method of English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, conversation, focus on word stress, online immersion, and weekly homework make part of the curriculum to improve your skills in listening, speaking, hearing, and writing in a second language. For more information about online English classes for groups or individuals, please visit this page.

In conclusion

  • All English words have word stress. To identify them, all you need to do is hear the loudest, highest, longest syllable in it.

  • There are rules to know where the stressed syllable is in the word: how it ends, how many vowels it has, whether it is an adjective, a noun, a verb, etc.

  • Learning word stress is fundamental for anyone who wants or needs to express themselves in English. It is the only way to improve your English pronunciation and knowing how the thing works is the best way to master it.

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