Content or Function Word? Pronunciation Practice

Pronunciation
Improve your Pronunciation. Image Source / Getty Images

You can improve your pronunciation by identifying which words are content words and which words are function words. Content words include main verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. Function words are necessary for grammar, but do not receive stress in spoken English. Use these exercises to help you learn how to use content and function words to help you with your pronunciation because English is a time-stressed language.

In other words, the rhythm and music of English comes from stressing content words. Once you've mastered this exercise, move on to finding focus words to help you further. 

Content or Function Word?

First, you need to be able to immediately distinguish between content and function words. Write down 'C' for content and 'F' for function. 

Example: magazine (C) as (F) many (F)

  1. went 
  2. with 
  3. just 
  4. quickly 
  5. the 
  6. hard 
  7. next to 
  8. CD ROM 
  9. open 
  10. had 
  11. or 
  12. information 
  13. in order to 
  14. difficult 
  15. much 
  16. exacting 
  17. in front of 
  18. Jack
  19. he 
  20. however 


Answers

  1. content
  2. function
  3. function
  4. content
  5. function
  6. content
  7. function
  8. content
  9. content
  10. function or content (if helping verb -> function / if main verb -> content)
  11. function
  12. content
  13. function
  14. content
  15. function
  16. content
  17. function
  18. content
  19. function
  20. content

Content or Function? Stressed or Non-stressed?

Next, take a look at the sentences and mark the words that should be stressed. Once you have decided, click on the arrow to see if you have chosen the correct words.

Example: Jack (yes) went (yes) to the shop (yes) to grab (yes) some coke (yes).

  1. He had finished breakfast before I arrived. 
  2. Phillip ordered a huge steak for dinner. 
  3. They will have to stay up late if they are going to finish their homework. 
  4. It must have been something in the air that caused Jack to shout. 
  1. Could you please be more quiet? 
  2. Unfortunately, Jack wasn't able to finish on time. 
  3. As soon as he has collected the results he will post them to his website. 
  4. Peter bought shoes today.
  5. There should have been some replies by now. 
  6. Knowledge creates opportunities where none have existed before.

Answers

  1. stressed content words: finished, breakfast, arrived / non-stressed function words: he, had, before, I
  2. stressed content words: Phillip, ordered, huge, steak, dinner / non-stressed function words: a, for
  3. stressed content words: stay up, late, finish, homework / non-stressed function words: they, will, have to, if, they, are going to, their
  4. stressed content words: something, air, caused, Jack, shout / non-stressed function words: it, must have been, in, the, that, to 
  5. stressed content words: please, more, quiet / non-stressed function words: could, you, be
  6. stressed content words: unfortunately, Jack, finish, time / non-stressed function words: wasn't able to, on
  7. stressed content words: soon, collected, results, post, website / non-stressed function words: as, he, has, the, he, will, them, to, his
  8. stressed content words: Peter, bought, shoes, today / non-stressed function words: 0
  9. stressed content words: some, replies, now / non-stressed function words: There should have been, by
  1. stressed content words: knowledge, creates, opportunities, none, existed, before / non-stressed function words: where, have

Notice how some of the shorter sentences actually have more stressed words than the longer ones (2 compared to 3). These shorter sentences can often take longer to speak than longer sentences with many function words.

The Music of English

English is a very rhythmic language because of this tendency to accent only certain words. For this reason, you should practice using your ear as much as possible. Often repeating spoken English without looking at the written sentence can also help you learn this 'music' of the language. 

Helping Yourself Improve Pronunciation at Home

Finally, practice speaking through the sentences below. First speak the sentence trying to carefully pronounce EVERY word.

Notice how unnatural this sounds (as in the listening exercise above showing the contrast between this unnatural pronunciation and the natural way of speaking). Next, focus on speaking the sentences only working on stressing the content words. Tape yourself doing this and you will be surprised at how quickly your pronunciation improves!

  • He drove to work after he had finished working in the garden.
  • You'll find the apples next to the oranges on the shelf over there.
  • Maggie must have been visiting her aunt in Springtown last weekend.
  • Could you pass me the mustard, please?
  • They have been considering buying a new car as soon as they have saved enough money.

Teachers can use this lesson plan to help students focus on stress-timed pronunciation in class.