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Stressed and Unstressed Syllables

Dictionary.com -- Saving lives every day!

Dictionary.com - Saving lives every day!

The easiest way to find which syllables of a word are stressed and which are unstressed (for a school assignment, for instance) is to look the word up in a dictionary. I generally use dictionary.com or dictionary.net these days, but you can get a range of good definitions for most words (even if you’re a little iffy on the spelling) by typing “define:word” into the Google search bar.

If you’re a regular reader, you might be wondering why I’m suddenly talking about basic grammar. If you came here from Google, you might be wondering why I suddenly stopped….

I run Google Analytics as a way to keep track of my visitors to the site, what pages they’re finding interesting, and what Google search terms are sending readers my way. This site is still young enough that the Analytics reports aren’t terribly interesting yet, but I have been getting a handful of visits every day from people searching Google for information about unstressed syllables — not my site, but the actual pronunciation rules.

I’m here to help. Every time I see one of those searches show up, I feel a little guilty for getting in the way of their quest for information, so today I’m adding a new post to answer those questions, and a new category (For School) for occasional discussion of the basics.

Syllabic Stress

So, if you’ve come from Google wanting to learn more about syllabic stress, here’s your easy answer:

Look it up.

Yeah, this still isn’t the right site for you, but I can give you some pointers. Most online dictionaries (and all paper dictionaries) include pronunciation guides along with definitions, and those guides almost always indicate stress. The trick is knowing how to read them.

There are  basically two standard ways of indicating stressed syllables: by adding a vertical stress mark after each stressed syllable, or by making each stressed syllable bold or UPPERCASE (or BOTH). You can see an example of the stress marks at Dictionary.net:

\Doz’en\

And you can see an example of the bold syllable at Dictionary.com:

[duhz-uhn]

I prefer the latter method, just because it’s more intuitive.

Looking a Little Deeper

Now, I realize it’s not always helpful to go to a dictionary when you need to know syllable stress, but really learning which syllables are stressed and which syllables are unstressed is a surprisingly difficult task.

The point of learning syllabic stress is understanding which syllables are pronounced more forcefully (or stressed), but the difficulty comes from the fact that English doesn’t really have standard stresses. Not only can things like regional dialects change the way we pronounce words, but stress can change based on the shape of the surrounding sentence.

There are languages out there with rigorous rules governing syllabic stress (like classical Greek) and languages with essentially no syllabic stress (like French). We definitely don’t have standard rules in English, and depending who you ask we may or may not have syllabic stress. We may have two levels of stress (stressed syllables and unstressed syllables) or we may have four (primary stress, secondary stress, tertiary stress, and quaternary stress). If you’ve ever been confused trying to nail down exactly which syllables in a word are stressed, that’s probably why.

If you’re just trying to figure it out for a school assignment, I’d recommend looking up a bunch of words in the dictionary and comparing the dictionary’s markup with the way you pronounce the words. Try to recognize a pattern. You can always check out the wikipedia page and other online resources for more detailed discussion, too, but if you actually want to get it right — if you really want to learn English syllabic stress — there’s no better way than diving into old-fashioned poetry.

Read a bunch of sonnets in iambic pentameter (they’re easy to find), and then start writing your own. It won’t be long before you find that you can spin iambic lines without a thought.  In the process, syllabic stress will become second nature to you (with all the quirks and nuances that go with it). You’ll be a better poet, too. Win/win.

There’s your English lesson for the week. Come back tomorrow for advice about writing novels in your free time.

32 Responses to “Stressed and Unstressed Syllables”

  1. Carlos Velez says:

    awesome. I particularly enjoyed “you might be wondering why I stopped…”

    I think your google explorers will like this.

  2. Courtney says:

    Aaron, you’re a true teacher: perceiving a gap in knowledge and doing what you can to fill it. Which reminds me that I forgot to thank you for the info you sent about my blog code. Thank you. I shall endeavor to apply your advice before the evening is out. I’ll keep you advised as to the results!

  3. Aaron Pogue says:

    Carlos,
    Unfortunately, I talk about the site enough in my other posts (calling it by name) that Google isn’t pointing to this as my top article when someone searches for ADVICE CONCERNING STRESSED AND UNSTRESSED SYLLABLES, HOW CAN YOU TELL WHICH SYLLABLES ARE UNSTRESSED, HELP ME WITH MY ENGLISH ASSIGNMENT, PLEASE!

    Sorry about that. Trying to catch Google’s attention.

    Anyway, I may end up putting a permanent link in the sidebar or something. We’ll see.

    Courtney,
    Thank you! Both of my parents are teachers, and I’ve always admired them for that, so it means a lot to me to be thrown in the same category.

    As far as your blog stuff goes, I’m afraid I did a better job at the “figuring out what was wrong” than at the “coming up with a beautiful solution.”

    You’re really going to need a better artist than me for that, but Julie might well be up to it. She did my lovely new header art in no time (thanks, Julie!), and she could probably clean up everything I did wrong.

  4. Dave says:

    cool. Thanks for the tips. I’m a student with the assignment of writing a Shakespearean Sonnet and this is helpful. Our teacher expects us to learn it in about…. 2 days. Yeah, MLIA? I’m an 8th grader.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Thanks for letting me know you found it helpful, Dave. That means a lot to me.

      I’ll see if I can think of anything specific to learning Shakespearean sonnets, but apart from the suggestions I gave in this assignment, I doubt I’m going to come up with anything brilliant in two days.

  5. nina says:

    i need help and i get it but still need help on it can someone help?

  6. Pab's says:

    Wow…it helped me a lot. Thanks

  7. pal says:

    thanks, this was helpful

  8. Alex says:

    This was really helpful. I unfortunately have an english exam tomorrow and was stressing alot, but now some of the stress is relieved. Well, a very little bit, but hey it’s a start! Thank you.

  9. Klassy says:

    I am writing a Sonnet poem therefore I’m stressing about the syllables, and running to this helps a lot =D Thanks.

  10. Brett Beeman says:

    Thanks for the help. I had a Shakespearean poem to write in less then 2 hours. Ofcoarse, I had to know how to make the poem iambic, so this lesson really helped me with my stressed and unstressed sylables.

  11. Timaaaahhh says:

    Dude, you kinda just saved my life-

  12. Peg says:

    This was actually the most helpful site I have come across if only for the specific example of how to actually read Dictionary.com’s bolding stress.
    My issue is now- how do you tell stress in a single syllable word in Iambic pentameter?

  13. Anonymous says:

    Gee. .. . .ummm Thanks?

  14. Ben says:

    Now, how does one describe rhythm? As the definition is: The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in spoken or written language, especially in poetry.

  15. Lizzy says:

    Thanks! This was extremely helpful! I am trying to write iambic pentameter and this was a great help. :)

  16. Anonymous says:

    “It won’t be long before you find that you can spin iambic lines without a thought. In the process, syllabic stress will become second nature to you (with all the quirks and nuances that go with it). You’ll be a better poet, too. Win/win.”

    MOST REFRESHING…THANKS

  17. katie says:

    wow before i got to this site i was helpless trying to find a way to find out wat is a stressed and unstressed syllable is and was getting angry at my selffor not knowing wat it is but then after reading that on top about wat u wrote it helped me calm down. thank you for making this.

  18. Pr.Naceur Ben Mesbah says:

    Almost all words which have a strong and weak form belong to a category that may be called function words -words that do not a dictionary meaning in the way that we normally expect nouns , verbs ,adjectives and adverbs to have .These functions words are words such as auxialiary verbs ,prepositions ,conjunctions ,etc…,all of which are in certain circumstances pronounced in their strong forms but which are more frequently pronounced in their weak forms.

    • Salem Al -Saadi says:

      Pr.Naceur Ben Mesbah is really unique in his way of teaching .I still remember the different techniques he used ; so as to make of his class a resounding success.I would like to thank him for the exceptionally important he played in helping us acquire proficiency in pronunciation.We got a lot from him and he has never ceased encouraging us to speak English the way British people do.

  19. jeniffer says:

    hello guys i dont understand

  20. Belle says:

    Fortunately, when I was searching for an educational site for stressed and unstressed words/lesson, your site appeared on the top list.
    I found this very helpful, so it’s on my bookmark now. I am a published poet and is into Shakespearean Sonnet form of poetry, definitely, I love this page.

  21. Jessica says:

    This page was extremely helpful and well written. Keep up the good work.
    Thank you!!

  22. Corey says:

    ^_^ That was very informative and was a big help to me. Something about the way you wrote made me feel happy :P I don’t quite understand it but suddenly I’m in a great mood and I feel inspired!

  23. MarLeah says:

    That’s funny! Thank you for being considerate to help us out though! : )

  24. Jen says:

    I’m one of the poor saps Google sent your way, so thanks for this! It was a great help and fun to read!

  25. Adolfo says:

    Aaron right? Wowwee! Thank you so much! i have been learning about stressed and unstressed syllables in limericks gosh is hard! But i understand better now. And yeah Google sent me here :p

  26. Maz says:

    Awesome, really helpful

  27. Aliza says:

    This was so helpful! Thank you!

  28. Pr.Naceur Ben Mesbah says:

    Consonants Vs Vowels
    Vowels always have a function that can be described as ” syllabic”They constitute the obligatory nucleus of a syllable.They are louder,longer , more sonorous and more prominent than consonants which have a non syllabic function.
    In respect to form, while vowels are articulated with no restriction of the air stream,most consonants are articulated with some restriction of the air stream.
    However , the distinction between consonants and vowels is not entirely distinct:
    Glides are articulated as vowels but function as consonants.Certain consonants have a syllabic function; that is they are like vowels in being able to stand alone in a syllable: with no other vowel.
    These consonants include the liquids and the nasals as they are commonly syllabic following a consonant at the end of a polysyllabic word.We indicate syllabic function by a subscript bar

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