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Rules for Sentence Stress in English

The basic rules of sentence stress are:

  1. content words are stressed
  2. structure words are unstressed
  3. the time between stressed words is always the same

The following tables can help you decide which words are content words and which words are structure words:

Content words - stressed

Words carrying the meaningExample
main verbsSELL, GIVE, EMPLOY
negative auxiliariesDON'T, AREN'T, CAN'T

Structure words - unstressed

Words for correct grammarExample
pronounshe, we, they
prepositionson, at, into
articlesa, an, the
conjunctionsand, but, because
auxiliary verbsdo, be, have, can, must


The above rules are for for what is called "neutral" or normal stress. But sometimes we can stress a word that would normally be only a structure word, for example to correct information. Look at the following dialogue:

"They've been to Mongolia, haven't they?"
"No, THEY haven't, but WE have.

Note also that when "be" is used as a main verb, it is usually unstressed (even though in this case it is a content word).

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