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Speak English Like a Native: The Importance of Sentence Stress

Updated on February 22, 2015
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English is a Stress Timed Language

Read the following two sentences.

I can talk.

I can’t talk.

If you are an American native English speaker, those two sentences are pronounced exactly the same. They are not, however, stressed the same. ‘Can’t’ is stressed. ‘Can’ is not. When it comes to the English language, it often isn’t what you say, it’s how you say it.

English is a stress timed language. This is a fact that most native speakers don’t know. We don’t think about how we talk; we just do it. Unfortunately, that means that many English teachers don’t know to teach it.

When I first started teaching English, I knew all about grammar and vocabulary and even pronunciation. Stress never came up. I could hear when something sounded wrong, and when something sounded right, but I didn’t really know why. Then I learned about sentence stress, and everything was clear. Being able to use stress correctly can mean the difference between being understood and not being understood. It’s the difference between sounding like a native and sounding foreign.

When native speakers hear ‘I can’ or ‘I can’t’, we aren’t listening for the ‘t’ on the end. In fact, quick speakers sometimes swallow the end of both words. We listen for the stress.

What is Sentence Stress?

Think of it like music. There’s a beat to every sentence. The sentence beat, just as it often is in music, always has the same amount of space between beats. Clap your hands with a song, and your hands usually will go clap clap clap. Not clapclap clap. Not clap clapclap. Your hands go clap clap clap. Those claps are like stressed words in an English sentence. Unstressed words go in the spaces between claps. There might be three unstressed words between two stressed. There might be two or one or none. There is still exactly the same amount of pause between the two stressed words. Read these six sentences:

Go to school.

You go to school.

You’re going to school.

You are going to school.

You are going to your school.

You are going into your school.

The first sentence has three syllables. The final sentence has eight syllables. All six sentences should still take the exact same amount of time to say. Truly. In every one of these sentences there are two stressed words: go/going and school. Clap your hands. Each clap lands on a stressed word. Now read the sentences again. The unstressed words slow down or speed up to fit in the space between the claps. Here is the real secret to sounding more like a native speaker and less like a foreigner. Below are the rules for stressing sentences:

Sentence Stress Rules

Stressed words
Examples
Nouns
bird, John, books, dinosaur, milk, faith
Main verbs
going, help, ride, saw, knowing, went
Negative (not positive) auxiliary/helper verbs (i.e. verbs merged with adverbs)
can’t, don’t, won’t, didn’t, shouldn’t, isn’t
adjectives
red, two, beautiful, horrible, simple, little
adverbs
swiftly, very, really, gently, not, always, never
Unstressed words
Examples
Positive (not negative) auxiliary/helper verbs
am, was, have, had been, would, will be, can
conjunctions
and, or, but, except, because, for, though
articles
the, a, an
prepositions
over, through, in, on, into, on top of, under
pronouns
I, you, he, she, they, we, him, her, their

Now let’s look at the first sentence and last sentence again:

Go to school: main verb, preposition, noun.

I am going into your school: pronoun, positive auxiliary verb, main verb, preposition, pronoun, noun.

If you want to sound like a native English speaker, or want your students to sound like native English speakers, you need to know how to stress a sentence.

Quick Definition

What is a syllable? A syllable is a single word part with one vowel sound. All words have syllables. Some have one, like ‘book’ or ‘car’. Some have two, like ‘over’ (o-ver), or ‘always’ (al-ways). Some have more. Note that ‘vowel sound’ is different from ‘vowels’. The word ‘cake’ has two vowels, but one vowel sound. The word ‘cubism’ has two vowels, but three vowel sounds: cub-is-m.

Word Stress VS Sentence Stress

First of all, let’s look at the difference between sentence stress and word stress. Look at the word ‘into’. It has two syllables: in-to. It is a preposition. Prepositions are not stressed in sentences. The rules of word stress, however, say that any word with two or more syllables has one stressed syllable. In the case of 'into', ‘in’ is stressed.

How can a word have a stressed syllable but not be stressed? The simple answer is that the ‘in’ of ‘into’ is slightly stressed but not to the extent of a stressed sentence word. The more complicated answer is ‘it’s a different kind of stress’. Word stress tells us how to pronounce the word ‘into’. Sentence stress tells us how that word fits into the sentence. If you want to know more about word stress, try this hub article here.

How to Stress a Sentence

Now that you know what sentence stress is, how do you do it? How do you stress a sentence like a native English speaker?

1. Find the stressed words of the sentence. Use the chart above.

2. If a stressed word has more than one syllable, find the word stress. Dictionaries mark word stress by a ' or by using bold in the pronunciation guide. A simple ‘word definition’ search in google will give you multiple examples.

3. Clap your hands for a beat. Say the stressed word on the beat. If the word has more than one syllable, the stressed syllable should be the part you clap on. For example ‘I’m going to Japan’. Japan is stressed on the second syllable. You should be clapping when you say ‘-pan’, not ‘Ja-’.

4. Any other words or syllables have to fit in-between the beats. If there are no words, then you pause between words. If there are a lot of words, you say those words quickly.

5. Stressed vowels are held slightly longer than unstressed. This is true in word stress and sentence stress. Stressed syllables tend to be a higher pitch than unstressed. The voice puts more force behind a stressed syllable than an unstressed.

Practice Sentence Stress

Now, let’s put all of this new knowledge together. Below I’ve written an English nursery song. It’s sung to the same tune as the ABC song.

Baa baa black sheep
Have you any wool
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full
One for my master and one for my dame
And one for the little boy who lives down the lane

First, let’s analyze this song, starting with word types:

-Main verb, main verb, adjective, noun
-Main verb, pronoun, adjective, noun
-Adverb, noun, adverb, noun, adjective, noun, adjective
-Noun, preposition, pronoun, noun, conjunction, noun, preposition, pronoun, noun
-Conjunction, noun, adjective, article, adjective, noun, prounoun, main verb, adverb, article, noun

Knowing this, we now know that the song should be stressed as follows :

Baa baa black sheep
Have you any wool
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full
One for my master and one for my dame
And one for the little boy who livesdown the lane

You may notice that some words are only half bold. This is because they are two syllables, and the bold half shows where the stress falls in that particular word. Now, if you sing this song to the tune of ABC, you will find that the beat of the song happily is exactly the same as the beat of the sentence stress (With the exception of ‘for’ which is not stressed, not normally and not in the song, but does fall on a beat).

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Playing with Sentence Stress

Just for fun, why don’t we try something to really show how sentence stress can work in the English language? First, let’s count the syllables in each line.

Baa baa black sheep 4 syllables (4 stressed)

Have you an-y wool 5 syllables (3 stressed)

Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full 7 syllables (7 stressed)

One for my mas-ter and one for my dame 10 syllables (4 stressed)

And one for the litt-le boy who lives down the lane 12 syllables (6 stressed)

Second, take each line and change it. You don’t have to change it a lot, just enough that it has a different number of syllables. HOWEVER, and this is the important part, it has to have the exact same number of stressed words. You can make a stressed word longer or shorter, or you can add or take away unstressed words. Here, I’ve done my own changes below:

Baa baa my black sheep 5 syllables (4 stressed)

Do you have an-y wool 6 syllables (3 stressed)

Yes sir, yes sir, three purses full 8 syllables (7 stressed)

One to mas-ter, one to dame 7 syllables (4 stressed)

And one to the small boy who lives down there 10 syllables (6 stressed)

Try singing this new song. The number of syllables has changed, but the beat remains the same. Because the number of stressed words stay the same, the song can still be sung without any trouble at all. The time it takes to sing the sing did not change, just how many sounds are inside it.

Conclusion

That is how sentence stress works in a stress timed language. You speed up your words or you slow them down until they all fit inside the beat. Native speakers do this automatically. If your native language is also stress timed, you will also probably do the same with English with very little trouble. If your native language is not stress timed, don’t worry. Listen to how native speakers speak, practice practice practice, and find the beat. Stress is important when speaking English, but ultimately if your pronunciation is good you’ll probably still be understood. It’s something you should know and learn, but there’s no need to stress out.

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