What is word stress?
‘Stress’ has more than one meaning. When we talk about stress and exams, we usually mean feelings of worry or anxiety. However, it also has a different meaning. This other meaning is important for success in the speaking interview. When we say a word which has 2 or more syllables, we usually emphasize (or stress) one of the syllables more than the others.This stressed syllable will be a little louder, longer and stronger than the other syllables in the word.
Look at these sentences and think about how you would say the words in bold. You may need to exaggerate the stress to ‘hear’ which parts you would stress.
(2) He has been interested in photography since he was a child.
(3) Today he is famous for his photographic skills.
(4) His photographs have appeared in many wildlife magazines.
Native and expert English speakers stress these words in this way:
Why is word stress important?
I started thinking about the importance of word stress today because I saw this ‘joke’ on Twitter. A person posted this: “If an Asian man stops you and asks about Horse Peter, he’s looking for the hospital”. (I’d love to know how well the poster of that tweet can pronounce words in other languages …) But, anyway, the problem with Horse Peter is that it means that the speaker has overstressed the ‘pi’ in ‘hospital’ and not clearly pronounced the final ‘l’.
This ‘joke’ reminded me of an experience I had teaching IELTS in China about 20 years ago (yes … I’ve been doing this that long, and I am that old!) I had just started teaching a class of advanced IELTS students, and one of the students came to me and said that he needed to learn specialist vocabulary so that he could talk about his job. I asked him what he did, and he said “I do research into car bomb.” I told him I thought that sounded a very unusual job, and asked him how he had got involved with studying ‘car bombs’. He said that he’d always liked science and chemistry and this was something he enjoyed. He also told me that studying ‘car bomb’ wasn’t that rare. At this stage, I thought he had a problem with plurals. He kept talking about ‘car bomb’ generally and not adding an ‘s’. I asked him to describe his job to me, so that we could start thinking about the vocabulary he needed. I also told him that I was looking forward to finding out more about this unusual area of research. He looked surprised, but started describing what he did in a lot of detail. Quite quickly, I realized my mistake. He hadn’t been saying ‘car bomb’ at all; he’d been saying ‘carbon’. He should have put the stress on the first syllable – CARbon – but he’d stressed both syllables. For me to understand him, word stress was far more important than the fact that he had (correctly) not added an ‘s’ as carbon is an uncountable noun, and he had pronounced the final letter as an /m/ sound rather than an /n/. Word stress isn’t just something that makes you sound more like a native speaker. Getting it wrong can lead to misunderstandings. In this case, I maintained my great interest in carbon research for the whole course. I didn’t want to admit to the misunderstanding.
When native/expert speakers can’t understand what someone is saying, this means that there is a reduction in clarity. In IELTS speaking, this means a band 6 for pronunciation. If those misunderstandings are frequent and cause difficulty for the listener, that means a band 4.
How can you know which part of the word to stress?
There are some very complicated rules that you could learn. (But, as with everything else in English, there are some irregularities.) However, the rules really won’t help you. When you are talking, you don’t have time to think about the rules. If you did, your speech would contain a lot of stops, pauses and hesitations.
Rather than wasting time learning any rules, make sure that you learn the stress for each new word that you learn. You can’t say that you know a word if you don’t know how to pronounce it, and that includes the word stress for longer, multi-syllable words.
- Paper dictionaries usually show word stress in the phonetic spelling. Unfortunately, dictionaries don’t always show word stress in the same way. Some put an apostrophe (‘) just before the stressed syllable; others put the apostrophe just after the stressed syllable. Make sure you know what your dictionary does; there will be information at the front that tells you this.
- Online dictionaries often use the same system, but some also give you the option of listening to the words. This can be very helpful.
- Write down the word stress in your vocabulary journal, together with all the other information about the word that you need to know.
- Once you know where the stress should be, try recording yourself. If your main language does not use word stress, you may find it difficult to say.
- Be aware of word stress. Over time, you will develop an ‘ear’ for it. You will be able to predict where the stress goes from your knowledge of similar words. You will also get used to watching out for word stress in the spoken English you hear.