Sentence Stress Rules

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 meaning example
main verbs SELL, GIVE, EMPLOY
nouns CAR, MUSIC, MARY
adjectives RED, BIG, INTERESTING
adverbs QUICKLY, LOUDLY, NEVER
negative auxiliaries DON'T, AREN'T, CAN'T

Structure words - unstressed

words for correct grammar example
pronouns he, we, they
prepositions on, at, into
articles a, an, the
conjunctions and, but, because
auxiliary verbs do, be, have, can, must

Exceptions

The rules above 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 as a main verb it is also a content word.