Study of english stress and intonation

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  • In linguistics, stress is the relative emphasis that may be given to certain syllables in a word. The term is also used for similar patterns of phonetic prominence inside syllables.

Understanding Syllables

  • Understanding Syllables
  • To understand word stress, it helps to understand syllables. Every word is made from syllables. Each word has one, two, three or more syllables.
  • Word
  • Number of syllables
  • Dog
  • Dog
  • 1
  • Quiet
  • Qui-et
  • 2
  • Expensive
  • Ex-pen-sive
  • 3
  • Interesting
  • In-ter-est-ing
  • 4
  • Unexceptional
  • Un-ex-cep-tion-al
  • 5


  • Prominence:
  • It would have been logically possible for every syllable to have exactly the same loudness, pitch, and so on. (Some early attempts at speech synthesizers sounded like this.) But human languages have ways to make some syllables more prominent than others. A syllable might be more prominent by differing from the surrounding syllables in terms of:
  • loudness
  • pitch
  • length
  • Prominence is relative to the surrounding syllables, not absolute. (A stressed syllable that is nearly whispered will be quieter than an unstressed syllable that is shouted.)

The realization of stress in English

  • The realization of stress in English
  • In English, the three ways to make a syllable more prominent are to make it:
  • louder
  • longer
  • higher pitched (usually)
  • In many languages, changing which syllable is stressed can change the meaning of a word.

The ways stress manifests itself in the speech stream are highly language dependent. In some languages, stressed syllables have a higher or lower pitch than non-stressed syllables — so-called pitch accent (or musical accent). In other languages, they may bear either higher or lower pitch than surrounding syllables (a pitch excursion), depending on the sentence type. There are also dynamic accent (loudness), qualitative accent (full vowels) and quantitative accent (length). Stress may be characterized by more than one of these characteristics. Further, stress may be realized to varying degrees on different words in a sentence; sometimes the difference between the acoustic signals of stressed and unstressed syllables may be minimal.

  • The ways stress manifests itself in the speech stream are highly language dependent. In some languages, stressed syllables have a higher or lower pitch than non-stressed syllables — so-called pitch accent (or musical accent). In other languages, they may bear either higher or lower pitch than surrounding syllables (a pitch excursion), depending on the sentence type. There are also dynamic accent (loudness), qualitative accent (full vowels) and quantitative accent (length). Stress may be characterized by more than one of these characteristics. Further, stress may be realized to varying degrees on different words in a sentence; sometimes the difference between the acoustic signals of stressed and unstressed syllables may be minimal.

In English, stress is most dramatically realized on focussed or accented words. For instance, consider the dialogue

  • In English, stress is most dramatically realized on focussed or accented words. For instance, consider the dialogue
    • "Is it brunch tomorrow?"
    • "No, it's dinner tomorrow."
  • In it, the stress-related acoustic differences between the syllables of "tomorrow" would be small compared to the differences between the syllables of "dinner", the emphasized word. In these emphasized words, stressed syllables such as "din" in "dinner" are louder and longer. They may also have a different fundamental frequency, or other properties. Unstressed syllables typically have a vowel which is closer to a neutral position, while stressed vowels are more fully realized.
  • Stressed syllables are often perceived as being more forceful than non-stressed syllables. Research has shown, however, that although dynamic stress is accompanied by greater respiratory force, it does not mean a more forceful articulation in the vocal tract.

Emphatic Stress

  • One reason to move the tonic stress from its utterance final position is to assign an emphasis to a content word, which is usually a modal auxiliary, an intensifier, an adverb, etc. Compare the following examples. The first two examples are adapted from. Roach (1983:144).
    • i. It was very BOring. (unmarked) ii. It was VEry boring. (emphatic)  
    • i. You mustn't talk so LOUDly. (unmarked) ii. You MUSTN'T talk so loudly. (emphatic)
  • Some intensifying adverbs and modifiers (or their derivatives) that are emphatic by nature are
    • Indeed, utterly, absolute, terrific, tremendous, awfully, terribly, great, grand, really, definitely, truly, literally, extremely, surely, completely, barely, entirely, very (adverb), very (adjective), quite, too, enough, pretty, far, especially, alone, only, own, -self.

Contrastive Stress

  • In contrastive contexts, the stress pattern is quite different from the emphatic and non-emphatic stresses in that any lexical item in an utterance can receive the tonic stress provided that the contrastively stressed item can be contrastable in that universe of speech. No distinction exists between content and function words regarding this. The contrasted item receives the tonic stress provided that it is contrastive with some lexical element (notion.) in the stimulus utterance. Syllables that are normally stressed in the utterance almost always get the same treatment they do in non-emphatic contexts.)


  • Consider the following examples:
    • Do you like this one or THAT one?
    • b) I like THIS one.
  • Many other larger contrastive contexts (dialogues) can be found or worked out, or even selected from literary works for a study of contrastive stress. Consider the following:
    • She played the piano yesterday. (It was her who...)
    • She played the piano yesterday. (She only played (not. harmed) ...)
    • She played the piano yesterday. (It was the piano that...)
    • She played the piano yesterday. (It was yesterday..

Tonic Stress

  • An intonation unit almost always has one peak of stress, which is called 'tonic stress', or 'nucleus'. Because stress applies to syllables, the syllable that receives the tonic stress is called 'tonic syllable'. The term tonic stress is usually preferred to refer to this kind of stress in referring, proclaiming, and reporting utterances. Tonic stress is almost always found in a content word in utterance final position. Consider the following, in which the tonic syllable is underlined:
  • I'm going.
  • I'm going to London.
  • I'm going to London for a holiday.
  • A question does arise as to what happens to the previously tonic assigned syllables. They still get stressed, however, not as much as the tonic syllable, producing a three level stress for utterances. Then, the following is arrived at., where the tonic syllable is further capitalized:
  • I'm going to London for HOliday.

New Information Stress

  • In a response given to a wh-question, the information supplied, naturally enough, is stressed,. That is, it is pronounced with more breath force, since it is more prominent against a background given information in the question. The concept of new information is much clearer to students of English in responses to wh-questions than in declarative statements. Therefore, it is best to start with teaching the stressing of the new information supplied to questions with a question word:
    • a) What's your NAME b) My name's GEORGE.
    • a) Where are you FROM? b) I'm from WALES.
    • a) Where do you LIVE b) I live in BONN
    • a) When does the school term END b) It ends in MAY.
    • a) What do you DO b) I'm a STUdent.  
  • The questions given above could also be answered in short form except for the last one, in which case the answers are:
    • George,
    • Wales,
    • in Bonn
    • in May


  • English is a stress-timed language; that is, stressed syllables appear at a roughly constant rate, and non-stressed syllables are shortened to accommodate this.
  • English does this to some extent with noun-verb pairs such as a récord vs. to recórd, where the verb is stressed on the last syllable and the related noun is stressed on the first; record also hyphenates differently: a réc-ord vs. to re-córd.


  • It is the stronger degree of stress.
  • Primary stress gives the final stressed syllable.
  • Primary stress is very important in compound words.
  • Primary stress:
  • Secondary stress:
  • Secondary stress is the weaker of two degrees of stress in the pronunciation of a word.
  • Secondary stress gives the other lexically stressed syllables in a word.
  • Secondary stress is important primarily in long words with several syllables
  • Tertiary stress:
  • It includes the fully unstressed vowels. An unstressed vowel is the vowel sound that forms the syllable peak of a syllable that has no lexical stress.
  • Quaternary stress:
  • It includes the reduced vowels. Vowel reduction is the term in phonetics that refers to various changes in the acoustic quality of vowels, which are related to changes in stress, sonority, duration, loudness, articulation, or position in the word which are perceived as "weakening

Two Word Stress

  • Knowing when and where to stress the words you use is very important for understanding, and therefore, as part of a good accent. A clear example is that of stress in two word expressions.
  • According to whether it is an ordinary two-word expression or a special, set expression, the place of the stress changes. In an ordinary expression the two words are used to describe something like a "white HOUSE" (meaning a house that is painted white, and not blue or gray). In this case the most important note is the noun because we are talking about a house that happens to be white. Similarly, a "fat BOY" is an overweight young male.
  • But sometimes short two word expressions are set or "consecrated", (that is, they mean something special) and have to be made different from similar expressions. One example is "the WHITE house" where Mr. Bush lives. In this case, the emphasis is on the adjective because we are more interested in stressing that it is the house that is known because it is white. In the same way, "FAT boy" is the nickname of a boy, chosen because the word fat emphasizes his weight. It will be useful for you to be aware of both types of two word expressions. Here is a list of a few that will get you thinking and give you some practice in identifying them and using them correctly. Underline the syllable that is stressed, and write a brief explanation, for both uses of each phrase. I start the exercise with two examples. You do the rest. Make sure you say the phrases OUT LOUD!
  • white HOUSE House painted white
  • LIGHT bulb Shines with electricity
  • Light BULB A bulb that is not heavy


  • Different systems exist for indicating syllabification and stress.
  • In IPA, primary stress is indicated by a high vertical line before the syllable, secondary stress by a low vertical line. Example: [sɪˌlæbəfɪˈkeɪʃən] or /sɪˌlæbəfɪˈkeɪʃən/.
  • In English dictionaries which do not use IPA, stress is typically marked with a prime mark placed after the stressed syllable: /si-lab′-ə-fi-kay′-shən/.
  • In ad hoc pronunciation guides, stress is often indicated using a combination of bold text and capital letters. Example: si-lab-if-i-KAY-shun or si-LAB-if-i-KAY-shun

Rules of Word Stress in English

  • There are two very simple rules about word stress:
  • One word has only one stress. (One word cannot have two stresses. If you hear two stresses, you hear two words. Two stresses cannot be one word. It is true that there can be a "secondary" stress in some words. But a secondary stress is much smaller than the main [primary] stress, and is only used in long words.)
  • We can only stress vowels, not consonants.

Where do I put a word stress?

  • These rules are rather complicated! Probably the best way to learn where to put a word stress is from experience. Listen carefully to spoken English and try to develop a feeling for the "music" of the language.
  • When you learn a new word, you should also learn its stress pattern. If you keep a vocabulary book, make a note to show which syllable is stressed. If you do not know, you can look in a dictionary. All dictionaries give the phonetic spelling of a word. This is where they show which syllable is stressed, usually with an apostrophe (') just before or just after the stressed syllable. (The notes at the front of the dictionary will explain the system used.)

Word Stress Quiz

  • Can you pass me a plas/tic knife?
  • I want to take a pho/to/gra/phy class.
  • Chi/na is the place where I was born.
  • Please turn off the tel/e/vi/sion before you go out.
  • I can't de/cide which book to borrow.
  • Do you un/der/stand this lesson?
  • Sparky is a very hap/py puppy.
  • It is cri/ti/cal that you finish your essay.


  • In linguistics, intonation is the variation of pitch when speaking. Intonation and stress are two main elements of linguistic prosody. Intonation is the "music" of a language, and is perhaps the most important element of a good accent. Often we hear someone speaking with perfect grammar, and perfect formation of the sounds of English but with a little something that gives them away as not being a native speaker. Intonation – the rise and fall of pitch in our voices – plays a crucial role in how we express meaning.

Intonation contours in English

  • Not all rises and falls in pitch that occur in the course of an English phrase can be attributed to stress. The same set of segments and word stresses can occur with a number of pitch patterns. Consider the difference between:
  • You're going. (statement)
  • You're going? (question)
  • The rise and fall of pitch throughout is called its intonation contour.
  • English has a number of intonation patterns which add conventionalized meanings to the utterance: question, statement, surprise, disbelief, sarcasm, teasing.
  • An important feature of English intonation is the use of an intonational accent (and extra stress) to mark the focus of a sentence. Normally this focus accent goes on the last major word of the sentence, but it can come earlier in order to emphasize one of the earlier words or to contrast it with something else.

For example, consider the statement “Nancy bought a new house on Thursday”. The figures shows different Intonation counters for this statement with stress on each word present in it.


  • A unit of speech bounded by pauses has movement, of music and rhythm, associated with the pitch of voice. This certain pattern of voice movement is called 'tone'. A tone is a certain pattern, not an arbitrary one, because it is meaningful in discourse. By means of tones, speakers signal whether to refer, proclaim, agree, disagree, question or hesitate, or indicate completion and continuation of turn-taking, in speech.


  • fall
  • low-rise
  • high-rise
  • fall-rise

Fall (A Falling Tone)

  • A falling tone is by far the most common used tone of all. It signals a sense of finality, completion, belief in the content of the utterance, and so on.
  • A speaker, by choosing a falling tone, also indicates to the addressee that that is all he has to say, and offers a chance (turn-taking) to the addressee to comment on, agree or disagree with, or add to his utterance.


  • Consequences of his unacceptable behavior.
  • I'll report you to the HEADmaster
  • A falling tone may be used in referring expressions as well.
  • I've spoken with the CLEAner.
  • Questions that begin with wh-questions are generally pronounced with a falling tone:
  • Where is the PENcil?
  • Imperative statements have a falling tone.
  • i) Go and see a DOCtor.
  • Requests or orders have a falling tone too.
  • i) Please sit DOWN
  • Exclamations:
  • Watch OUT!
  • Yes/No questions and tag questions seeking or expecting confirmation
  • a) You like it, DON'T you? b) YEES.
  • Here it is used when it is sure that the answer is yes.
  • Have you MET him? b) YES.

Low Rise (A Rising Tone)

  • This tone is used in genuine 'Yes/No' questions where the speaker is sure that he does not know the answer, and that the addressee knows the answer. Such Yes/No questions are uttered with a rising tone. For instance, consider the following question uttered with a rising tone, the answer of which could be either of the three options:
      • A) Isn't he NICE
      • B) i) Yes. ii) No. iii) I don't know.
  • Compare the above example with the following example, which is uttered with a falling tone, and which can only have one appropriate answer in the context:
      • a) Isn't he NICE
      • b) YES.
  • Other examples which are uttered with a rising tone are:
      • Do you want some COFfee?
      • Do you take CREAM in your coffee?

High Rise (A Rising Tone)

  • If the tonic stress is uttered with extra pitch height, as in the following intonation units, we may think that the speaker is asking for a repetition or clarification, or indicating disbelief.
  • Examples
    • a) I'm taking up TAxidermy this autumn. b) Taking up WHAT? (clarification)
    • a) She passed her DRIving test. b) She PASSED? (disbelief)

Fall Rise

  • Fall-rise signals dependency, continuity, and non-finality. It generally occurs in sentence non-final intonation units. Consider the following in which the former of the intonation units are uttered with a fall-rise tone (the slash indicates a pause):
  • Examples
    • Private enterPRISE / is always EFficient.
    • A quick tour of the CIty / would be NICE.
    • PreSUmably / he thinks he CAN.
    • Usually / he comes on SUNday.

Cross-linguistic differences

  • People have a tendency to think of intonation as being directly linked to the speaker's emotions. In fact, the meaning of intonation contours is as conventionalized as any other aspect of language. Different languages can use different conventions, giving rise to the potential for cross-cultural misunderstandings. Two examples of cross-linguistic differences in intonation patterns:

Contrastive emphasis

  • Many languages mark contrastive emphasis like English, using an intonational accent and additional stress. Many other languages use only syntactic devices for contrastive emphasis, for example, moving the emphasized phrase to the beginning of the sentence.
  • Instead of
    • I want a car for my birthday. (as opposed to a bike)
  • you would have to say something like:
    • A car I want for my birthday.
    • It's a car that I want for my birthday.
  • Listeners who speak the second type of language will not necessarily interpret extra pitch and volume as marking emphasis. Listeners who don't speak the second type of language will not necessarily interpret a different word order as marking emphasis (as opposed to assuming that the speaker doesn't know basic grammar). Questions


  • The normal intonation contours for questions in English use:
  • final rising pitch for a Yes/No question
    • Are you coming today?
  • final falling pitch for a Wh-question
    • When are you coming? Where are you going?
  • Using a different pattern typically adds something extra to the question. E.g., falling intonation on a Yes/No question can be interpreted as abruptness. Rising intonation on a Wh-question can imply surprise or that you didn't hear the answer the first time and are asking to have it repeated.

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