Lay stress on the words without stress

At a recently-conducted English language teaching workshop, one of the participants asked,

Published: 12th May 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th May 2014 12:34 PM   |  A+A-

dr-albert-p'-rayan.jpgAt a recently-conducted English language teaching workshop, one of the participants asked, “What is the most important aspect of learning English?” Some participants gave probable answers which included motivation, pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, listening, reading, and developing ability to think in English.

Though everything listed above is important, I consider pronunciation the most important aspect of learning a language. The purpose of using a language is to communicate. Effective communication involves conveying a message to the target audience effectively. In simpler terms, it is making oneself understood. What is intelligible pronunciation? It is stressing the right syllables in words and stressing the right words in sentences to help the listener understand. The English language has many poly-syllabic words. In such words the stress falls on one of the syllables while the other syllables tend to be spoken over quickly. In the following words, the syllable that are indicated in CAPS are stressed:

 eduCAtion, popuLAtion, botheRAtion, NAtion, cultiVAtion

 engiNEER, mountaiNEER

 psyCHOlogy, biOlogy,

 ethNIcity, auDAcity

 geOGraphy, phoTOgraphy

English pronunciation focuses on specific stressed words. Not all the words in a sentence are stressed. Every language has content words and function words. Content words are more important than function words. Stressing the right word in a sentence implies stressing the content words. Content words are usually nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Since these words help us understand the content of a speech or a writing piece, they are called content words.

Function words are pronouns, determiners, prepositions conjunctions and auxiliary verbs. These are the words we use to make our sentences grammatically correct. There is no rule that states that all content words should be stressed and all functional words should be unstressed. In some situations, depending on the intention of the speaker and the message, even functional words can receive prominence and be stressed. Look at these sentences:

 The name of the most intelligent student in the batch is Milton

 He will come on Monday if he is free; otherwise, he will call you to inform that he will meet you next week

Only the words in bold are stressed. Other unstressed words are glided over.

Here are a few tips for you to

improve your pronunciation:

 Write down sentences. Identify the stressed (underline it) and unstressed words in the sentences. Practice reading out loud. You can also listen to those who speak English well

 Download audio files and transcripts from VOA Special English. Focus on how the news readers stress certain words and glide over functional words. Visit the site

 Download TED talks from and watch the videos

 Watch English movies


Errata: The sentence, ‘The focus of next week’s column will be on ‘word stress’ had been incorrectly given as, ‘Next week, we shall discuss about the word ‘stress’. The error is regretted.


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