Lesson 11 – Syllables and word stress

We are moving beyond the phonetic sounds of English now. We’re going to focus on some other important parts of pronunciation:

  • stress
  • rhythm
  • intonation

A good way to practice these aspects of pronunciation is to do a practice called shadowing or parroting. The term “parroting” gets its name from how parrots copy human voices.

When you are practicing you should choose something a video to listen to and repeat everything they say about or or two seconds later.

Here is another video. The parrot doesn’t say much but the woman has an expressive voice. Try parroting her. I recommend that in the YouTube setting you change the playback speed to 0.5.


Write the IPA for the following sentences.

Find the answer at the bottom of the lesson.


Words are divided into syllables. The vowel is the main unit of a syllable. If you count the separate vowel units then you know how many syllables there are.

One-syllable words

  • I
  • go
  • come
  • buy
  • thought
  • strengths

Two-syllable words

  • ago
  • seller
  • buyer
  • happen
  • thinking
  • strengthen

How many syllables are in these words?

Word Stress

In words with more than one syllable, some syllables are stressed and some are unstressed.

Stressed syllable

You put a stress mark in front of the stressed syllable. In both of the examples below, the second syllable is stressed.

  • a’bandon
  • un’tie

Stressed word

You can even have stressed words in a phrase.

  • ‘ball game
  • put ‘on

Primary stress and secondary stress

In longer words you often have a strong stress and a weak stress. The strong stress is called the primary stress and it uses a high mark ( ‘ ) before the strongly stressed syllable. The weak stress is called the secondary stress and it uses a low mark ( ˌ ) before the weakly stressed syllable.

  • ˌmultipli’cation
  • comˌmuni’cation

Stress Patterns


  • minus
  • judgment


  • disease
  • around


  • vigilance
  • emphasis


  • abandon
  • delicious


  • guarantee
  • overlook


  • memorable
  • personally


  • mechanical
  • catastrophe


  • education
  • economic


  • mathematical
  • indeterminate


  • communication
  • pronunciation

Multi-word stress rules

Compound nouns

If you have two nouns in a single word, then the first noun is stressed.

  • raincoat
  • policeman
  • classroom
  • birthday
  • bathroom

This is true even when the two words are separated:

  • train station
  • birthday party
  • apartment building

Phrasal verbs

If you have a verb plus an adverb, then the adverb is stressed:

Verb + Adverb

  • put on
  • look up
  • wash out

However, this may change if the verb takes an object.

Put ‘on your ‘coat. ‘Put your ‘coat on. ‘Put it ‘on.
Look ‘up the ‘word. ‘Look the ‘word up. ‘Look it ‘up.
Wash ‘out the ‘bowl. ‘Wash the ‘bowl out. ‘Wash it ‘out.

If you have a phrasal verb with a preposition, then the verb is stressed, not the preposition.

Verb + Preposition

  • look at  –  ‘look at the ‘bird
  • listen to  –  ‘listen to ‘music

Other compound words

Generally if you have an adjective plus a noun, both words are stressed:

  • blue car
  • big dogs
  • long legs

However, if the two words become a single meaning, then the first word is stressed. Compare the following examples:

a ˈwhite ˈhouse The ˈWhite House
a ˈblack ˈboard a ˈblackboard
a ˈgreen ˈhouse a ˈgreenhouse
a ˈdark ˈroom a ˈdarkroom
a ˈbig ˈbird ˈBig Bird

Check out this page for more.

Sometimes there are interesting differences in meaning when you stress different words:

  • English teacher
  • baby doctor


Find five more example words for each of the stress patterns above.


Answer to IPA dictation problem

dɛlə hæd bɛn seɪvɪŋ fɚ mʌnθs  bəd ɑl ʃi hæd wəz wʌn dɑlɚ ɛn eɪɾi sɛvən sɛnts


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