Sentence Stress: Different Types of Stress in English

English students often learn syllable and word stress rules before venturing into sentence stress. This is because sentence stress rules are far more variable and complex, while the rules for correct intonation in English generally stay the same. To demonstrate the differences, let’s look at a few different examples of stress in English.

Syllable Stress vs. Sentence Stress

When you learn how to pronounce different vowel and consonant sounds, you must also learn how to stress different parts of a word correctly. Stress is just another way to say “emphasize.” This means that some parts of a word are stronger (and slightly louder) than others. Here are a few examples:

  • Away (pronounced: a-WAY)
  • Delicious (pronounced: de-LI-cious)
  • Anticipate (pronounced: an-TI-ci-PATE)
  • Communication (pronounced: comm-un-i-CA-tion)
  • Autobiography (pronounced: au-to-bi-O-gra-phy)

Some longer words have a primary stressed syllable and one or more secondary stressed syllables. The primary stressed syllable is always stronger than the secondary stressed syllable, while both are stronger than unstressed syllables. Be sure to check out our guide on stressed and unstressed syllables to learn more about using proper English intonation.

Sentence stress refers to the words in a sentence that get the most emphasis. While common sayings and phrases usually have unchanging sentence stress rules, you can emphasize different words in a sentence to create new meanings. For example, let’s look at the common saying: I told you so!

The most common way to say this phrase is to put the primary stress on “told” and the secondary stress on “so,” like this:

I TOLD you SO!

However, you could also change the implicit meaning of the phrase by emphasizing “I.” By doing this, you will stress the fact that you (the speaker) were the one who told them (the listener) about something. 

Which words should you stress in a sentence?

So, how can you know which words to stress in a sentence? Again, there are no hard-and-fast sentence stress rules, but there are some general principles that will help you use stress properly when speaking in English. You can often tell which words should be stressed based on the parts of speech and where the words fall in a sentence.

  • Content words (nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and main verbs) are usually stressed.
  • Function words (determiners, prepositions, and conjunctions) are usually unstressed unless you want to emphasize their role(s) in a sentence.
  • Question words (who, what, when, where, why, and how) are usually unstressed unless you want to emphasize their role(s) in a sentence.
  • Subject pronouns (I, You, He, She, We, They) are usually unstressed, while object pronouns (me, you, him, her, us, them) are usually stressed.

Sentence Stress in a Statement

Pronoun Main Verb Adverb Preposition Determiner Noun
ran quickly to the desk.
unstressed unstressed STRESSED (primary) unstressed unstressed STRESSED (secondary)

This example denotes the natural rise and fall of the sentence. However, as previously stated, you could stress different words to alter the meaning:

  • I ran quickly to the desk. (emphasizes who is doing the running)
  • I ran quickly to the desk. (emphasizes what action is being done)
  • I ran quickly to the desk. (emphasizes the way in which you ran, but does not fundamentally change the meaning of the sentence)
  • I ran quickly to the desk. (inappropriate sense stress, but emphasizes the direction in which you ran)
  • I ran quickly to the desk. (inappropriate sense stress, but emphasizes that it was a specific desk)
  • I ran quickly to the desk. (emphasizes the object or location to which you ran)

Sentence Stress in a Question

Pronoun Modal Verb Main Verb Preposition Determiner Noun
Who  will come to the party?
unstressed unstressed STRESSED (primary) unstressed unstressed STRESSED (secondary)

Like the previous example, the sentence stress here also denotes the natural rise and fall of the word combination. However, you could still ask this question six different ways to convey six slightly different meanings:

  • Who will come to the party? (you want to know who the party attendees are)
  • Who will come to the party? (you want to know who will definitely be attending the party)
  • Who will come to the party? (you want to know who will attend the party, but this form does not change the standard meaning of the question)
  • Who will come to the party? (inappropriate sense stress, but emphasizes the location of the party) 
  • Who will come to the party? (inappropriate sense stress, but emphasizes which party you’re talking about)
  • Who will come to the party? (you want to emphasize the party, possibly in contrast to a separate event)

Sentence Stress and Intonation in English

If you couldn’t already tell, sentence stress is often linked to the way our voices rise and fall (intonation) while speaking. The natural rise and fall in pitch usually determines which words are stressed and unstressed. This is why the two example sentences above have similar structures. They are both examples of falling intonation.

In American English, there are two basic types of intonation: rising intonation and falling intonation. Falling intonation is far more common. When you speak with falling intonation, the pitch of your voice starts high and gets lower by the end of the sentence. More often than not, sentences with falling intonation use stressed verbs and objects. For example:

  • I saw a crab at the beach.
  • They never return my calls.
  • Frank is a responsible person.
  • My dad doesn’t like to wash the dishes.

Alternatively, rising intonation occurs when the pitch of your voice starts lower and gets higher at the end of the sentence. This type of intonation is less common, but you can use it when you want to ask a Yes/No question or when you want to express a negative emotion, like anger. Similarly, the stress often falls on verbs and objects, though this can vary depending on the meaning you want to convey. Here are some examples:

  • Are you sure?
  • Do you want to go to the park?
  • You’re so mean!
  • I don’t want to talk to you!

What is sense stress?

You might have heard of sense stress, which is very similar to the concept of sentence stress. Sense stress simply refers to the use of stress on different words to convey different meanings. Thus, sense stress is a form of sentence stress. Usually, people refer to appropriate or inappropriate sense stress. Appropriate sense stress sounds natural and correctly conveys the meaning of a sentence. Here are some examples of appropriate sense stress:

  • How many HAMBURGERS should we get?
  • What TIME is it?
  • He ANSWERED the phone.
  • They did NOT want to go swimming.

Alternatively, inappropriate sense stress sounds unnatural and conveys strange or incorrect meanings. Here are a few examples:

  • Where do you want to eat?
  • Did you go to the doctor?
  • I never go to the supermarket by myself.
  • She was watching a movie when the guests arrived.

Conclusion

Sentence stress is an element of English that can be difficult to grasp, especially for beginner or even intermediate learners. However, with practice, you can use stress to accurately express yourself. With time, you’ll find that sense and sentence stress are some of the best ways to get your point across to other English speakers!

If you’d like to hear native English speakers using sentence stress, be sure to subscribe to the Magoosh Youtube channel!

Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones is a freelance writer and former English teacher. He enjoys traveling the world, watching movies, and caring for his three toy poodles.
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