Does Word Stress, Stress You?

Date : 01 September, 2021

English is most often referred to as a funny language. Various aspects of the English Language like the silent letters, homophones, homonyms, homographs, stress and its variation, intonation and so on, makes it confusing to the non-native speakers of English, like us. Needless to say, the poem, The English Language by Harry Hemsley, captures the essence of my thought. I suggest that you read the poem to understand how homophones come to play in our own usage of English language.

English language is musical in nature! I am sure, you agree with me on this. When you listen to a speaker who makes utterances in English, laying stress on the words at appropriate syllables and with the right intonation, you can enjoy the musical quality of the language. The occurrence of stressed and unstressed syllables at regular intervals in a sentence, makes it musical. That is why we say that, English Language has a stress timed! The use of stress in appropriate places, in a sentence, is critical for the users of the language, for, the meaning conveyed to the listener may not match with the speaker’s intention!

For example,

I like to take the dog for a walk in the park.

On which words do we lay stress in this sentence? Every sentence is a mix of structural and content words. We stress all nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, Wh- question words, demonstratives and negative contractions in a sentence. These are content words. In this sentence, the underlined words-like, take, dog, walk and park are content words. I, to, the, for, a and in, are structural words. The structural words take the weak form and are not articulated prominently.

I like to take the dog for a walk in the park.

To understand the rhythm of this utterance, clap only for the underlined words as you say them. Hope you got it right?

Stress conveys the intention of the speaker, in a sense, the message to be convey to the listener. Let us now check how the meaning varies with the stress you lay?

Look at the sentences below and notice how the meaning changes with the stressed word/words. The symbol, (‘ ) indicates stress. The highlighted words indicate the change in meaning.

  1. ‘I like to take the dog for a walk in the park. (I am taking)
  2. I ‘like to take the dog for a walk in the park. (I like to take the dog ….. )
  3. I like to ‘take the dog for a walk in the park. (I like to take the dog …..)
  4. I like to take ‘the dog for a walk in the park. (I like to take the dog ….)
  5. I like to take the dog ‘for a walk in the park. (I like to……….. for a walk in the park.)
  6. I like to take the dog for a walk ‘in the park. (I like to………… in the park.)

Now, that we understand the role played by stress in connected speech, let us consciously stress the content words (keeping in mind the message to want to convey) and keep it easy with the structural words. All of us want to speak appropriately, after all!

Let me discuss one other interesting aspect of English Language and how stress affects the meaning the word conveys in the given context. Certain words in English are used both as nouns or adjectives and as verbs in a sentence. The stress you lay on the word determines whether the word functions as a noun or a verb in a sentence. This is called Functional stress. The stress mark decides the function these words perform in a sentence. Let’s check a few examples below.

Noun Verb Usage
‘conduct con ‘duct The new girl’s ‘conduct was good. (noun)
The quiz master con ‘ducted the programme well. (verb)
‘desert de‘ ssert Sahara is the largest ‘desert in the world.
Many families were de ‘serted in the bomb blast.(verb)
‘present pre ‘sent Julie gave me a beautiful suit as a ‘present on my birthday. (noun)
The core team pre ’sented the new idea very well.( verb)
‘subject sub ’ject The ‘subjects of Kanishka’s kingdom were very happy. (noun)
The invaders sub ‘jected the innocent people to torture (verb)
‘object ob ’ject Pick up that green ‘object from the floor. (noun)
The team ob ‘jected towards his rude behaviour.(verb)