Thursday, February 21, 2008

ESL Pronunciation Tip: Word Stress Predictability

While there are many exceptions to the rules of syllable stress in English, some helpful guidelines exist that can be used to predict stress. Use the following guidelines when you are teaching ESL so students learn how to predict stress as you see fit. Ensure that your students understand the concept of syllables prior to teaching word stress to facilitate the teaching of these principles. Also, it may be necessary to explicitly teach your ESL students what word stress is, emphasizing that every word that is two or more syllables contains one syllable that is stressed higher in pitch, longer, and louder than the other syllable(s) in the word. This is referred to as primary stress. The syllable that receives the second most stress is referred to as secondary stress. Although secondary stress could also be acknowledged when teaching your students word stress predictability, the information contained in this document refers only to primary stress.

Two-syllable Words

Use the part of speech as a guide:

Most nouns and adjectives receive stress on the first syllable.
      EXAMPLES: mother, table, garden, happy, easy, famous

Some verbs and prepositions receive stress on the second syllable.
      EXAMPLES: arrive, explain, begin, between, below, across

NOTE: Most two-syllable words receive stress on the first syllable. Twenty percent of two-syllable words receive stress on the second syllable. In general, stress the first syllable of two-syllable words. Very few nouns and adjectives have stress on the second syllable. Verbs and prepositions may have stress on the second syllable. But be aware that there are many exceptions to this rule.

When learning vocabulary through reading, stress is not heard. Consult a dictionary to learn word stress or to confirm word stress predictions.


Three-Syllable Words:
Use word endings as a guide
The primary stress does not change in a word when the endings –er, –or, or –ly are added.
      EXAMPLES: perform/performer, translate/translator, rapid/rapidly

In words ending in a consonant + -y, the first syllable receives primary stress.
      EXAMPLES: history, faculty, energy

Use the suffix as a guide:
Generally, the primary stress is on the syllable that comes just before the suffix.
      EXAMPLES: -ion: nation, suggestion, onion, opinion, , decision, occasion
                         -ic: metric, plastic, academic, artistic, problematic. magnetic
                         -ics: physics, italics, economics, statistics, mathematics
                         -ial: social, special, partial, official, material, industrial
                         -ical: identical, medical, vertical, grammatical, historical, alphabetical
                         -ian: Indian, Columbian, Cambodian
                         -cian: magician, technician, physician, mortician, optician
                         -ity: quantity, gravity, ability, security, opportunity, generosity
                         -cial: commercial, official, financial
                         -ary: secretary, voluntary, vocabulary
                         -ery: scenery
                         -tal: dental, accidental, developmental
                         -ium: aquarium, auditorium, premium
                         -imum: maximum
                         -graphy: photography, geography, oceanography
                         -able: memorable, dependable, adorable
                         -ible: sensible
                         -logy: psychology, biology, ecology

In words that contain the suffixes –ee, -ese, -eer, -ique, and –ette, the primary stress is on the suffix.
      EXAMPLES: -ee: employee, refugee, trustee
                         -ese: Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese
                         -eer: pioneer, auctioneer, career
                         -ique: unique, antique, physique, critique
                        -ette: cassette, marionette, cigarette
      EXCEPTIONS: television, lunatic, politics, Catholic, arithmetic, coffee, naturalize, permeate

NOTE: Some words have TWO pronunciations.
      EXAMPLE: employee--The primary stress is on the syllable before the suffix (emPLOYee) OR on the suffix (employEE).



Prefixes in English are not usually stressed, i.e. in words beginning with the prefixes un-, in-, pre-, ex-, and mis-.

     EXAMPLES: un-: unhealthy, unwise, unnecessary
                         in-: intolerant, insufficient, indifferent
                             pre-: prevent, prefer, predict
                             ex-: explain, expose, experience
                             mis-: misplace, mistake, misrepresent
Compound Nouns

The first part in a compound noun receives stress.

      EXAMPLES: hallway, pancakes, sidewalk, birthday, paycheck, newspaper 

Proper Nouns
 The second part of two-word proper nouns receives stress.
      EXAMPLES: North America, Red Sea, Cook Islands, New York


Phrasal Verbs

The second part of phrasal verbs receives stress.
      EXAMPLES: look out, come back, keep on, figure out, look up to, put up with



Numbers in multiples of ten receive stress on the first syllable.
      EXAMPLES: twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty


Reflexive Pronouns

Usually the second syllable in reflexive pronouns receives stress.
      EXAMPLES: myself, yourself, herself, himself, ourselves


Compound Verbs

Usually the second or last syllable receives stress in compound verbs.
      EXAMPLES: outdone, outsmart, overlook, overcome, outrun, outdo

Beisbier, B. (1994). Sounds Great: Low Intermediate (and Intermediate) Pronunciation for Speakers of English: Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Dale, P. & Poms, L. (1999). English Pronunciation for international Students: Prentice Hall Regents.

Miller, S. (2006). Targeting Pronunciation: Communicating Clearly in English (2nd ed.): Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

For activities that can be used to teach students syllable stress, see the blog post entitled ESL Pronunciation Tip: Syllable Stress and the Schwa.

NOTE: This information is found in the Decoding Strategies for Literacy Development manual published by Reading Horizons and is used with permission.

See also the blog post entitled, "How Do You Say 'Factitious'?".


  1. Very very nice. Really it helps me a lot. It gives clarity. It might be more helpful, if you add some more rules regarding two-syllabic words etc.

  2. This is one of the most comprehensive pages I found on English pronunciation. However, you might want to consider adding rules for sentence stress (in addition to just word stress). Thanks!

  3. This is momentous! I have been searching for this exact thing for ages. THANK YOU FOR TURNING UP!!!

  4. Danny,

    I'm so glad you found this helpful! :)

  5. Thanks for your comment, Mohit. I'm glad you found the information helpful.

    Yes, sentence stress is another facet worth addressing and I like the suggestion; however, the focus of this particular post was to simply address word stress. Perhaps sentence stress could be the subject of a future post! :)

  6. Thank you for your post. I'm glad you liked it. The amount of information I provided on two-syllable words seems small, but it is what we have to work with for now! :)

    Thanks again for your comment!

  7. Thanks for a clear and concise explanation of the patterns.

  8. I'm glad you found this information useful, Anne! Thank you for your comment.

  9. Excellent concise info I've been seeking for ages for my French speaking student. Thanks

    1. Thanks for your comment, Darren! I'm glad you found this information helpful!