When we talk about languages, stress can apply to individual syllables which are pronounced with more emphasis than the other syllables in that particular word, or whole words which are stressed more than the other words in that particular sentence. We add word stress and sentence stress in the same way: we make it slightly louder, slightly longer and slightly higher in pitch. Obviously, we also rely on context to help us understand what's being said, but if we can also use emphasis to clarify meaning and help others to understand us more easily, communication will flow much more nicely and we will have a better connection. This article will go into the usage and importance of word stress and sentence stress. It will also give you some practical ideas on how you can overcome the challenges, for those who speak English as a second language.

Please note that stressed words or syllables will be shown in bold font.

Gaining Clarity

Word stress is the emphasis of a certain syllable within a word, but what is a syllable? A syllable is a part of a word which is pronounced based on a single vowel sound, with or without consonant sounds. For example, 'teacher' has two syllables: tea-cher /ˈti:.ʧə/, 'education' has four syllables: e-du-ca-tion /ˌe.ʤʊˈkeɪ.ʃən/.

All two syllable words have one stressed syllable and one syllable which is not stressed. Three syllable words will have one syllable which is more emphasised than the other two and so on. With three or more syllable words, it is possible to also have secondary stress, although this is usually not directly next to the main stressed syllable.

Word stress can help us determine whether we are talking about a picture of a desert or a picture of a dessert, the first being a stunning landscape, while the second being a delicious sweet. The difference between entrance /ˈen.trəns/ and entrance /ɪnˈtrɑ:ns/ is a simple change in emphasis, but you would really confuse someone if you asked where the entrance was! Not only because entrance is a verb, not a noun!

There are some simple rules, such as two-syllable words, which can be both nouns and verbs, are usually stressed on the first syllable for nouns (present) and on the second syllable for verbs (present). Two-syllable adjectives generally have the stress on the first syllable too, like happy or smiley. Words ending in -ion have the stress on the penultimate syllable (that is not the last syllable, but the one before that), for instance: education or decision.

Putting the stress on the wrong syllable could, at best cause a slight delay in comprehension and perhaps something to laugh about together. At worst, it could cause complete confusion or miscommunication and perhaps even total humiliation depending on the situation.

Communicating with Emphasis

Sentence stress on the other hand can allow us to add extra meaning to our words, we do this by adding extra emphasis to a keyword in our sentence. The keywords are usually nouns, pronouns, adjectives or main verbs. This can be quite subjective and the same sentence could be said by several different people, and they could all stress a different word depending on what they were wanting to communicate.

For instance if I tell you: I found the best cafe in Edinburgh last weekend, you are likely to understand that it is the best cafe I have ever been to! But if you tell me you found the best cafe in Edinburgh last weekend, I would understand it was just the best in Edinburgh, not in Scotland, or further afield.

Sentence stress can also add clarity to a situation, for example, if I am looking for my book, which I am sure I left in the lounge, I ask my husband to help me, he says: I've found a book: I know he is not sure if this is the book I am looking for. Or when my friend was looking for a new job, she had several interviews and in the same week I heard her say: “I found job”, and “I found the job”. In the first instance, she was not quite sure it was a job she wanted to do long term, but I understood her to mean that she would accept the job to earn some money until she found something better. Luckily she did, just two days later - and this time, it was the job of her dreams!

Once we understand how sentence stress works, even if we do not use it to add nuance to our own spoken language, we can understand others better and pick up on the deeper meaning behind their words.


Working on your pronunciation can come in many forms, but there are many benefits to developing your understanding of both word stress and sentence stress. When you can pronounce words correctly and convey your meaning accurately through sentence stress, this leads to an increase in your language skills, both in casual and more formal settings. Because these two aspects of pronunciation can change the meaning of a sentence, understanding how they work and practising using them can help you reduce the chance of misunderstandings. Learning about word stress and sentence stress in more detail can help you build up your confidence and your proficiency to say what you mean with conviction, positive that you will be understood.

Not only does it increase your chances of being understood, but it also allows you to be able to comprehend more when you are listening, which is a definite bonus. It is one thing being able to follow the story of a Netflix series, but how do you feel about listening to a podcast, or speaking on the phone? Without the visual clues it can be much more challenging to catch the true meaning of what is being said. But when you have the knowledge of sentence stress, you will be able to, more easily, discern what is really being said.

When you understand how sentence stress enhances your communication, you can engage better with whomever you are speaking, convey your message more clearly and build a deeper connection with people.

One final benefit that is worth mentioning is that, other than a possible variation in vowel sounds, different accents can be challenging to comprehend because the word stress or sentence stress vary too. Therefore, being aware of how word stress and sentence stress work can help you adapt more easily to different accents!

Overcoming the Challenges

At first it can be challenging to hear word stress and sentence stress in your second language, however, focussing on one aspect at a time is the most effective way to build up your skills. I would recommend starting with word stress. Look up new words in a reputable dictionary, Cambridge Online Dictionary or Word Reference are both reliable, and they both offer sound bites to listen to the words, so you can hear the pronunciation and focus on which syllable is stressed. Both of these sources also indicate the stressed syllable by using an accent mark: ˈ before the stressed syllable in the phonemic script.

When learning new words, look at words with similar stress patterns – our brains love patterns and will remember new words more easily if we have connected them with something we already know. Although one word family may differ in word stress in different forms, you can look for the patterns which fit like their function, the number of syllables they have or any specific suffixes they have.

With word stress, at first it can be challenging to hear which words might be stressed, but with some practice we start to notice the keywords. It could be a good idea to start with listening to some fast speakers – focus simply on which words you can understand. These are probably the keywords, the stressed words. Once you start noticing the stress, it will become easier to identify.

The next challenge is to understand the meaning behind the word stress. This can be quite subjective and may depend on the speaker and who they are speaking with. However, once you start to notice the stressed words, think about different possible reasons why the person might stress that particular word. Looking at the sentence below, what might change in the subtle meaning if we move the stress from one word to the next:

  • I love chocolate.

When the 'I' is stressed, this could imply that I am comparing myself to someone else, perhaps you, if you have told me you love cake for instance. Or I love chocolate, but my sister loves crisps.

If we stress the word 'love' this is emphasising the fact that we love chocolate, we do not simply like it.

Finally, stressing the word 'chocolate' is implying another comparison, perhaps with another sweet: I love chocolate, but not liquorice.

With practice and some persistence understanding the meaning behind the word stress becomes easier and less of a conscious effort.


Good use of word stress and sentence stress can both, help us be better understood, as well as helping us comprehend others more easily. It helps us to communicate at a deeper level, making our language more engaging, so we can connect with others, to create more meaningful relationships through English. Although this comprehension will take time to assimilate, it is more than worth the effort, to see your language skills develop. In today's world, where English is the global language, being able to use your language skills to your advantage, gives you an edge in whichever way you choose to use them.

On Tuesday 14th November 2023, Find Your Rhythm in English is starting, this is a 5-week programme, helping you to understand word stress and sentence stress in more detail. For more details and to sign up, go here: Find Your Rhythm in English | Excellence in English Education