word stress

When you are learning and practicing a new language, it can be stressful at times. Pronunciations, grammar, vocabulary. Today, you will learn about SENTENCE STRESSES and why they’re important when speaking.

Sentence stress is what gives English its rhythm or “beat”. Sentence stress is an accent on certain words within a sentence. This is different from Word stress which is an accent on one syllable within a word.

Most sentences have two basic types of words:

  • content words
    These are the keywords of a sentence – essential words that carry the sense or meaning (the real content).
  • structure words
    These words are not very important. They are small, simple words that make the sentence correct grammatically and they give the sentence its correct structure.

If you remove the structure words from a sentence, you will probably still understand the sentence. But if you remove the content words from a sentence, you will not understand the sentence. The sentence has no sense or meaning.

(Can you sell my car, because I have gone to Italy?)

We know that pronunciation is important, but sometimes we forget about sentence stress and intonation (the rise and fall of the voice in speaking). The rhythm and cadence of a language are important for clarity and fluency. Languages of the world vary greatly in sentence and word stress. Many languages stress content words (e.g. most European languages) while others are tonal (e.g. Thai) or have little to no word stress (e.g. Japanese). Practicing sentence stress in English helps you speak more quickly and naturally.

We stress content words because they are essential to the meaning of the sentence. In general, shorter words or words that are clear from the context don’t get stressed.

To Stress

Content words include nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Negative words such as not or never also get stressed because they affect the meaning of the sentence. Modals, too, can change the meaning of a sentence. Here is a list of words to stress in an English sentence:

  • nouns (people, places, things)
  • verbs (actions, states)
  • adjectives (words that modify nouns)
  • adverbs (words that modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, or entire sentences)
  • negative words (not, never, neither, etc.)
  • modals (should, could, might, etc., but not will or can)
  • yes, no, and auxiliary verbs in short answers (e.g., Yes, she does.)
  • quantifiers (some, many, no, all, one, two, three, etc.)
  • Wh-Question words (what, where, when, why, how, etc.—note that what is often unstressed when speaking quickly because it’s so common)

Not to Stress

Here is a list of words that shouldn’t be stressed in an English sentence:

  • articles (a, an, the)
  • prepositions (to, in, at, on, for, from, etc.)
  • conjunctions (and, or, so, but, etc.)
  • personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, etc.)
  • possessive adjectives (my, your, his, her, etc.)
  • Be verb (am, is, are, was, were, etc.)
  • auxiliary verbs (be, have, do in two-part verbs or questions)
  • the modals will and be going to (because they’re common, and the future tense is often clear from context)
  • the modal can (because it’s so common)


The words (or syllables when the word has more than one) that should be stressed are in bold.

  • The kids are at the park.
  • Do you have any brothers or sisters?
  • Why aren’t you doing your homework?
  • He bought a red car for his daughter.

See if you can practice:


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