All About Stress | Pronunciation Basics

Practice where to place stress in words and sentences.

2/26/20203 min read

grayscale photo of person running in panel paintings
grayscale photo of person running in panel paintings

Welcome to Pronunciation Basics! In this series, you will learn about the following terms and how important they are when learning how to imitate the American accent:

  • Stressed vs unstressed

  • Voiced vs unvoiced

  • Consonants vs vowels

  • Stop Consonants

  • Consonant pairs


Stress is another word for emphasis, so if a syllable or word is stressed, it is given emphasis. For example, in the word “banana,” we have three syllables (or parts) in the word: ba-na-na. Think of these three parts as beats: da da da. However, we don’t pronounce each syllable with the same metronomic rhythm, that would sound like /BA-NA-NA/. When we say the word, “banana,” it sounds more like “buh-NA-nuh.” In reference to timed-beats in a rhythm, it would sound like this: da DA da, with the middle beat receiving the most emphasis and duration. That middle syllable, or beat, is the stressed syllable.

Notice also that the middle syllable is the only syllable that receives the true pronunciation of Short A, whereas the other syllables sound like Short U: “uh”. It is extremely common for unstressed syllables to be reduced not only in duration but in sound, many times taking on the “schwa” which is the phonetic term for when vowels are reduced to an “uh” sound, much like the Short U. Thus, stressed syllables are more often pronounced with their true pronunciation whereas unstressed syllables are often reduced.

To take this even further, if you watch yourself in the mirror, you should also see that the middle /NA/ sound creates the most movement of your mouth, whereas the /buh/ and /nuh/ sounds have little mouth movement. Stressed syllables have more mouth movement than unstressed ones.


Almost all multi-syllabic words in English have a distinctive stress pattern. This stress pattern gives meaning to the word, and if misused, can change the meaning to something you might not intend. Take, for example, the word “produce.” Believe it or not, this word has two different pronunciations based on which stress pattern is used. With just two syllables, the patterns are as follows, with the emphasized syllable in capital letters:

  • da DA …. /pruh-DOOS/ … the verb meaning “to create.”

  • DA da … /PROH-doos/ … the noun meaning the vegetables you see at the store.

Take a moment to look at the phonetic transcription (the sounded out syllables between the backslashes) to see if you notice any differences in spelling. Why is the first one pronounced with /uh/ and the second one with /oh/?

If you guessed that it had to do something with the reductions that happen with unstressed syllables, you were right. Unstressed syllables often reduce to a shorter duration and more relaxed sound, which is what the “Schwa” is. Since the focus in the first version is on the second syllable, we want to reduce the sound of the first, which is why we don’t say /proh-DOOS/. If we say /proh-DOOS/, even if we are giving longer duration to the second syllable, the first syllable still seems a bit emphasized with the true pronunciation of Long O. This messes up the rhythm of the word, and in pronunciation of the American accent, Rhythm. Is. Everything.

It’s important to note that not every word comes with two different stress patterns; only the ones with different functions and meanings do (i.e. used as a noun vs. a verb). Below is a list of words that are pronounced different based on whether they’re a noun or a verb.

You may have noticed that the verbs tend to have stress on the last syllable. This is a common stress pattern which you can fall back on, though it does come with its exceptions. Another common tendency is that with compound words, the first syllable of the first word is stressed and the rest of the syllables are not. Take the following examples:

  • Superman ______ Da da da _____ /SOOP-ur-man/

  • Brainstorm _____ DA da ________ /BRAYN-storm/

  • Sunshine _______ DA da ________ /SUN-shyn/

  • Tablespoon _____ DA da da _____ /TAY-bl-spoon/

  • Nightlife ________ DA da ________ /NYT-lyf/

The caveat with stress is that it’s not easily identified just by looking at the word itself. Because the English language is a conglomerate from many different language origins, stress patterns aren’t always consistent across the board, which is why it’s important to look up the stress pattern if you don’t know it (Google or any dictionary will do), and ask an accent coach for feedback to see if you obtaining the correct rhythm and sound.

Let's Review:

Stressed syllables are pronounced:

  • longer in duration

  • truer in pronunciation

  • with more movement of the mouth

Whereas unstressed syllables are pronounced:

  • shorter in duration

  • with reduced pronunciation, as in the Schwa

  • with less mouth movement

In speaking English, correct stress placement (and therefore rhythm) is the most basic element of being understood better by other English speakers, native or not. Practicing how to better stress the syllables in words and eventually words in sentences will take you far in improving your accent to become a better speaker. As always, please comment with thoughts, questions or suggestions on this wonderful topic of word stress.