We may end up sounding like robots if we don't stress our words in the right places, says Brita Haycraft. Photo by John Greenaway under Creative Commons licence.

We may end up sounding like robots if we don't stress our words in the right places, says Brita Haycraft. Photo by John Greenaway under Creative Commons licence.

We may end up sounding like robots if we don't stress our words in the right places, says Brita Haycraft. Photo by John Greenaway under Creative Commons licence.

Brita Haycraft, who shared her ‘tricks and techniques for better spoken English’ at one of our seminars for teachers in the UK yesterday, tells us that one often overlooked, but very important element to being understood in English is stressing the right words in a sentence.

Why does it matter where we put stresses in a sentence?

Placido Domingo needs no subtitles when interviewed on the BBC, despite his Spanish vowels and ‘estrong eSpanish accent’. It’s because his sentence stresses are spot on.

But even advanced English language learners still often speak with equal stress on each word: ‘I will meet you downstairs.’ or ‘You must telephone me.’. This confuses English listeners and can also sound a bit rude.

Sentence stress is common sense – so how do you teach it?

It would be so easy to put life into the students’ sentences simply by reminding them to stress the logical words, as they practise speaking. But course books seem to ignore this speaking tool, which emphasises the most important words in each context – the very backbone of conversation. Even when you talk to yourself, you stress the words that matter.

If asked in class, however, students know at once which words are important in that context, because it’s common sense. All they have to do is to stress them.

Practice is the key to learning sentence stress

Why is this easy-to-use normal sentence stress not part of spoken classroom practice? All students are able to stress perfectly, whatever their mother tongue. Ask a Japanese person if he comes from India and he’ll certainly stress ‘Japan’ clearly.

Write the time 9.30 and ask ‘Does the train leave at a quarter past, or half past?’ and your class will reply ‘Half past’, maybe stressing ‘Half’. But asked again ‘Is the train leaving at a quarter past?’, they may stress the wrong word ‘No, at half PAST.’ So you go on asking ‘A quarter past or half past?’ until they answer with the appropriate stress. They enjoy this combined drilling which teaches the language item and nags them into saying it in context. Students could also underline the stresses in a dialogue given as homework.

An inappropriate stress confuses an English ear. Would we ever catch the right train if the station master announced the train times with random stress, e.g., ‘The next TRAIN at PLATFORM two WILL arrive at a QUARTER past ten.’?

Why are sentence stresses harder to hear in English?

You can certainly hear sentence stress in spoken Germanic and Latin languages, but their unstressed a, o and u stay unchanged and are therefore easier to hear. English often reduces its unstressed a, o, u to the neutral /ə/ sound (as heard in, for example, ‘future, method, pursue, ago, forget etc.), which means the meaning of the sentence depends very much on the stressed words.

Obviously, our stresses have to be in place for us to compress the unstressed words. And if we don’t compress unstressed structure words, we sound like robots and the precise meaning gets blurred, while we also sound too insistent.

In the instruction ‘You must knock on the door.’, would you prefer to hear a quick ‘You m-s…’ or a clear ‘You must… knock on the door.’?

But foreign learners think it careless to say ‘It’s …’, ‘I’ve…’, so they opt for ‘It is…’, ‘I have…’ to be polite. But this sounds too precise in normal English conversation. Mrs Thatcher tended to spell out each word, thereby sounding like a school-marm in parliament!

Even the Queen shortens unstressed verbs

English specialises in compressing unstressed auxiliary verbs. ‘I would never have caught it.’ becomes ‘I’d never’ve caught it.’. Even unstressed ‘going to’ is often pronounced ‘gonna’ today, yet once  it was not allowed on the BBC. But in a late ’80s recording of the Queen talking to President Reagan, she is heard to say ‘gonna’ without blinking. This once-despised ‘Americanism’ is now often heard on the BBC, even in serious programmes, if not on the news itself perhaps. Listen out for it during weather forecasts.

So, if our stressed words determine how we say the intervening unstressed structure words, why then do course books start with the single phonemes and go on to ‘connected’ speech? Sentence stress would be a far easier guide to speaking. What’s more, all English dialects use it.

The sooner foreign students get into the habit of stressing the relevant words, the sooner they’ll be able to communicate with English speakers – which is, presumably, their ultimate wish.

Grammar and vocabulary learning won’t be delayed by reminders of which words to stress. They’ll thrive in each other’s company.

Read more from our seminars and, if you are in the UK, book your place to participate in person.

Brita Haycraft is founder of London language school International House and author of English Aloud 1 and 2 (Heinemann, 1994).

Photo by John Greenaway on Flickr under Creative Commons licence.


Total 10 Comments Add your comment

Kostas Andrianopoulos

Posted on October 9th, 2013 Report abuse

Extremely useful


Posted on October 10th, 2013 Report abuse

Hey, if it’s good enough for HRH, I’m “gonna” use it too! . . .


Posted on October 10th, 2013 Report abuse

I have been asked to give some advice to French speakers who want to learn English. I found this very useful food for thought.

Name*Sharon White

Posted on October 11th, 2013 Report abuse

Spot on. I’m teaching in Colombia and have started working with my students on stressed syllables. Of course they all want rules regarding stress. I like the examples given here and will definitely try them in my classes. Thank you!

Wayan Darya

Posted on October 11th, 2013 Report abuse

Thanks for this great article. I had never read such an article which discussing pronunciation. Early in my classes I did tell my students which words need to be stressed in a sentence. But later on I found this unuseful. They couldn’t speak fluently as they kept thinking of which the important words. What I do now is getting my students copy the rhythm of a sentence. Once they are used to the sound they can say another sentence in quite natural pronunciation. I think this supports your argument that knowing the stressed words is a common sense. Students can say the appropriate stressed words, but when they are asked to underline which words they just stressed they sometimes get confused.

Ron Bradley

Posted on October 12th, 2013 Report abuse

I have found the use of a rubber band extremely helpful in getting students to experience English stress-timed rhythm, both in word stress and sentence stress. I put the words, ‘photo’, ‘photography’, ‘photographic’ on the board and ask the students to pronounce them. Since many languages are syllable timed, that is there is equal stress on each syllable, those students will pronounce the three words with every syllable stressed. I then tell them that there is only one syllable that should be stressed and see if anyone knows. It is always good to check to see what they already know. I then give each student a heavy rubber band to place around their thumbs. I have them repeat each word, and using appropriate stress, have them stretch the rubber band on the stressed syllable. Invariably they will pronounce the word with the correct stress. Clearly, there is a kinesthetic connection between the stretching of the rubber band and the stressed vowel becoming higher, louder and longer. I ask them to listen as they repeat the word and stretch the rubber band and then describe what they hear. They can usually identify the three aspects. It’s interesting though, because while they are addressing the three aspects of stress, the surrounding syllables are not reduced in value to the schwa, as we do as native speakers. Photography is /fotOgraefi/, with the long /o/. Whereas the first and third syllables should have the reduced schwa as in /fətOgrəfi/. So specific attention needs to be placed on producing the schwa. To underscore the value of the rubber band, I have had both native and non-native English speakers say the word with correct stress but try to stretch the rubber band on another syllable. It is nye impossible, demonstrating the value of the rubber band for producing correct stress.
This same technique can be used for sentence stress. “What have you been doing lately?” is said becomes /whadəv yə been dOən lately?/, The rubber band gets stretched on /dO/ and the unstressed syllables become schwas. This also works great with contrastive stress and can even be done with absolute beginners: How ARE you? Fine, thanks, and YOU? For sentences I like to get a pulse going with clapping. “CHILdren EAT CANdy.” with clapping on the capped syllables. Then add ‘the’: The CHILdren EAT the CANdy.” Notice that the pulse remains the same, while ‘the’ becomes /thə/. Now add ‘en’ to eat and you get, /thə CHILdrənəv EAtən thə CANdy./ Again the pulse remains constant on the stressed syllables while the added function words are jammed in and reduced in value. I guarantee that the first time you try this with second language learners it will totally fall apart. Why, because they want to stress every syllable.

Name*Inuk Retno Sri Hastuti

Posted on October 16th, 2013 Report abuse

it’s very useful article for me to improve my knowledge about english language. I can learn by myself with some articles in this website so I can practise what I got to another on the right way.

Mauro Diaferia

Posted on December 1st, 2013 Report abuse

Dear Ms Haycraft

I love to read this simple and awfully useful article. I used English Aloud here where I live ages ago. I found the two books in a bookshop here and I was amazed and so surprised to see how nice and effective they were for me, as a learner of English.

Thanks so much for enlightening us all a bit more. Yes, it is indeed a surprise to see that even the Queen is saying “gonna”. Course I’ll do it from now on without any hesitation.

Just a curiosity — sadly, I lost those two books and I’m now searching for them. I’m also so so happy to see they are still available in distant bookshops. :)

One in Rome and the other in a city in Germany. Plus the cassettes I think I’ll find them somewhere somehow.

I love your job and your contribution to this wonderful language you speak and teach so beautifully. Thank you ever so much.


Posted on February 20th, 2014 Report abuse

mazing post but if you want know

Where hide the stress? … read this article http://howtobebetterperson.blogspot.com/2014/02/where-hide-stress.html


Posted on August 16th, 2014 Report abuse

The importance of correct stress is impossible to overstate and I can understand why its instruction to non-native speakers is a vital polish to usage. Unfortunately, any non-native speaker who even begins to master it will be bemused when he discovers the almost complete ignorance of it in all levels of native discourse. The standard with regard to this among media broadcasters is so pitiful that it betrays that the field is never studied properly at any level of schooling in Britain. Americans are not quite so poor but my fellow Australians are pretty much as bad as the Brits. It betrays a disconnect between brain and mouth. I suspect it has its roots in less attentive reading of text, likely a reduction in the discipline of reading aloud in class. It is here that the mistakes make themselves apparent and where immediate correction should be explained and applied. I suspect that the vast majority of teachers are as ignorant as their pupils and so the corrections are never made. No doubt many teachers believe that to correct in this manner would be to “crush self-expression”. Well there you have it!