How to Stress Syllables 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. 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 and saying a word. 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. 1 (house)
  2. 2 (ja / ket)
  3. 2 (gla / sses)
  4. 6 (en / cy / clo / pe / di / a)
  5. 3 (em / ploy / er)
  6. 4 (in / for / ma / tion)
  7. 4 (trou / ble /ma / ker)
  8. 1 (thought)
  9. 2 (ha / ppy)
  10. 4 (in / co / her / ent)

Word Syllable Stress

In multi-syllable words, the stress falls on one of the syllables. 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. Notice where the syllables are stressed:

  • 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

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

Second Syllable Stressed

Listen to the general pattern and these specific examples:

  • meMORial
  • aSSUMPtion
  • caNAdian

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

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. Sometimes, a number of vowels combine to make just a single sound. For example:

tree = 1 sound

goal = 1 sound

because = 1 sound

Common Double Vowel Sounds

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.