Where to stress words in pronunciation

Stress isn’t only important for proper pronunciation – sometimes it actually distinguishes the meaning of words.

The Christian Science Monitor
President Lyndon B. Johnson awards Capt. James A Taylor of the US Army the Medal of Honor in 1968. The medal is awarded for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity," a phrase that can easily be mispronounced.

My son was researching the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military decoration, and told me that it is awarded for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity.” He pronounced “intrepidity” as “in-tre-pi-DI-ty,” but that didn’t sound right, nor did “in-TRE-pid-i-ty.” It took me a while to hit on the actual pronunciation: “in-tre-PID-i-ty,” with the primary stress on the antepenultimate (the third from the last) syllable. I wondered, does English have a rule that, if I had known it, would have told me which syllable to emphasize?

In French, word stress is easy – emphasis always falls on the last syllable of a word. The Macedonian pattern is simple as well, with stress being placed on the antepenultimate syllable in multisyllabic words, and otherwise on the first syllable. If you are faced with planinarite (mountaineers), you simply count three from the end and you find the stress: “pla-nin-AR-i-te.” I studied Macedonian for a summer, and found this rule extremely helpful.

In English, things are more complicated. For words like intrepidity, it turns out, there is a rule. Multisyllabic words that end in cy, ty, phy, gy, and al have antepenultimate stress, as in “LO-gi-cal,” “ge-O-graph-y,” and “ge-o-GRAPH-i-cal.” Of course there are exceptions – “LE-ni-en-cy” – but for the most part this rule holds. There are many other guidelines of similar specificity and complexity, including these: Stress the penultimate syllable of words ending in ic (ti-TAN-ic); and stress the last syllable of words ending in ee, ese, and eer (vol-un-TEER).

But sometimes English word stress just isn’t predictable – “ba-NA-na” versus “AN-i-mal,” for example. This makes learning English pronunciation fiendishly complicated for nonnative speakers. Is it better to memorize dozens of highly specific rules and their exceptions, or just try to develop an intuitive sense of where words are stressed?

Stress isn’t only important for proper pronunciation, however – sometimes it actually distinguishes the meaning of words. English has many pairs of nouns and verbs that look the same but are stressed according to their category. We have “RE-cord” (noun) and “re-CORD” (verb), “IN-sult” (noun) and “in-SULT” (verb), “TRANS-port” (noun) and “trans-PORT” (verb). You can probably see the pattern: Nouns are stressed on the first syllable, verbs on the second. This rule applies to around 170 pairs of homographs – words with the same spelling but different pronunciations and meanings. As with nearly everything in English, there are exceptions – “de-MAND” and “COM-ment” are pronounced the same whether as verbs or nouns.

Native speakers don’t usually need rules to figure out stress. We just know what sounds “right.” When we’re faced with a word we’ve read but never had  occasion to say out loud before, though, familiarity with some rules might come in handy.

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