How to stress

Do you know how to stress? I don’t mean feeling worried and stressed out!
I mean word stress and sentence stress — what exactly does that mean?

Word stress and sentence stress are similar — they use the same sound features, but just on a different level. Word stress involves strong syllables and weak syllables in a word, and sentence stress involves strong words and weak words in a sentence.

There are 3 primary factors that go together for stress. When we compare the sound of un-stressed syllables, to stressed syllables, the stressed syllables are: 1. louder, 2. higher in pitch, and 3. a little slower.

Most students can make the sound of stress correctly, but sometimes I find a student who uses only two of those factors, but not all three, and it sounds a little strange.

I will try to demonstrate the difference it makes, if you do not include all three factors, using this sentence:

My phone is not on the table.

That sentence has 3 stressed (strong) words: phone, not, and table.

Now I will say the same sentence without all 3 factors, as best I can. It’s actually hard for me to say them the wrong way accurately, but hopefully you will be able to hear that they don’t sound like normal English.

This is what it sounds like if I make the strong words louder and higher, but not slower.
This is what it sounds like if I make the strong words louder and slower, but not higher.

Now let me say it correctly once more.

Now you know how to stress!


Sentence Stress Part 2

Sentence Stress is the combination of strong and weak words in a sentence which create a sort of rhythm. This rhythm is explained in Sentence Stress Part 1. But, which words are strong and which words are weak? Here are the categories with some examples.

Strong words

Nouns: book / capacity / Tom / melody / justice / group / chair / storm / potato
Main verbs: walk / think / sing / expect / prepare / wait / jump / remember / indicate
Adjectives: beautiful / green / small / angry / round / active / old / fresh / good / several
Some adverbs: quickly / never / always / often / usually / nervously / softly / carefully
Negatives: no / never / not / can’t / shouldn’t / doesn’t / won’t / isn’t / aren’t
Question words: who / what / when / where / why / how

Weak words

Auxiliary (helping) verbs: can / could / may / might / would / will / be / do / have
TO BE: am / is / are / was / were / be / been
Linking verbs: got / seem / feel / become / turn
Pronouns: I / me / my / you / he / him / his / she / it / they / them
Prepositions: in / on / under / over / by / for / with / from / at / through
Some adverbs (at ends of phrases): soon / now / yet / well / here / there / still
Conjunctions: and / but / if / either / because / nor / yet / for
Articles: the / a / an

These categories make the basic pattern and the foundation of sentence stress. However, sometimes a weak word gets used as a strong word, but a weak word should only be stressed when there is an appropriate reason to do so. Otherwise, it can cause some confusion in the conversation.

Examples of how weak words can become strong words are in Sentence Stress Part 3.

A final note: DO and HAVE

Are the verbs “do” and “have” main verbs, or helping verbs? The answer is: both.
Here are some examples to illustrate.

DO as a main verb: She will do it tomorrow.
DO as a helping verb: I do not like chocolate.
HAVE as a main verb: They have a new baby.
HAVE as a helping verb: We have finished early.

So, when “do” and “have” are main verbs, they are strongly stressed words, but when they are helping verbs, they should be weak words for normal sentence stress.

The Sounds of E

The vowel system of English can be confusing because there are only five vowel letters (A-E-I-O-U), but there are 15 different vowel sounds. The key is that each vowel letter has three or four sounds, and it is important to learn the basic sounds of each one.

The letter “E” is a little bit more straightforward that the other vowels, because there is only one Long and one Short sound. So, the basic sounds for the English letter “E” are Long-E and Short-e.


The sound of Long-E is the same as the name of the letter “E” when you say the alphabet. Some common words with this sound are: he / we / be / maybe / she / see / three / seem / feet / seen / feel / street / green / week / deep / free.


Short-e is pronounced in the front middle (not low, not high) part of the mouth — the mouth needs to be open, but not quite as much as for Short-a-1. And of course, it is very important to relax the tongue, if not, the sound of Short-e can be easily confused with Long-A (see Sell or Sale). Here are some frequently used words with Short-e: get / help / tell / end / men / left / next / egg / red / best / ten / less / yet / yes / kept / seven.


Besides the basic sounds, any vowel letter can use the schwa sound. This happens in weak (unstressed) syllables. Here are some words in which the “E” is in the unstressed syllable and has the schwa sound: item / college / faces / escape / define. Also, very frequently used words, which are usually unstressed in sentences, often use the schwa sound; some with [e] are: the / them / then.

Silent -e

The letter “E” is usually silent when it is at the end of a word, as in “safe”. Silent -e can also be found in the middle of a word, when it is in a compound, such as “safeguard” (safe + guard), or when suffixes are added, as in “safely”. (see more about Silent -e).

So, when you see the letter “E” in a word, it will almost always be one of the sounds above. It is very rare to find some other vowel sound used. There are few words with an “E” that do not use one of those sounds, such as: been / new / eye / few / English / they / eight / sew.