What is Sentence Stress?

September 15, 2017


Sentence stress, or prominence, is the emphasis that certain words have in utterances. There is a general tendency to place stress in the stronger syllables of content words (e.g. main verbs, nouns, adjectives) rather than on function words (e.g. auxiliary verbs, preposition, pronouns etc.).


Sentence stress results in a particular rhythm the English language having, where not all syllables receive the same emphasis. That is why we tend to refer to the English language as a stress-timed language rather than syllable-timed (i.e. a language where all syllables carry similar weight).


Take the sentence below as an example and try to say it in a natural rhythm:


I’ll go to the cinema next Friday.


You’ve probably emphasized some syllables more than others, and most likely placed greater emphasis on the stressed syllables of the content words, resulting in something like this:


I’ll GO to the CInema next FRIday.


An important implication of that is that, in order for the rhythm to be maintained, it is common for us to “under-pronounce” function words, using their weak forms (e.g. the preposition to is often pronounced /tʊ/ or  /tə/, rather than the strong form /tu/ in this context).


Unlike word stress, which tends to be fixed, prominence can vary quite frequently depending on the intention of the speaker. Look at the examples below and say the sentences with emphasis on the highlighted syllables. Compare the emphasis given with their intention in brackets:


I’LL go to the cinema next Friday. (me, not John)

I’ll go to the CInema next Friday. (not to the theatre)

I’ll go to the cinema NEXT Friday. (not this Friday)

I’ll go to the cinema next FRIday. (not next Thursday)



Why should I teach sentence stress?


It might be a good idea to help students notice and practice sentence stress for two main reasons:

  • It may help them communicate better, using prominence to emphasize specific parts of the sentence, conveying the intended message more effectively.

  • Because they are more aware of how sentence stress is produced orally, learners may be better able to understand fast speech.



How can I include sentence stress in a lesson?


Sentence stress could be dealt with during clarification of language.


Let’s say you are helping students become more aware of how to use the present perfect to describe past experiences. After helping students notice the meaning of the structure, you can board a sample sentence and ask the group what syllables should receive more emphasis. It is also a good idea to provide visual reference by, for example, underlining the stronger syllables:


I’ve never been to China.

I’ve travelled to Poland twice this year.


If you want to spend more time helping learners notice how sentence stress is placed, you could carry out a discovery activity, using a scene from a film, course book audio or any other source of listening input. Take a look at the example below:



1) Ask students to look at the lyrics from the song Price Tag, by British singer Jessie J. For each line, they should underline the syllables that they expect to be stronger.


Seems like everybody's got a price (3 syllables)

I wonder how they sleep at night (3 Syllables)

When the sale comes first (2 syllables)

And the truth comes second (2 syllables)

Just stop for a minute and smile (3 syllables)

Why is everybody so serious? (3 syllables)

Acting so damn mysterious? (3 syllables)

Got shades on your eyes (2 syllables)

And your heels so high (2 Syllables)

that you can't even have a good time (3 syllables)


Source: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/jessiej/pricetag.html



2) Now students listen to the song and check whether their predictions were correct.




Answer Key:


Seems like everybody's got a price (3 syllables)

I wonder how they sleep at night (3 Syllables)

When the sale comes first (2 syllables)

And the truth comes second (2 syllables)

Just stop for a minute and smile (3 syllables)

Why is everybody so serious? (3 syllables)

Acting so damn mysterious? (3 syllables)

Got your shades on your eyes (2 syllables)

And your heels so high (2 Syllables)

that you can't even have a good time (3 syllables)


Source: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/jessiej/pricetag.html



3) Learners could practise by clapping or tapping their desks with a regular rhythm (or using an online metronome) and trying to say the lines in a way that each underlined syllable coincides with a clap or beat.





Underhill, A. (1994) Sound foundations: learning and teaching pronunciation. Oxford: Macmillan Education.






Rubens Heredia is an Academic Coordinator, CELTA and ICELT tutors at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo and one of the co-founders of What is ELT










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