What is Word Stress?

In English, we do not say each syllable with the same force or strength. In one word, we accentuate ONE syllable. We say one syllable very loudly (big, strong, important) and all the other syllables very quietly.

Let's take 3 words: photograph, photographer and photographic. Do they sound the same when spoken? No. Because we accentuate (stress) ONE syllable in each word. And it is not always the same syllable. So the "shape" of each word is different.

Listen to these words. Do you hear the stressed syllable in each word?

3 syllables, stress on #1
PHO-TO-GRAPH
4 syllables, stress on #2
PHO-TO-GRAPH-ER
4 syllables, stress on #3
PHO-TO-GRAPH-IC

This happens in ALL words with 2 or more syllables: TEACHer, JaPAN, CHINa, aBOVE, converSAtion, INteresting, imPORtant, deMAND, etCETera, etCETera, etCETera

The syllables that are not stressed are weak or small or quiet. Fluent speakers of English listen for the STRESSED syllables, not the weak syllables. If you use word stress in your speech, you will instantly and automatically improve your pronunciation and your comprehension.

Try to hear the stress in individual words each time you listen to English - on the radio, or in films for example. Your first step is to HEAR and recognise it. After that, you can USE it!

There are two very important rules about word stress:

  1. One word, one stress. (One word cannot have two stresses. So if you hear two stresses, you have heard two words, not one word.)
  2. The stress is always on a vowel.