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Stress and intonation


Stress is the relative emphasis that may be given to certain syllables in a word, or to certain words in a phrase or sentence. In English, stressed syllables are louder than non-stressed syllables. Also, they are longer and have a higher pitch.
English is a stress-timed language. That means that stressed syllables appear at a roughly steady tempo, whereas non-stressed syllables are shortened.
Look at the examples of stress in words. The stressed syllables are represented by bold writing. If you want to, you can listen to the words to hear the stress.
holiday, alone, admiration, confidential, degree, weaker, nervous, parents
In spoken language, grammatical words (auxiliary verbs, prepositions, pronouns, articles, …) usually do not receive any stress. Lexical words, however, (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, …) must have at least one stressed syllable.
There is no rule, however, about which syllable is stressed in a word with more than one syllable. You will need to learn the stress of words by heart.
Tip: You can look up the word in a dictionary that provides IPA transcript. The symbol ' in front of a syllable indicates that the following syllable is stressed. Look at some examples of IPA transcripts:
Practise the pronunciation of the words above. Speak them out loud several times.
Look at the exercise below and listen to the audio files. Then decide via drag and drop whether the first or the second syllable of the word you listened to is stressed.
Stress on first syllable
Stress on second syllable
In the English language, there is one phenomenon concerning stress that you can observe: There are many verbs that consist of two syllables. Mostly, the stress is on the second syllable.
Due to historical developments, the same word has become a noun. The noun, however, is stressed differently: the stress is on the first syllable. Look at the examples:
Listen to the audio files. Then decide whether a verb or a noun is pronounced. The stress can help you distinguish.


The entire variation of pitch while speaking is called intonation. A very obvious difference in intonation can be observed when looking at statements and questions. Take for example American English:
  • When someone utters an echo or asks declarative questions (like He found it on the street?), the intonation (i.e. the voice) is rising to a higher pitch at the end.
  • When someone asks a wh-question (like Where did he find it?) or utters a statement (like He found it on the street.), the intonation (i.e. the voice) is falling to a lower pitch at the end.
  • Yes or no questions (Did he find it on the street?) often have a rising end, but not always.
Intonation also deals with the stress of words. Words are stressed to make a certain emphasis. A sentence can be spoken differently, depending on the speaker's intention.
Look at the following sentences. Speak them out loud and especially stress the word that is in bold writing. Then think about how the meaning of the utterance changes.
  • I did not read anything about the disaster.
  • I did not read anything about the disaster.
  • I did not read anything about the disaster.
  • I did not read anything about the disaster.
  • I did not read anything about the disaster.
  • I did not read anything about the disaster.
Now listen to the various audio files in the exercise below. Then match the files with their intended meaning via drag and drop.
  • I met someone else on the street, not Gary.
  • I met Gary somewhere else.
  • Somebody else met Gary, not me.

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