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Word stress

One or more syllables of a polysyllabic word have greater prominence than the others. Such syllables are called stressed.

In English loudness, pitch, length, sound quality may render a syllable more prominent than the others.

Vowels of unstressed syllables are definitely not so long (they are shorter) and tend to be reduced.

Word stress arranges syllables in words thus fulfilling the constitutive function. Its distinctive function differentiates the meaning by word stress.

The effect of word stress in Russian is achieved by the same factors, the main difference being connected with the quantity and the quality of the vowel sound. Though English vowels are shorter in the unstressed position the difference between historically long and historically short vowels remains quite distinct. In Russian variations of vowel length are only due to the degree of stress. Russian vowels are regularly longer in stressed syllables than in unstressed ones. As to quality all Russian vowels are qualitatively reduced in the unstressed position.

The degrees of word stress

There are 3 degrees of word stress in English:

 stressed syllables (primary stress)

 half-stressed syllables (secondary stress)

 unstressed syllables

In Russian there are only two degrees: stressed and unstressed syllables.

A large group of polysyllabic simple words have both the primary and the secondary stresses e.g. conversation

There are several large groups of words with 2 equally strong stresses.

e.g. rewrite, fourteen.

The position of word stress

Word stress in English as well as in Russian is free. But it always falls on a particular syllable of any given word.

The position of word stress in English is the product of its historical development. It has been influenced by the combination of different tendencies. The oldest of them is known as the recessive tendency, according to which the root syllable is stressed. So the majority of words of Germanic origin have stresses on the 1st root syllable.

e.g. clever, body, water, singing.

If words are formed with the prefixes with no meaning the stress is on the root syllable.

e.g. before, begin, mistake.

The second tendency is known as the rhythmic tendency which manifests itself in stressing the third syllable from the end.

e.g. situate, articulate.

Most disyllabic words have recessive stress.

e.g. answer, marriage, behind, result.

Some disyllabic French words retain the primary stress on the last syllable.

e.g. machine, police.

According to both tendencies words of 3 syllables generally have stress on the 1st syllable (which is the 3d syllable from the end).

e.g. cinema, enemy, afterwards, recognize.

Words of 4 syllables may have either recessive or rhythmic stress.

e.g. architect, criticism, characterize, remarkable.

Rhythmic stress is especially common foe verbs with the suffixes ate, fy, ize.

e.g. situate, qualify, centralize.

Words with primary and secondary stresses

The secondary stress is manifested in polysyllabic words.

e.g. popularity, responsibility.

In words with the primary stress on the 3d syllable the secondary stress usually falls on the 1st syllable.

e.g. decoration.

If the primary stress falls on the 4th or 5th syllable the secondary stress is on the second syllable.

e.g. articulation, experimentation.

Words with two primary stresses

The following groups of words have 2 primary stresses:

 polysyllabic words with prefixes having a distinct meaning of their own

negative prefixes un, dis, non, in, re, mis, pre, ex, under, sub, inter, anti, vice, ultra, out.

 numerals from 13 to 19

 compound numerals, e.g. twenty-three

 compound adjectives, e.g. well-known, absent-minded.

 compound verbs, e.g. to give in, to put on.

Stress in compound words

Word stress in compound words depends on the semantic weight of the elements.

They are usually single-stressed, e.g. reading-room, writing-table. This type of word stress differentiates compounds from word combinations.

e.g. blackbird – дрозд black bird – чёрная птица

goldfish – золотая gold fish – рыба золотистого цвета

Double-stressed compound nouns are rare. In such compounds both elements are equally important, e.g. gas-stove, gas-ring, absent-minded.

Compound adjectives have 2 stresses for both elements – e.g. clean-shaven, well-bred, bare-footed.

Compound adjectives with only 1 stress on the first element occur when the 2nd element is weak.

e.g. spring-like, childlike.

Compound verbs have stresses on both elements as they are of equal semantic significance, e.g. give in, turn on.

Word stress and rhythm

All the above mentioned information influences on English speech rhythm.


  1. Define the part of speech according to its accent (stress): 'object – ob'ject

  2. Repeat after a teacher or a recording

  3. Listen and find a mistake