What Exactly Is Word Stress in English and How Do I Use It?

Jul 3, 2019 | Pronunciation Training

What is word stress in English and why is it important? It’s super important because a mistake in word stress can mean someone might not understand you. 

Listeners’ ears are waiting to hear the sounds we stress to help them hear which words you are saying.

So, if you stress the wrong syllable, they may hear the wrong word or something that is not a word at all.

Using word stress correctly will help you speak clearly and it will improve your pronunciation. 

This lesson will help you get syllable stress right so you can confidently communicate and start getting that natural rhythm in your English speaking. I also have a trick for you today that can help you figure out the stress for some of the longest, most difficult looking words to pronounce.  

Easy tips to use word stress in English.

Lesson by Annemarie

First — You Need to Understand What a Syllable Is

To understand what syllable stress is, first we have to make sure we know what a syllable is. Let’s do a little review of what a syllable is so we can then look at how to stress one. 

In English our words are broken into smaller sound parts, syllables. A word might have one syllable, like dog, cat, mouse, or even strengths or stretched, which sound long but only have one syllable. So syllables are different sound parts, it is not about length. One syllable is usually made up of one vowel sound and you can usually tell something is a syllable if you have to move your chin down to say it. 

For example, when I say ‘dog’, my chin moves once: one syllable. But when I say ‘puppy’, it moves twice because we have 2 syllables.  

Now, Let’s Look at Syllable Stress

In English we do not treat syllables equally. We help the listener hear which word we are saying by stressing a syllable in each word.

For example, that thing we keep our food cold in is called a:


It is definitely not called a  RE-frig-er-a-tor or a re-frig-ER-a-tor or a  re-frig-er-A-tor or even a re-frig-er-a-TOR. This word is pretty unique, so a mistake in the stress here wouldn’t cause a huge problem but may be misunderstood and cause confusion. 

But what about this example?

  • I am going to reCORD some music. (verb)
  • She ran so fast she broke the world REcord! (noun)

The stress of a syllable changes the meaning of these words. One is a noun, the other is a verb. So there is an important difference in meaning that is made through correct word stress.

There are lots of English words that are both verbs and nouns with just a syllable stress change, and I will share the most important ones with you coming up.

But Which Syllable Should You Stress in a Word?

There are 3 ways you can identify the correct syllable for word stress in English:

  1. You can listen carefully to native speakers and try to identify which syllable they stress.
  2. Use a dictionary. A dictionary will use an apostrophe just before the stressed syllable to mark the stress. Like this:



  3. Or the easiest is to use the following 3 tricks to help you. These tricks are based on common patterns in English.

3 Tricks for Word Stress in English

Rule Number 1: 

For most 2 syllable nouns & adjectives, stress the first syllable:

  • ‘CLI mate
  • ‘PAR ent
  • ‘KNOWL edge
  • ‘FLIP pant
  • ‘SPA cious
  • ‘BA sic
  • ‘OB ject


Rule Number Two

For most 2 syllable verbs do the opposite, stress the second syllable:

  • be ’COME
  • em ’BRACE
  • re ’FLECT
  • for ‘GAVE
  • a ‘DORE
  • ob ‘JECT


Rule Number Three

This rule about syllable stress helps us out with some of the longest and most difficult words like: administration, exploitation, interruption, accusation, intervention, abbreviation, commission, extension, incomprehension

In words like these, with the final sound or word ending (suffix) -tion or -sion, we stress the syllable right before -tion and -sion. This gives us a sound to focus on saying clearly.

For example:

  • ad min i ‘STRA tion
  • in com pre HEN sion
  • a ccu ‘SA tion
  • in ter RUP tion
  • ex TEN sion

Word Stress for Nouns & Adjectives vs. Verbs

We have many words in English work two jobs: both noun and verb.

But, the syllable stress helps us to make sure we know which one is which. Other words like this include:

  • an ‘IN crease vs. to  in ‘CREASE
  • a ‘DE crease vs. to de ‘CREASE
  • a ‘RE fund vs. to re ‘FUND
  • an ‘IN vite vs. to in ‘VITE
  • a ‘PRO ject vs. to pro ‘JECT
  • an ‘EX port vs. to ex ‘PORT
  • a ‘SUS pect vs. to sus ‘PECT
  • an ‘IN sult vs. to in ‘SULT
  • a ‘PRE sent vs. to pre ‘SENT


❤️lessons on English pronunciation? Be sure to check out:

The Right Way to Ask Questions with Intonation

How Intonation Changes Meaning in English

Now it is your turn to practice.

Choose one of the words from our list of -tion and -sion suffixed words and come up with an example sentence.

Practice saying your sentence, stressing the correct syllable.

Remember to share it with us in the comments below, and show us the stressed syllable with an apostrophe or you can use capital letters to show it if you like. We look forward to hearing your examples!

Have a fantastic Confident English Wednesday!

~ Annemarie

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