The Importance of Stress in English-- & How to Practice It

Have you ever wondered about the importance of stress in English? Using word stress correctly can help people understand you better.

Some languages put the same stress on every syllable. Not English!

We stress certain words in a sentence to emphasize what's important. We also stress certain syllables in individual words. Syllable stress within words helps us recognize a word’s part of speech (sometimes) and is an additional help to recognize words when noise or unclear speech limits how well we hear.

For example, the clearest difference between the words 'district' and 'distract' in spoken English (or between 'reason' and 'resign', or 'personal' and 'personnel') is the syllable that’s stressed, not the vowels of the words. The vowels matter too, but that difference is harder to hear than the stress.

Sentence and Syllable Stresses

An actor presented with an award.
text: 'A studio might preSENT (give) an award as a PREsent (a gift) to a famous actor.' (The capital letters show the stressed syllables.)

We stress the words we want to emphasize in a sentence (usually the nouns and verbs, important adjectives, negatives, etc.) saying them slightly louder and higher, and holding them a little longer.

We say most conjunctions, preposition and pronouns more quicky and softly, since they can often be assumed. (Any of them can be emphasized when there might be a doubt.)

We also stress one syllable more strongly in each word. In general, nouns (and often adjectives) are stressed on the first syllable of two-syllable words and verbs are stressed on the second syllable.

This sometimes lets us distinguish between a noun and a verb with the same spelling (words like contract, desert object, or present).

Unfortunately, there are MANY exceptions—and almost no guidelines for longer words.

The one fairly certain rule for stress in longer words is that nouns ending in -tion or -sion will be stressed on the syllable before that: collaboration, interaction, recognition, etc. There are more examples of this rule and the two-syllable rule in the video below.

How to Learn and Practice Word Stresses

Now that you understand the importance of stress in English, listen for it. The more time you spend listening to English and noticing word stresses, the better you will get at stressing it correctly yourself.

(It’s a great excuse to watch movies and videos, or listen to podcasts or talks in English on subjects you’re interested in!)

You may have noticed that I love TED talks. They have several big advantages for English practice: a variety of lengths, subjects, and perspectives, as well as often captions and/or a transcript so you can compare the written words to what you’re hearing.

You can even “shadow” a short section—repeating after the speaker to copy the pronunciation and stresses.

Listening to popular songs in English and then singing along can also help you practice English word stresses, as song writers choose their words to match the music.

An Example of the Importance of Stress in English

To illustrate the importance of stress in English and of matching word stresses to song rhythms, I tried rewriting the beginning of the song "My Favorite Things."

Compare my version of the first two lines with the real song below. The lines I wrote have have similar meanings, syllable counts, and rhymes, but the word stresses (shown in bold print) in mine don't match the natural stresses of the music. (My version loses the poetry as well...)

Can you hear how much better the actual words of the song “Favorite Things” sound, and how well they fit with the music?

My version of the meaning, which doesn’t fit the music:

Roses wet with rain and cute kittens-- my loves

Copper-colored pots and mittens or warm gloves...

Compare that with the original first two lines:

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens...

Here’s a link to listen or sing along to the original song (with illustrations.)

Favorite Things (from The Sound of Music)

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things

... (v.3) Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
flakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
ver white winters that melt into Springs
are a few of my favorite things

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I'm feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don't feel so bad.

More Songs for Practicing Word Stress

Here are four more well-loved songs in English with the stressed words and syllables noted for one or two verses and the choruses. They’re also good to sing for or with your children—at least in these versions.

This Land Is Your Land

This Land Is Your Land music and lyrics.                              

[chorus:] This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York island

From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway

I saw above me that endless skyway

I saw below me that golden valley

This land was made for you and me.

(Then repeat the chorus. See the link above for the rest of the words, including several that are sung much less commonly.)

The Fox Went Out

Here are the full lyrics.

(I’ve only given the stress for the first two verses, but the pattern continues—as you can hear in the videos.)

The fox went out on a chilly night,
He prayed for the moon to give him light,
For he'd many a mile to go that night,
Before he reached the town-o, town-o, town-o,
He'd many a mile to go that night,
Before he reached the town-o.

He ran til he came to a great big pen,
Where the ducks and the geese were put therein,
A couple of you will grease my chin,
Before I leave this town-o, town-o, town-o,

A couple of you will grease my chin,
Before I leave this town-o.”

The story goes on to tell how the fox grabbed a goose and duck; the farmer’s wife heard the noise and woke her husband, who ran outside and blew a horn to alert the townspeople.

Meanwhile the fox raced home with his catch to his family, who were thrilled with his success—“and the little ones chewed on the bones-o.”

(The singer’s sympathy is clearly with the fox and his hungry family.) You can hear the rest of the words in either video below.
This video has authentic country singing and lovely picture book illustrations for the children. 

More Classic Songs for the Whole Family

This site hosts videos for 50 children’s—and adult folk or rock—classics:

I’m only showing the word stresses for their songs #45 and 11. Both these videos show the lyrics as you sing.

#45, “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes,” is an old, old folk song with many versions.

She'll be coming round the mountain When she comes.

She'll be coming round the mountain When she comes,

She'll be coming round the mountain,

She'll be coming round the mountain,

She'll be coming round the mountain When she comes.

It goes on to tell how "she'll be driving six white horses when she comes," and "we'll all go out to meet her when she comes." (etc.)

#11, “You are my Sunshine,” is a child-friendly version of an old country song originally ending in heartbreak. It’s been beloved for over 80 years. I knew an older couple who sang the main verse to each other as their special love song.

Chorus: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine

You make me happy when skies are grey

You'll never know dear, how much I love you

Please don't take my sunshine away.

The other night dear, as I lay sleeping

I dreamt I held you in my arms

And now that you’re here my dreams are waking

And I will keep you from all harm.

(Repeat Chorus.)

I'll always love you and make you happy

I’ll pick you up when you’ve fallen down

You turn the sky blue when it is raining

You’ll always keep the sunshine around.

(Repeat Chorus.)

Kids will love many of the other songs as well, if you have time for more. I’d especially suggest #44—Baby Beluga, a toddler favorite with such a catchy tune you may not be able to get it out of your head. It also has the lyrics for each verse written-- over cheerful ocean scenes.

Others worth considering: #46, “Here comes the Sun,” by the Beatles, and small kids’ favorites #6-7, plus rhyming activity songs #16, 9, 5, and 3.

An elementary school teacher offers a Beatles Sing-Along with the words and music for 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand', 'Help', and 'All You Need Is Love.' 

One final resource from FluentU suggests 43 songs with music and almost always the words, plus some English tips for practice using songs at the end.

I hope these explanations and links will help you understand the importance of stress in English and practice enough to get comfortable with it. Let me know if you have any questions—or suggestions for more help.

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