Sentence Stress and Limericks

A limerick is a special kind of rhyme that uses a specific rhythm pattern — and limericks usually tell a funny or silly story. Here is an example:

I knew a man whose name was Shaw.
He ate a rock and broke his jaw.
What do you think?
He said, with a wink.
Perhaps it’s bad to eat them raw.

The rhythm pattern of limericks makes special use of English sentence stress. Strong words fall on the beats — or places that you can clap — and weak words fall between them.

Now, I will repeat the limerick and clap the rhythm at the same time. The strong words are the ones with uppercase letters.

I KNEW a MAN whose NAME was SHAW.
He ATE a ROCK and BROKE his JAW.
WHAT do you THINK?
He SAID, with a WINK.
PerHAPS it’s BAD to EAT them RAW.

Can you hear how the strong words fall on the beats?

The weak words between the beats have to be spoken quickly to maintain the proper rhythm, so they often have reductions. The biggest reductions in this limerick happen with the words “do” and “you” in the third line. The vowels in those words are a very small quick schwa sound. (You may want to go back and listen to the limerick again, so that you can focus your ear on the reductions.)

Limericks are a great way to practice English sentence stress.

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