Word Syllable Stress Patterns in English

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Words are made up of letters and those letters create syllable sounds. You can recognize a syllable by remembering that each one 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.

F U N N Y - 5 Letters

Fun / ny - two syllables

A single syllable 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. 

Counting 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
  9. happy 2 - ha / ppy
  10. 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 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:

    Listen to these specific examples:

    PersonNEL
    TOtally
    InDUstrial
    ToMAto
    FanTAstic

    One Syllable - Stressed

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

    Listen to the general pattern.

    EAT
    DRINK
    SIGN
    WELL

    Two Syllable - First Syllable Stressed

    Listen to the general pattern and these specific examples:

    GIant
    PICture
    HEAting

    Two Syllable - Second Syllable Stressed

    Listen to the general pattern and these specific examples:

    toDAY
    aHEAD
    aLLOW

    Three Syllable - First Syllable Stressed

    Listen to the general pattern and these specific examples:

    ENergy
    Operate
    ORganize

    Three Syllable - Second Syllable Stressed

    Listen to the general pattern and these specific examples:

    meMORial
    aSSUMPtion
    caNAdian

    Three Syllable - Third Syllable Stressed

    Listen to the general pattern and these specific examples:

    employEE
    japanESE
    voluntEER

    Four Syllable - Second Syllable Stressed

    Listen to the general pattern and these specific examples:

    psyCHOLogy
    eVAporate
    cerTIficate

    Four Syllable - Third Syllable Stressed

    Listen to the general pattern and these specific examples:

    poliTIcian
    indiVIdual
    repuTAtion

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

    Listen to these specific examples:

    Little
    Repeat
    Tomato

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

    Listen to these specific examples:

    Industrial
    Noisily

    Generally speaking, stressed syllables retain a clear vowel sound, while unstressed syllables tend to soften towards a schwa-like sound.

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    Your Citation
    Beare, Kenneth. "Word Syllable Stress Patterns in English." ThoughtCo, Apr. 19, 2018, thoughtco.com/word-syllable-stress-patterns-in-english-1212074. Beare, Kenneth. (2018, April 19). Word Syllable Stress Patterns in English. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/word-syllable-stress-patterns-in-english-1212074 Beare, Kenneth. "Word Syllable Stress Patterns in English." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/word-syllable-stress-patterns-in-english-1212074 (accessed June 19, 2018).