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