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Sentence Stress in English

Sentence stress is the music of spoken English. Like word stress, sentence stress can help you to understand spoken English, especially when spoken fast.

Sentence stress is what gives English its rhythm or "beat". You remember that word stress is accent on one syllable within a word. Sentence stress is accent on certain words within a sentence.

Most sentences have two types of word:

  • content words
  • structure words

Content words are the key words of a sentence. They are the important words that carry the meaning or sense.

Structure words are not very important words. They are small, simple words that make the sentence correct grammatically. They give the sentence its correct form or "structure".

If you remove the structure words from a sentence, you will probably still understand the sentence.

If you remove the content words from a sentence, you will not understand the sentence. The sentence has no sense or meaning.

Imagine that you receive this telegram message:

Will you SELL my CAR because I've GONE to FRANCE
Click to listen Click here to hear

This sentence is not complete. It is not a "grammatically correct" sentence. But you probably understand it. These 4 words communicate very well. Somebody wants you to sell their car for them because they have gone to France. We can add a few words:

Will you SELL my CAR because I've GONE to FRANCE
Click to listen Click here to hear

The new words do not really add any more information. But they make the message more correct grammatically. We can add even more words to make one complete, grammatically correct sentence. But the information is basically the same:

Content Words
Will you SELL my CAR because I've GONE to FRANCE.
Structure Words
Click to listen Click here to hear

In our sentence, the 4 key words (sell, car, gone, France) are accentuated or stressed.

Why is this important for pronunciation? It is important because it adds "music" to the language. It is the rhythm of the English language. It changes the speed at which we speak (and listen to) the language. The time between each stressed word is the same.

In our sentence, there is 1 syllable between SELL and CAR and 3 syllables between CAR and GONE. But the time (t) between SELL and CAR and between CAR and GONE is the same. We maintain a constant beat on the stressed words. To do this, we say "my" more slowly, and "because I've" more quickly. We change the speed of the small structure words so that the rhythm of the key content words stays the same.

syllables
2 1 3 1
Will you SELL my CAR because I've GONE to FRANCE.

t1
beat

t1
beat

t1
beat

t1
beat

Sentence Stress Rules >

See also: Word Stress

I am a proFESsional phoTOgrapher whose MAIN INterest is to TAKE SPEcial, BLACK and WHITE PHOtographs that exHIBit ABstract MEANings in their photoGRAPHic STRUCture.


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