Word Syllable Stress Patterns in English

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Words are made up of letters and these letters make up syllable sounds. 

F U N N Y - 5 Letters

Fun / ny - two syllables

You can recognize a syllable by remembering that each syllable contains a vowel sound. For example, in the word computer there are three syllables: com / pu / ter. The word bike however, has only one syllable.

Syllables may contain as little as just one letter, or as many as five:

idea - i / de / a - three syllables

cough - cough - one syllable

In words that have more than one syllable, one syllable will be stressed. In English, there are a number of word syllable stress patterns. This article presents eight common syllable stress patterns.

How Many Syllables?

You can check how many syllables a word has by putting your hand under your chin. Each time your chin moves to make a vowel sound count a syllable. For example, the word difficult moves your chin three times. Therefore, difficult is three syllables.

Exercise

Count the number of syllables in each of these words. Answers are below.

  1. house
  2. jacket
  3. glasses
  4. encyclopedia
  5. employer
  6. information
  7. troublemaker 
  8. thought 
  9. happy
  10. incoherent

Answers

  1. house - 1 - house
  2. jacket - 2 - ja / ket
  3. glasses - 2 - gla / sses
  4. encyclopedia - 6 - en / cy / clo / pe / di / a
  5. employer - 3 - em / ploy / er
  6. information - 4 - in / for / ma / tion
  7. troublemaker - 4 - trou / ble /ma / ker
  8. thought 1 - thought
  1. happy 2 - ha / ppy
  2. incoherent 4 - in / co / her / ent

Word Syllable Stress

In multi-syllable words, the stress falls on one of the syllables while the other syllables tend to be spoken over quickly. This leads to sounds that are not clear (muted) on unstressed syllables. In order to improve your pronunciation, focus on pronouncing the stressed syllable clearly.

However, don't be afraid to mute (not say clearly) the other unstressed vowels. 

For example:

PersonNEL
TOtally
InDUstrial
ToMAto
FanTAstic

One Syllable - Stressed

All one syllable words have the stress on the one syllable. The intonation should go down. 

EAT
DRINK
SIGN
WELL

Two Syllable - First Syllable Stressed

GIant
PICture
HEAting

Two Syllable - Second Syllable Stressed

toDAY
aHEAD
aLLOW

Three Syllable - First Syllable Stressed

ENergy
Operate
ORganize

Three Syllable - Second Syllable Stressed

meMORial
aSSUMPtion
caNAdian

Three Syllable - Third Syllable Stressed

employEE
japanESE
voluntEER

Four Syllable - Second Syllable Stressed

psyCHOLogy
eVAporate
cerTIficate

Four Syllable - Third Syllable Stressed

poliTIcian
indiVIdual
repuTAtion

Guide to Double Vowel Sounds

It's not the number of letters that make up a syllable, rather it is the number of single vowel sounds. To make things more difficult,English also has a number of vowels that combine to make just a single sound. For example:

tree - ee = 1 sound

goal - oa = 1 sound

because - au - 1 sound

It's important to learn spelling patterns for these sounds. Here are some of the most common:

ay - (diphthong ei sound)  play, say, may
au - (long a sound) fault, launch, haunt
augh - (long a sound) caught, taught, daughter
augh - (short a sound as in 'cat') laugh

ee - (long ee sound) tree, see, three
ea - (long ee sound) each, peach, teach
ea - (short e sound) dead, head, health
ea - (long ee sound) break, steak, great

eu - (long u sound) deuce, sleuth
ei - (diphthong ei sound) beil, eight, weigh
ey - (diphthong ei sound) they, grey
eigh - (diphthong ei sound) eight, freight
eigh - (long ee sound) seize
eigh - (diphthong ai sound) height

ie - (long ee sound) thief, pice
ie - (long i sound) die, tie

oo - (long u sound) moo, boo
oo - (short u sound) book, foot
oa - (long o sound) boat, moat
oe - (long o sound) hoe, Joe
oi - (diphthong oy sound) soil, toil
ou - (long o sound) soul, your 
ou - (short u sound) tough, rough

ue - (long u sound) cue, muse
ui - (long u sound) fruit, juice

Schwa for Unstressed Syllables

Unstressed syllables keep the correct sound, but sound muted.

Sometimes, unstressed vowels become a schwa sound - like a soft uh sound.

Little
Repeat
Tomato

At other times, the vowel is pronounced but not stressed.

Industrial
Noisily

Generally speaking, stressed syllables retain a clear vowel sound, while unstressed syllables tend to soften towards a schwa-like sound. Now that you understand syllable stress, make sure to study word stress in sentences that can change meaning depending on word stress