Here is a fun limerick. First, listen to how it sounds:
There once was a lady from Hyde
Who ate some green apples and died
The apples fermented
Inside the lamented
And made cider inside her insides
The fun part of this limerick is the last line, but it would not sound so interesting without sentence stress, reductions, and linking.
Listen again, while looking at the strong words:
There ONCE was a LAdy from HYDE
Who ATE some green APPLES and DIED
The APples ferMENted
InSIDE the laMENted
And made CIDer inSIDE her inSIDES
Here is why the last line sounds funny:
1. The three stressed syllables all have the same consonant and vowel sounds.
2. The word “her” is reduced — the “H” is missing, so it sounds like “-er”.
3. The word “inside” is linked to the word “her” (which is reduced) and sounds like “insider”, and this matches the sound of the word “cider”.
Now listen to how different it sounds if I say the last line with all of the words spoken carefully and clearly (without linking and reductions): And made cider inside her insides.
So, sentence stress can be fun! In fact, without it, many jokes and puns in English would not be funny at all.
There ONCE was a FLY on the WALL.
I WONdered “why DIDn’t it FALL?”
WERE it’s feet STUCK?
Or WAS it just LUCK?
Or does GRAvity MISS things so SMALL?
There WAS a young LADY named ROSE.
Who HAD a large WART on her NOSE.
When she HAD it reMOVED,
Her apPEARance imPROVED.
But her GLASSes slipped DOWN to her TOES!
NOTE: Sometimes in poetry or music the “rules” are bent a bit to make the words fit in. In these limericks, some words that are normally strong words are not stressed.
For example, in the phrase “young lady” the word “young” is an adjective, and in normal conversation it would be stressed. However, in order to make proper limerick rhythm, only “lady” is stressed. (The word “lady” is more important than “young” in that phrase).
Having the ability to vary sentence stress in this way is a very helpful skill for learning to speak English with a natural and smooth flow.
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.
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck,
if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
There are 3 keys to pronouncing this well:
1. “wood” and “would” sound the same. (Words that sound the same are called homonyms.)
2. Use the Short “oo” sound to say “wood”, “would”, and “could”.
3. The letter “L” in “would” and “could” is silent.
To pronounce Short “oo”:
1. Lips are rounded (but relaxed).
2. The tongue is in position for a Long “u” (like in the word “blue”) BUT
3. The tongue must be VERY relaxed while holding the Long “u” position.
Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear.
Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair.
Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?
There are 2 keys to pronoucing this well:
1. “Wuzzy” and “was he” should sound the same.
This happens often in spoken English: the “H” of the word “he” gets lost in conversational speech due to the rhythm (or stress-timing) of the sentence. (This is also known as sentence stress: some words are pronounced more strongly than other words.)
2. Use the Short U sound to say “fuzzy”, “wuzzy”, “was”, “a”, and “wasn’t”.
To pronounce Short U:
1. Lips are NOT rounded.
2. The tongue is in the middle (not high, not low, not in front or in back)
3. The tongue should be very relaxed.
(If you are familiar with the “schwa” vowel sound, it sounds the same.)