Word and Phrasal Stress

See also Index of Exercises on Word and Phrasal Stress

Stress is an important factor in any language, however it has been noted that there is a particularly large difference between stressed and unstressed syllables in English. The latter tend to be particularly short and weak, especially in British English.

We will not go into great detail here but we will note that stress is composed of a combination of three elements: intonation, volume and length. It is obviously relative - these features have no intrinsic characteristics which allow them to mark the syllable as being stressed, comparison must be made with their values in surrounding syllables. 

These two graph sets may help to illustrate the interpay between the three factors. The upper graph shows amplitude, volume in lay man's terms - one may notice how the peak is on the stressed syllable in each case. The lower graph shows intonation - again the stressed syllable normally is higher than the rest, or else it sets a pattern which is followed by the rest of the phrase. Finally, at the bottom, there is an indication of the length of each syllable. Note that the syllable is longer when it is stressed.

Graph 1:     I TOLD you to go.

Graph 2:      I told YOU to go.


Stress for Learners of English

Learners of English as a second language often place the stress in single words on inappropiate syllables. This is mainly because it is extremely difficult to predict where the stress lies in a large number of words (to the contrary of languages like Italian in which the system is regular). While this type of error does not usually compromise comprehension it may make the listener's task more difficult.

One frequent mistake made by Italian students is that of placing stress on the final, instead of the first, syllable in compounds resulting in:


Instead of

Smart CARD SMART card

Stress in compounds usually falls on the first element, which gives important identification to qualify the nature of the main noun.

Another generalised irregularity is that of not placing enough stress in phrases, making the speaker sound bored, insecure or 'wishy-washy'.

It is no earth-shattering statement to note that the stress in a phrase is placed on the stressed syllable of the word with the greatest semantic charge, often the word which introduces new information to the conversation. Observe the differing contexts in which the same sentence with changing stress would occur


1.    I told you to go

A:    Are you still here? 

B:     Mister Hardy told me to stay and finish off this report.

A:     But I told you to go, never mind what he says!


2.      I TOLD you to go.

A:    Are you still here?

B:    Why was I supposed to leave?

A:     I TOLD you to go at 8 o'clock.


3.      I told YOU to go.   

A:    Are you still here?

B:    Yes, Sheila said she would take it there.

A:    But I told YOU to go.


4.   I told you to GO.

A:    Are you still here?

B:    Yes.

A:    But  I told you to GO!


Exercise 1

Think up conversations in which the following phrase (with four different stress patterns) could be found.

SHE took the bus to Carlisle.

She took the BUS to Carlisle.

She took the bus TO Carlisle.

She took the bus to CARLISLE.

See also Index of Exercises on Word and Phrasal Stress