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Sentence Stress

November 26, 2015

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When a little stress is a good thing…

How do students of English learn to speak like native speakers? Everyone knows that pronunciation is important, but some people forget about sentence stress and intonation. The cadence and rhythm of a language are important for fluency and clarity. Languages of the world vary greatly in word and sentence stress—many languages stress content words (e.g., most European languages) while others are tonal (e.g., Thai) or have little to no word stress (e.g., Japanese). Practicing sentence stress in English helps students speak more quickly and naturally. Fortunately for teachers, students usually enjoy activities like the one in the worksheet below! After one of our subscribers asked us for resources on sentence stress this week, I thought I’d share some tips and a worksheet that you can use in class.

Sentence stress occurs when we say certain words more loudly and with more emphasis than others. In English, we stress content words because they are essential to the meaning of the sentence. In general, shorter words or words that are clear from the context don’t get stressed.

To Stress

Content words include nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Negative words such as not or never also get stressed because they affect the meaning of the sentence. Modals, too, can change the meaning of a sentence. Here is a list of words to stress in an English sentence:

  • nouns (people, places, things)
  • verbs (actions, states)
  • adjectives (words that modify nouns)
  • adverbs (words that modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, or entire sentences)
  • negative words (not, never, neither, etc.)
  • modals (should, could, might, etc., but not will or can)
  • yes, no, and auxiliary verbs in short answers (e.g., Yes, she does.)
  • quantifiers (some, many, no, all, one, two, three, etc.)
  • Wh-Question words (what, where, when, why, how, etc.—note that what is often unstressed when speaking quickly because it’s so common)

Not to Stress

Some words don’t carry a lot of importance in an English sentence. Short words such as articles, prepositions, and conjunctions don’t take stress. Pronouns don’t usually get stressed either because the context often makes it clear who we’re talking about. The Be verb and all auxiliary verbs don’t carry much meaning—only the main verb does. Here is a list of words that shouldn’t be stressed in an English sentence:

  • articles (a, anthe)
  • prepositions (to, in, at, on, for, from, etc.)
  • conjunctions (and, or, so, but, etc.)
  • personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, etc.)
  • possessive adjectives (my, your, his, her, etc.)
  • Be verb (am, is, are, was, were, etc.)
  • auxiliary verbs (be, have, do in two-part verbs or questions)
  • the modals will and be going to (because they’re common, and the future tense is often clear from context)
  • the modal can (because it’s so common)

Examples

Model the following examples for your students and have them repeat after you. The words (or syllables when the word has more than one) that should be stressed are in bold.

  • The kids are at the park.
  • Do you have any brothers or sisters?
  • Why aren’t you doing your homework?
  • He bought a red car for his daughter.
  • I am Brazilian.
  • We are not familiar with this new computer program.
  • The athlete ran quickly and won the competition.
  • She does not know the answer.
  • I don’t know the answer, either.
  • We aren’t sure.
  • I’ve never heard of that before, but it makes sense.
  • They’ll ask the teacher for help.
  • Some people prefer Macs, but many others prefer PCs.
  • She is going to study tonight.
  • I can speak French.
  • I can’t speak Japanese.
  • Yes, I can. / No, I can’t.

Practice

When practicing sentence stress, whether in the examples above, the worksheet below, or your own activity, encourage reductions such as wanna, gonna, whaddaya, etc. These reductions will make it easier for your students to speak more quickly and will help them recognize when native speakers use these reduced forms. Plus, they’re fun to say!

Sentence Stress – Grammar & Usage Resources

Worksheet Answers

  1. boys, playing, video game
  2. computer, broken
  3. Where, going, after, class
  4. doesn’t,likecake
  5. writing, test, long, time
  6. prefer, coffee, tea
  7. doing, tonight (optional: What /encourage reduced pronunciation of Whaddaya)
  8. brother, wants, buy, red, car (demonstrate wanna for the subjects I, you, we, they, and plural count nouns)
  9. come, party (encourage reduced pronunciation of gonna)
  10. said, has, dog, not, cat

Stay tuned! I’m planning on blogging about word/syllable stress and intonation in the near future.

Here’s hoping your students don’t get too stressed!

Tanya

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Comments (21)

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Deborah P.(Teacher)

I found that lesson really interesting! It is clearly explained and very useful for the students.

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

I'm so happy to hear that. Thanks, Deborah!

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Sutharcini (Guest)

Thank you. It is very useful and clear.

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Wonderful!

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Mr.Hojadr (Guest)

Hi,my dear.
It was so useful but it make me confuse when in the sentence we have lots of 'adjrective,adverd,and verb' and so on .
As an example 'I will (buy) a (nice) (dress) (soon)'
All the words get stress????

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Mr. Hojadr,

That's right! You would pronounce it 'da-da-DA da-DA DA DA.' Say the unstressed words (I, will, a) more quickly and softly than the stressed ones (buy, nice, dress, soon). Remember that the last word will have falling intonation since it's the end of a sentence.

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Thu (Guest)

Great! It's very useful to me. Thank you so much!

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    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    I'm happy to hear that, Thu!

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    Alison Sattler(Guest)

    Thank you very much for describing sentence stress in clear and simple terms, and for your listening and speaking practice sheets. They are very helpful for me as an English language tutor. I plan to use them for my pronunciation lesson tomorrow! :-)

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    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Fantastic! Let us know how it goes, Alison.

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    Pnina (Guest)

    I personally think it is important to provide teaching tools and skiills
    It is very useful

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    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    I agree! Thanks for your comment.

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    Ms Myint Myint(Guest)

    Thank you. It's of great help.

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    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    I'm so glad! Thanks for commenting.

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    Nidhi (Guest)

    Hi. This blog is useful to understand how stress works.
    I have a suggestion to make. It would have been ever more useful if you could transcript the sentence into IPA format and then mark the syllables.
    Thanks?

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    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi Nidhi,

    Great idea! I'm working on lessons on syllables, word stress, and sentence stress, and I'm planning on including some words written in IPA with stress marks. Watch for them in this section over the next few months: https://esllibrary.com/courses/118/lessons

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    Sandra Jepekemboi(Guest)

    I have actually leant a lot. Thanks so much.

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    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    I'm so happy to hear this, Sandra!

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    Adriana C.(Teacher)

    Thanks for this lesson. I find the information a bit confusing when it comes to the words that should not be stressed. In the explanation it says that the modal can and the be verb are not stressed, but on the examples, they are stressed like "Yes, I can." (last one) or "Why aren’t you doing your homework? (third). Is there an exception on these two examples?
    Thanks!

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    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Great question, Adriana! The stress on modals such as can, might, and will and auxiliary verbs such as be, have, and do is only dropped when the modal or auxiliary is followed by something.

    So in a positive sentence or a question, we don't stress the modal or auxiliary (e.g., I can ski. / Can you ski? / You are cold. / Are you cold?).

    However, in a short answer with nothing after the modal or auxiliary, we must stress it because it would be awkward to finish a sentence without stress in English (Yes, I can. / No, I can't. / Yes, you are. / No, you aren't.).

    Also, negative modals/auxiliaries always have stress because the meaning is affected by the adverb "not" (I can't ski. / You aren't cold.). Hope that helps!

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    Abdelbasset M.(Member)

    Helpful & Reliable. I do like it. I really appreciate your tremendous efforts. Thanks

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