The Rules of Word Stress, Part 2

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08 February, 2019

You may remember last week's program, in which I talked about rules of English word stress for two-syllable words. If you missed that program, take a

few minutes to read and listen to it first and then join us here.

This week, we continue talking about word stress, based on a question from our reader Larissa.

Answer:

Hi again, Larissa! Let's begin with three-syllable words.

Ending in –er and -ly

Three-syllable words that end in –er and –ly often stress the first syllable. Listen to some examples:

readily

quietly

perfectly

manager

gardener

busier

Note these words are a mix of adverbs, adjectives and nouns. But the part of speech is not important here. We are focused on word endings.

Ending in –ic, –tion and –sion

Next: Words ending in –ic, –tion and –sion usually have their stress on the second-to-last syllable. This is true for words with three or more syllables. Listen carefully. Word meaning is not important here:

embryonic

catatonic

organization

rendition

permission

indecision

Ending in –al, –gy, –cy, –ty and –phy

Several other word endings decide word stress. They are –al, –gy, –cy, –ty and –phy. For these, the stress is on the third-to-last syllable.

That sounds complex, but it's easier than you think. For example, here is a word you've probably heard often: photography.

Listen to a few more:

entomology

democracy

physical

morbidity

autobiography

Things to know

Kind in mind a few things as you learn and practice English word stress.

First: Some multi-syllable words have two stresses. We call them primary stress (the main, louder stress) and secondary stress (the lower, softer stress). Take the word "alligator." It has four syllables. The primary stress is on the first syllable. But the third syllable does have a softer, secondary stress.

Second: In English, we stress only vowel sounds. We do not stress consonants. For instance, in the word "photography," I stressed the second vowel (592;). I said it louder and longer than the other vowels. Listen again: photography.

The unstressed syllables are low, fast and often unclear.

And that brings us to our last point: It may feel strange to say some parts of a word lower, quicker and less clear than other parts but, with practice, it will begin to feel more natural.

And that's Ask a Teacher.

I'm Alice Bryant.

Do you have a question for Ask a Teacher? Write to us in the comments area and be sure to tell us what country or city you are from.

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Practice

Now, test yourself! Say these words aloud and decide which syllable gets the stress. You can do as few or as many as you choose. Write your answers in the comments area.

biology
certify
historical
chillingly
popularity
confidential
quality
education
immersion
happier
journalistic
technical
apology
philosophy
suspension
currency
generation

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Words in This Story

syllable – n. any one of the parts into which a word is naturally divided when it is pronounced

practice – v. to do something again and again in order to become better at it

multi – adj. many

vowel – n. a letter (such as a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y in English) that represents a vowel

consonant – n. any letter of the English alphabet except a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y

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