Intonation and Stress in English

Keys to Understanding and Being Understood

college students having a conversation
Stressing the Right Words. Mari / Getty Images

Correct intonation and stress are the key to speaking English fluently with good pronunciation. Intonation and stress refer to the music of the English language. Words that are stressed are key to understanding and using the correct intonation brings out the meaning. 

Say this sentence aloud and count how many seconds it takes.

The beautiful mountain appeared transfixed in the distance. 

Time required?

Probably about 5 seconds. Now, try speaking this sentence aloud.

He can come on Sundays as long as he doesn't have to do any homework in the evening. 

Time required? Probably about five seconds.

Wait a minute. The first sentence is much shorter than the second sentence!

The beautiful Mountain appeared transfixed in the distance. (14 syllables)
He can come on Sundays as long as he doesn't have to do any homework in the evening. (22 syllables)

Even though the second sentence is approximately 30 percent longer than the first, the sentences take the same time to speak. This is because there are five stressed words in each sentence. From this example, you can see that you needn't worry about pronouncing every word clearly to be understood (we native speakers certainly don't). You should, however, concentrate on pronouncing the stressed words clearly.

This simple exercise makes a very important point about how we speak and use English.

Namely, English is considered a stressed language while many other languages are considered syllabic. What does that mean? It means that, in English, we give stress to certain words while other words are quickly spoken (some students say eaten!). In other languages, such as French or Italian, each syllable receives equal importance (there is stress, but each syllable has its own length).



Many speakers of syllabic languages don't understand why we quickly speak, or swallow, a number of words in a sentence. In syllabic languages, each syllable has equal importance, and therefore equal time is needed. English however, spends more time on specific stressed words while quickly gliding over the other, less important, words.

Simple Exercise to Help with Understanding

The following exercise can be used by students and teachers to further help with pronunciation by focusing on the stressing content words rather than function words in the exercise below.

Let's look at a simple example: the modal verb "can." When we use the positive form of "can" we quickly glide over the can and it is hardly pronounced.

They can come on Friday. (stressed words in italics)

On the other hand, when we use the negative form "can't" we tend to stress the fact that it is the negative form by also stressing "can't".

They can't come on Friday. (stressed words in italics)

As you can see from the above example the sentence, "They can't come on Friday" is longer than "They can come on Friday" because both the modal "can't" and the verb "come" are stressed.

Understanding Which Words to Stress

First of all, you need to understand which words we generally stress and which we do not stress.

Stress words are considered content words such as:

  • Nouns e.g. kitchen, Peter
  • Main verbs (most)  e.g. visit, construct
  • Adjectives e.g. beautiful, interesting
  • Adverbs e.g. often, carefully
  • Negatives including negative helping verbs, and words with 'no' such as 'nothing', 'nowhere', etc. 
  • Words expressing quantities e.g. a lot of, a few, many, etc.

Non-stressed words are considered function words such as:

  • Determiners e.g. the, a, some, a few
  • Auxiliary verbs e.g. don't, am, can, were
  • Prepositions e.g. before, next to, opposite
  • Conjunctions e.g. but, while, as
  • Pronouns e.g. they, she, us
  • Verbs 'have' and 'be' even when used as main verbs

Practice Exercise

Identify which words are content words and should be stressed in the following sentences:

  1. They've been learning English for two months.
  2. My friends have nothing to do this weekend.
  1. I would have visited in April if I had known Peter was in town.
  2. Natalie will have been studying for four hours by six o'clock.
  3. The boys and I will spend the weekend next to the lake fishing for trout.
  4. Jennifer and Alice had finished the report before it was due last week.

Answers:

Words in italics are stressed content words while unstressed function words are in lower case.

  1. They've been learning English for two months.
  2. My friends have nothing to do this weekend.
  3. I would have visited in April if i had known Peter was in town.
  4. Natalie will have been studying for fours hours by six o'clock.
  5. The boys and i will spend the weekend next to the lake fishing for trout.
  6. Jennifer and Alice had finished the report before it was due last week.

Continue Practicing 

Speak to your native English speaking friends and listen to how we concentrate on the stressed words rather than giving importance to each syllable. As you begin to listen and use stressed words, you will discover words you thought you didn't understand are really not crucial for understanding the sense or making yourself understood. Stressed words are the key to excellent pronunciation and understanding of English.

After students have learned basic consonant and vowel sounds, they should move on to learning to differentiate between individual sounds by using minimal pairs. Once they are comfortable with individual words, they should move on to intonation and stress exercises such as sentence markup. Finally, students can take the next step by choosing a focus word to help further improve their pronunciation.