Word Stress Rules in English

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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 learning the correct way to pronounce new words, 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.

3. There are many exceptions to the rules. The word stress rules in English are complicated. Remember that there are exceptions to every rule. Use a dictionary to check the word stress of new words. Soon, you will know English well enough to add word stress naturally.

It is important that you stress the right syllables, so people can hear and understand your words.

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, ly

5. Words ending in consonants and in y

6. Words with various endings

7. Words ending in ade, ee, eseque, ette, oon

8. Stress on the second from the end syllable

9. Stress on the third from end syllable

10. Word stress for compound words

11. Proper nouns

12. Reflexive pronouns

13. Numbers

1. Two-Syllable nouns and adjectives

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

  • SAMples
  • CARton
  • PURple
  • RAIny
  • CHIna
  • HAPpy

2. Two-Syllable verbs and prepositions

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

  • reLAX
  • reCEIVE
  • diRECT
  • aMONG
  • aSIDE
  • beTWEEN
  • deCIDE

More about word stress on two-syllable words

  • About 80% 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.


There are many two-syllable words in English that can be pronounced in two different ways. The stress change also changes the part of speech of the word.

  • PREsent = a gift (noun); non past or future (adjective)
  • preSENT = to give something to someone (verb)

  • OBject = something you can see and touch (noun)
  • obJECT = to disagree with something (verb)

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, ly

For three-syllable words ending with the suffixes er or ly, the stress is placed on the first syllable.
  • ORderly
  • SIlently
  • LOvingly
  • MAnager
  • GARdener
  • EAsier

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 usually gets the stress.


  • RARity
  • OPtimal
  • GRAdient
  • GEnorous

6. Words with various endings

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

The stress is going to be on the syllable right before the suffix. This applies to words of all syllable lengths.
  1. able: ADDable, DURable, LAUGHable
  2. ial: differENTial, SOcial, fiNANcial
  3. cian: muSIcian, phySIcian, cliNIcian
  4. ery: BAkery, SCEnery
  5. ian: coMEdian, ciVILian, techNIcian
  6. ible: reSIstible, imPOSsible, TERRible
  7. ic: arCHAic, plaTOnic, characteRIStic
  8. ics: diaBEtics, paediAtrics, TOpics
  9. ion: classifiCAtion, repoSItion, vegeTAtion 
  10. ia: MEdia, bacTERia, vicTORia
  11. ient: inGREdient, PAtient, ANcient
  12. ious: mySTERious, reLIgious, VARious
  13. ish: SELfish, ENglish, PUnish
  14. osis: hypNOsis, diagNOsis, osMOsis

7. Words ending in ade, ee, ese, que, ette, oon

Words that use the suffix ade, ee, ese, eerque, ette, or oon have the primary stress actually placed on the suffix.

This applies to words of all syllable lengths. 

  1. ade: lemoNADE, cruSADE, arCADE
  2. ee: aGREE, jamborEE, guaranTEE
  3. eer: sightSEER, puppeTEER
  4. ese: SiamESE, JapanESE, chEESE
  5. ette: cassETTE, CorvETTE, towelETTE 
  6. que: unIQUE, physIQUE
  7. oon: baLOON, afterNOON, carTOON

8. 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.


  • iCONic
  • GRAPHic
  • hyperTENsion
  • teleVIsion
  • nuTRItion
  • reveLAtion
Note: Native English speakers don't always agree on where to place the stress on a word. For example, some people pronounce television as "TELevision" while others say "teleVIsion."

9. 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.


  • deMOcracy
  • geOGraphy
  • ALlergy
  • NAUtical
  • CLArity
  • CRItical

10. Word stress for compound words

A. Compound noun

A compound noun is a noun made out of two nouns that form one word. In a compound noun, the most stress is on the stressed syllable of the first word.


  • SEAfood (sea + food)
  • ICEland (ice + land)
  • TOOTHpaste (tooth + paste)
  • FOOTball (foot + ball)
  • BAsketball (basket + ball)

B. Compound adjectives

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

Often, hyphens are used in compound adjectives. In compound adjectives, the most stress is placed in the stressed syllable of the second word.


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

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. 


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

D. Noun + compound nouns

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


  • AIRplane mechanic
  • PROject manager
  • BOARD member 

11. 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


  • North DAKOTA
  • Mr. SMITH

12. 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.

  • mySELF
  • themSELVES
  • ourSELVES

13. Numbers

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

  • TEN
  • FIFty
  • ONE-hundred

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.

Remember, there are exceptions to all of these rules. The best way to learn word stress is to look at a dictionary or a word pronunciation guide and practice speaking English daily. The more experience you have with English, the easier it will be.

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