Sentence stress is one of the keys to better pronunciation. In this lesson I give you
give you a very quick guide to it
explain why it matters
show you helpful links for more detailed learning
give you a quick exercise to help you learn the skill
In general it’s a skill worth learning as it helps make you sound much more like a native speaker – it’s closely connected to the sound of English and is quite as important as the sound of individual words.
What is sentence stress?
It’s the rhythm of English speech. The idea is that in any one sentence there are certain words we stress (say with with force) and words we don’t stress. Typically we stress content words such as
But we don’t normally stress structural or grammar words like
auxiliary verbs (is/has etc)
Why does it matter?
One reason why this matters is that the words we stress are normally the words that give meaning to a sentence. Typically if you just hear the content/stressed words you can still guess the general meaning of a sentence. See here
play golf — afternoons —- Sundays
If that is all you heard then you may be able to guess that the whole sentence was something like
I play golf in the afternoons and especially on Sundays
So one reason to learn the skill is to help add meaning to what you say – if you add stress to a word you’re showing it’s more important.
Another reason to learn this is that if you don’t use some sentence stress native listeners will find the way you speak monotonous (that’s a more technical word for boring) and just harder to listen to. That’s a problem.
It’s an important skill to learn as it helps you use another key part of English pronunciation – weak forms. These only really make sense once you have the idea of sentence stress. A weak form is when we “swallow a word” and don’t say it properly because it’s an unstressed word in the sentence.
Learning and practising the skill
The first point to make is that this is a skill that may take time. Most languages work differently to this and you may need to learn new way of speaking. Don’t worry if it feels awkward – that probably means you’re making progress!
A simple practice exercise to start with – play with meaning
There are in fact very few “rules” about which words we stress. We can sometimes choose to stress different/unusual words to show more meaning. Listen to me speaking here. All I say is
I think thats’s right
But each time I say it emphasising/stressing a different word and giving a different meaning to what I say. This can be a simple but excellent exercise you can do for yourself. You take a sentence and play with it – discover different ways of saying it.
If you use a program like audacity you can even see if you’re doing it right. Here’s a screen shot of the way I sound. See how the peaks are different each time I say it. The idea is that when you stress a word you say it a little louder and perhaps slower too.
A more complex exercise
Another exercise you can try is to record yourself speaking something and write down the words you say. Then you simply go through the script and decide which words you think you ought to stress and say it again- this time with stresses. It’s an exercise you may need to repeat quite often.
For this it really helps to use your own words – the words you use speaking. So I do recommend that you record yourself first. This is a shortened and simplified version of sound scripting – a more complex exercise that you can also try. But be warned there you’re not just focusing on sentence stress, you’re also thinking about other aspects of pronunciation.
Where to learn more about this
English Club – sentence stress – a good basic introduction to how it works
ELPAC tutor on Youtube – this is a longer video that goes into more detail and focuses more on the rhythm of the language