How Do You Know If A Vowel Is Stressed
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How Do You Know If A Vowel Is Stressed?

Stress refers to the quality of the vowel. Words are broken up into different syllables, and each syllable has a vowel. Vowels can be stressed or unstressed, but how can you tell if a vowel is stressed? Identifying when a vowel is stressed can help speakers articulate better and be able to recognize words.

You know when a vowel is stressed when it is pronounced longer, louder, and with a higher pitch than the other vowels in a word. A stressed vowel is also produced more clearly, with more significant facial movements to make it more prominent in a word.

Knowing where the stress is can help you remember and recognize these words when you learn new words. A stressed vowel can be a cue for listeners to identify the word. Specific guidelines can help you know which vowel is stressed in bisyllabic and multisyllabic words.

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When are vowels stressed

How Do You Know If A Vowel Is Stressed?

There are certain syllables in a word that are stressed. A syllable contains a vowel, and syllables can be either stressed or unstressed. Multisyllabic words have at least one syllable (meaning at least one vowel), which is stressed.

For example, there are three syllables in the word ‘elephant‘. You can break up the word into e-le-phant. A long word doesn’t necessarily mean that it has more syllables. For instance, the word ‘glasses’ has almost the same number of letters as ‘elephant’ but only two syllables.

Components Of A Stressed Vowel

There are three main components of a stressed vowel. These three components are length, loudness, and pitch. When you listen to a word, these components will help you identify which vowels make up the stressed syllables.

Firstly, a stressed vowel is quite often longer than the other syllables in a word that are unstressed.

  • For example, in the word ‘suspect’, the stress is on the first vowel, making the first vowel longer: s-u-s-pect.

Secondly, the stressed vowel is produced louder compared to the other syllables. The loudness is one of the most notable things you hear with a stressed vowel.

  • In the same example above, you would pronounce the word as SUS-pect.

Lastly, there is a pitch change in the stressed vowel. Pitch can be higher or lower in words, and it refers to the quality of a sound to the extent to which the vocal folds vibrate together. If a vowel is stressed, you will usually hear a higher pitch.

A stressed vowel is typically produced louder, longer, and with a higher pitch to make it more prominent so that the listener will perceive it as being stressed.

Two more important aspects of a stressed vowel are its pronunciation and how the facial movements are more prominent than unstressed vowels. Stressed vowels are usually produced more clearly, with larger movements of the articulators – the mouth, cheeks, and tongue.

We have included the table below to help you with some of the GENERAL rules on wordstress and different word forms however this is general advice and there are exceptions.

Table 1: General Word Stress rules in English.

Word Stress and Feature of WordWord ExamplesExplanation
One syllablecat, dog, sun
Two Syllable Words – Nouns and verbs Insult, Produce, Conduct, escort, record Verbs tend to have stress on second syllable, InSULT, reCORD, proDUCE
nouns on the first syllable
INsult, REcord, PROduce
Two syllables – adjectives and nounscheerful, lighter, sofa, yellow, EnglishStress on first syllable usually (80%)
Two Syllable prepositionsAside, between, amongStress on Second syllable
Three syllable – Ending in /Er/ and /Ly/completely, dictator, quietly, footballerStress on First syllable with er and ly ending words
Words with consonant endingsapartment , investment, misconduct, Usually First Syllable is stressed
Compound nounsFootball, greenland, carpoolStress is usually on the First Syllable
Reflexive pronounsYourself, himself, herselfReflexive pronouns usually have the stress on the Second Syllable.
Compound adjectivesWhite-collar, Sun-dried, Man-eater, Cold-bloodedThe Stress is often placed on the first syllable of the second word.
Word Endings – ic sion – tionphotographic, television, competition, Usually the stress is on the second last syllable with words ending in tion, sion, ic
Common Suffix endings: ery, ish, cian, ial , ia, and moreconservatory, squeamish, dietician, social, The word stress is usually on the first syllable BEFORE the suffix
Suffix Stress Exceptions – oon, que, ette, ese, ee, eer, ade, gatorade, jamboree, Portuguese, lagoonWith some suffix / word endings the stress in on the suffix.

Rules That Will Help You Identify A Stressed Vowel

Monosyllabic words are words with only one syllable, which are usually stressed. Words like ‘go’ and ‘sit’ have a stressed vowel. A word like ‘come’ is also considered a monosyllabic word, where the core vowel of the syllable is the ‘o’.

Identify Vowel Stress In Bisyllabic Words

When words have two syllables – bisyllabic words – the stressed vowel is commonly on the first syllable. This rule usually applies to nouns and adjectives.

  • For example, words such as SUS-pect, STU-dent, and CLE-ver all have louder, longer, and more precise first vowels than the second vowels.

However, it’s always important to consider any exceptions to the rule. Some bisyllabic words have the stressed vowel on the second syllable, like ho-TEL. As with many exceptions to the rule, these types of words need to be learned and remembered.

Verbs and prepositions with two syllables can have stress on the second syllable/vowel.

  • For instance, words like a-BOVE, re-PLY, and be-TWEEN.

Vowel stress becomes quite interesting with words in English that can be both a noun and a verb.

  • For example, the word ‘present’ can be both. When you pronounce the word like PRE-sent, it means a gift, but when you pronounce it like pre-SENT, it means giving something formally, like presenting at a conference.

Especially when a word can be a noun and a verb, stress is significant as it indicates the word’s meaning. Therefore, it is beneficial to tell which vowel is stressed.

Another tip to look out for is numbers that end in -ty, like thirty. These types of words have a stressed vowel in the first syllable so that it would be pronounced THIR-ty.

However, numbers that end in -teen, like sixteen, would have a stressed vowel on the last syllable and therefore be thir-TEEN.

Identify Vowel Stress In Multisyllabic Words

Three-syllable words that end in -er or -ly usually have the stress on the first vowel. They would be pronounced as QUI-et-ly and OR-der-ly.

A helpful tip is to practice saying these words to yourself and notice how you automatically make the first syllable louder and more pronounced.

Multisyllabic words that end in -sion or -ic mostly have the stressed vowel on the second syllable or second to last one.

  • For instance, you would produce the word ‘commission’ as com-MI-ssion, and photographic would be pho-to-GRA-phic.

Other multisyllabic words that end in -cy, -ty, -phy, -gy, and -al would have the stressed vowel on the third to last syllable.

  • For example, you pronounce democracy as de-MO-cra-cy and psychology as psy-CHO-lo-gy.

Besides the words that consist of many syllables, there are also rules regarding compound words. Compound nouns, for example, ‘keyboard’, get the stress on the first noun/word – KEY-board.

Compound verbs like ‘understand’ usually have the vowel stress on the second word – un-der-STAND.

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Vowel stress in English helps listeners recognize words and understand their meanings. You can identify a vowel to be stressed when produced with a higher pitch, louder and longer than the other vowels in a word. These aspects make the vowel stand out and appear stressed.

The are rules centred around number of syllables, but as with so many things in English language learning these should be looked at as guidelines or commonalities not as hard and fast rules. There are always exceptions!


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