Word Stress Rules in English


Check out our new series of illustrated workbooks:
Stories and Exercises to Practice the Perfect Tenses

Stories and Exercises to Practice the Progressive Tenses


What is word stress?

In some languages, each syllable in each word is pronounced with the exact same stress.

English is not one of those languages. English has its own rhythm, complete with its own vocal music. This means that one part of a certain word is said louder and longer than other parts of the same word.

It is something that is completely natural for English speakers, but something ESL students can learn from practicing their conversational skills and by learning the rules for using word stress.

Rules for word stress


A few things to remember:

1. A word can only have one stress. In a very long word you can have a secondary stress but it is always a much smaller stress.

2. Only vowels are stressed, not consonants. The vowels in English are a, e, i, o, and u. The consonants are all the other letters.

Before continuing, make sure you read and understand the basics of Word Stress and Syllables.
 

Word stress rules

1. Two-Syllable nouns and adjectives

2. Two-Syllable verbs and prepositions

3. Three-Syllable words

4. Words ending in er, or, ly

5. Words ending in consonants and in y

6. Words with various endings

7. Words ending in ee, ese, ique, ette

8. Prefixes

9. Stress on the second from the end syllable

10. Stress on the third from end syllable

11. Word stress for compound words

12. Phrasal verbs

13. Proper nouns

14. Reflexive pronouns

15. Numbers


1. Two-Syllable nouns and adjectives

In most two syllable nouns and adjectives, the first syllable takes on the stress.

Examples:
  • SAMples
  • CARton
  • COlorful
  • RAIny


2. Two-Syllable verbs and prepositions

In most two syllable verbs and prepositions, the stress is on the second syllable.

Examples:
  • reLAX
  • recEIVE
  • diRECT
  • aMONG
  • aSIDE
  • beTWEEN

More about word stress on two-syllable words

  • About 80% or so of two-syllable words get their stress on the first syllable.

  • There are of course, exceptions to this rule, but very few nouns and adjectives get stress on their second syllable.

  • Verbs and prepositions usually get stress placed on the second syllable, but there are exceptions to this too.


3. Three-Syllable words

For three syllable words, look at the word ending (the suffix), using the following as your guide. 


4. Words ending in er, or, ly

For words ending with the suffixes er, or, or ly, the stress is placed on the first syllable.
 
Examples:
  • DIRect/DIRector
  • ORder/ORderly
  • MANage/MANager


5.  Words ending in consonants and in y

If there is a word that ends in a consonant or in a y, then the first syllable gets the stress.

Examples:

  • RARity
  • OPtimal
  • GRADient
  • CONtainer


6. Words with various endings

Take a good look at the list of suffixes below (suffixes are word endings).

Your stress is going to come on the syllable right before the suffix. This applies to words of all syllable lengths.
 
Examples:
  1. able: ADDable, ARable, DURable
  2. ary: PRIMary, DIary, liBRary
  3. cial: juDIcial, nonSOcial 
  4. cian: muSIcian, phySIcian, cliNICian
  5. ery: BAkery, SCENery
  6. graphy: calLIgraphy, bibliOgraphy, stenOgraphy
  7. ial: celesTIal, iniTIal, juDICial
  8. ian: coMEdian, ciVILian, techNIcian
  9. ible: viSIble, terRIble, reSIstible
  10. ic: arCHAic, plaTOnic, synTHEtic
  11. ical: MAgical, LOgical, CRItical
  12. ics: diaBEtics, paediAtrics
  13. ion: classifiCAtion, repoSItion, vegeTAtion 
  14. ity: imMUnity, GRAvity, VAnity
  15. ium: HElium, ALUminum, PREmium
  16. imum: MInimum, MAXimum, OPtimum
  17. logy: BIology, CARdiology, RAdiology
  18. tal: caPItal, biCOAstal, reCItal


7. Words ending in ee, ese, ique, ette

Words that use the suffix ee, ese, eer, ique or ette, have the primary stress actually placed on the suffix.

This applies to words of all syllable lengths. 

Examples:
  1. ee: agrEE, jamborEE, guarantEE
  2. eer: sightsEER, puppetEER
  3. ese: SiamESE, JapanESE, cheESE
  4. ette: cassETTE, CorvETTE, towelETTE 
  5. ique: unIQUE, physIQUE


8. Prefixes

Usually, prefixes do not take the stress of a word.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, however, like: un, in, pre, ex and mis, which are all stressed in their prefix.

Examples:

  1. ex: EXample, EXplanation, EXamine
  2. in: INside, INefficient, INterest
  3. mis: MISspoke, MIStake, MISspelled
  4. pre: PREcede, PREarrange, PREliminary


9. Stress on the second from the end syllable

You put stress on the second syllable from the end of the word, with words ending in ic, sion and tion.

Examples:

  • iCONic
  • hyperTENsion
  • nuTRItion


10. Stress on the third from end syllable

You put stress on the third from end syllable with words that end in cy, ty, phy, gy and al.

Examples:

  • demoCRAcy
  • TREAty
  • geOGraphy
  • ALlergy
  • NAUtical


11. Word stress for compound words

A. Compound noun

A compound noun is a noun made out of two nouns in order to form one word. In a compound noun, the first word usually takes on the stress.

Examples:

  • SEAfood
  • ICEland
  • TOOTHpaste


B. Compound adjectives

A compound adjective is an adjective composed of at least two words.

Often, hyphens are used in compound adjectives. In compound adjectives, the stress is placed within the second word.

Examples:

  • ten-MEter
  • rock-SOlid
  • fifteen-MInute


C. Compound verbs

A compound verb is when a subject has two or more verbs. The stress is on the second or on the last part. 

Examples:

  • Matilda loves bread but deTESTS butter.
  • Sarah baked cookies and ATE them up. 
  • Dogs love to eat bones and love DRINking water.


D. Noun + compound nouns

Noun + compound Nouns are two word compound nouns. In noun + compound noun, the stress is on the first word.

Examples:

  • AIRplane mechanic
  • PROject manager
  • BOARDroom member 


12. Phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs are words made from a verb and preposition.

In phrasal verbs, the second word gets the stress (the preposition). 

Examples:

  • Black OUT
  • break DOWN
  • look OUT


13. Proper nouns

Proper nouns are specific names of people, places or things. For example: Jeniffer, Spain, Google.

The second word is always the one that takes the stress

Examples:

  • North DAKOTA
  • Mr. SMITH
  • Apple INCORPORATED


14. Reflexive pronouns

Reflexive pronouns show that the action affects the person who performs the action. For example: I hit myself.

The second syllable usually takes the stress.

Examples:
  • mySELF
  • themSELVES
  • ourSELVES


15. Numbers

If the number is a multiple of ten, the stress is placed on the first syllable. 

Examples:
  • TEN
  • FIFty
  • ONEhundred


Word stress and dictionaries

Another great tip for beginning English learners is to grab a dictionary.

Dictionaries are great tools for learning word stress.

For every word, the dictionary indicates where the stress goes, for example by placing an apostrophe before the stress.

Take a look at your dictionary to find out how your dictionary indicates word stress.

Get Vocabulary, Grammar and Teaching Tips, Site Updates and Special Offers Directly to Your Mailbox

Join now and get a special bonus:

First 2 chapters of the English Short Stories Book and Workbook.

Are you a teacher or a student?

* We respect your email privacy and you can unsubscribe at any time.