Imagine a band playing a song. The drummer sets the beat or the rhythm and speed of the song. If the drummer is not a very good one, you’ll end up with a mess, even if the rest of the band members are excellent. If you are learning English, your vocabulary and grammar are your band members, and your word and sentence stress patterns are the drummers.
When you learn a new language, you use the rhythm and music from your native language without meaning to. After all, this is how you hear the music of words and phrases. But when you do this, you might use a rhythm pattern that ends up off-beat!
Some languages, like French and Japanese, give equal stress to every word and syllable. Other languages, such as English, Arabic, and German, do not give the same level of attention to every sound. Some sounds are emphasized, or have stronger stress placed on them.
To make things even more complicated, the pattern changes depending on content and meaning. When you focus on improving your sentence stress, you’re not only improving your speaking but your listening skills, as well. Get your drumsticks and let us practice the beat of the English language!
What Is Sentence Stress in English?
So, you know that sentence stress is the music of the language, but what does that mean exactly? English is a stress-timed language that has a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables and words. You change stress to emphasize, give new information, contrast information, or clarify.
In other words, English lets you put the stress on different words (or parts of words) to change the meaning of the whole sentence. You can make some information more important than the rest of the sentence through sentence stress.
In English, we have content words and structure words. You can think about it in terms of “strong” and “soft” beats.
Content words are the “strong” beats and usually include words with more lexical (more in-depth) meaning, such as nouns (cat, house), verbs (sleep, run), adverbs (slowly, quickly), and adjectives (small, large). The main stress in these words get the emphasis, or stress, in a sentence:
I am SORry. The CLASS is FULL.
LIons and TIgers and BEARS, oh MY.
Try saying the sentences above out loud, putting stronger stress on the capitalized parts. You can even drum the beat on a table, hitting harder as you say the stressed words. There are other words that can be content words, depending on the meaning. These include the following: Wh-words (who, what, where, and why), interjections (Yes, ahh, dear me), and negatives (can’t, won’t). For example:
NO, you CAN’T come.
WHAT are you SAYing?
Structure words are the “soft” beats with less meaning in the sentence. They provide the grammatical elements of the sentence and are said with a quieter beat. Structure words are articles (a, an), prepositions (in, on), conjunctions (but, and), pronouns (I, you), and auxiliary verbs (is, was).
For example, the words “I,” “the” and “is” in the following example are structure words:
I KNOW. The STORE is FULL.
If you give a strong beat to the wrong word or even the wrong syllable, you can change the meaning or make the sentence hard to understand. “You enjoy HIStory,” can sound like “You enjoy his STOry.”
Focus Words in Sentence Stress
You now know about the strong and soft beats that make up the music of the English language. In every sentence or phrase, there’s one word that has the main emphasis or focus. The loudest part is the strong syllable of the focus word.
Focus words help your listener understand the main point of what you’re trying to convey. It can provide essential or new information. It can contrast ideas or even make a correction.
Many times, the focus word is the last content word in the phrase or sentence:
Taylor Swift is AMAzing!
Sometimes, though, you might move the focus word to change the meaning of your sentence. For example. if someone asks you what you plan to do next year, you might answer:
I’m going to COLlege.
The focus is the answer to the question: College is where you’ll be going.
On the other hand, if someone misheard that your sister is going to college, you might respond:
I’M going to college.
In this case, the focus is on the fact that it’s you (and not your sister) who’s going to college.
Pitch changes in focus words
Along with placing stronger stress on the focus word, you’ll also need to raise the pitch—that is, make the sound of your voice higher.
Understanding the pitch change can also help improve your listening comprehension skills. When you hear the pitch change, you know what’s coming is critical. For those taking the TOEFL or IELTS listening test, practicing listening for the pitch change can improve your score.
If you’re going to practice sentence stress, you have to also understand thought groups. Thought groups are phrases or sentences that express your “thought” by using natural pausing and a focus word.
In writing, we use punctuation (periods, commas, question marks) to show the natural pause.
Roses are red, violets are blue. (The comma shows the natural pause.)
In the speech, you do this by adding a slight or quick pause before going to the next thought group. If you don’t pause, the sentences stream together, making your ideas unclear or completely wrong.
Let’s eat GRANDma!
Let’s EAT, GRANDma!
In the first example above, you’re telling the listener you want to eat Grandma. And in the second, you’re telling Grandma that it’s time to eat. Both mean very different things, shown through a correctly emphasized and paused thought group. Not only do you pause at the end of a thought group, but you also use pitch and intonation—or the rise and fall of our voice—to signal the pause.
I love eating ↗GRANDpa. I love ↗EATing,↘ ↗GRANDdpa!
You can also have more than one thought group within a sentence. And within each thought group, you have a focus word:
It’s better to be SAFE than SORry.
Where there’s a WILL, there’s a WAY.
Sentence stress is all about hearing the beat and using the English rhythm correctly. It’s not about having a perfect accent, but rather about emphasizing the correct focus word by raising and lowering your pitch, and taking a pause when needed. Mastering sentence stress is a small step you can take that’ll help you sound much more natural when speaking English!