Intro to Stressed and Unstressed Syllables
In this post, I will show you a facet of words that 99% of people do not explicitly know exists. Poets and linguistic students aside, when’s the last time you heard about stressed and unstressed syllables?
Now of course you know that tone of speech carries impact and that the way you say a phrase changes its meaning.
Ok let’s eat grandma
Ok let’s eat, grandma
I hate you!
I hate you?
This is natural and everyone picks up on it intuitively, and so if we go from looking at a phrase to looking at a single word, the same discomfort or humor can come from mixing with the emphasis on certain syllables. From Borat’s funny accent to some brutal mispronunciation that leaves you embarrassed.
What’s much harder to pick up on (without practice) is where exactly in these words the syllables are stressed, vs where they aren’t. And so this guide will help you find them.
What is A Stressed and Unstressed Syllable?
Before we start looking for the difference I think, that I should define what each of these types of syllables is. To do this let’s use the word: DELIGHT.
Most words in the English language have a stressed syllable and the rest unstressed. (In reality, the amount of stress varies on every single syllable but that’s relatively unnecessary to dive into.)
When a syllable is stressed it sounds emphasized and POWERFUL. So let’s get to the example word, Moonlight. Doing a simple syllable count we get a total count of two syllables, de- and -light.
One of these syllables is more emphasized than the other, can you identify it?
The -light is the stressed syllable. Kind of hard to figure out at first right?
You pronounce the word deLIGHT, not DElight. Try saying DElight, it’s kind of strange…
Maybe you got this right, maybe you got it wrong. But either way, you’re going to want to be able to do this consistently right? So let’s get to the guide!
How Do You Know if a Syllable is Stressed or Unstressed?
Method 1: Listen To the Frequency
If you listen really really really closely you will hear that the stressed syllables have higher pitches. To demonstrate I have picked a word that this phenomenon is very easy to see:
Now before you mix your pre-‘s and your -pare’s, you need to clean your palate. So repeat the word over and over without trying to determine anything.
Turn your brain off and repeat: prepare, prepare, prepare, prepare, prepare.
Ok now say it normally and determine where the pitch is higher on the pre- or the -pare?
It’s the -pare
As I can’t hear you either, Good Job! or You’ll Get The Next One!
Method 2: Frequency Part 2
If you struggled with the first method this is for you.
Now, this isn’t exactly a completely different method than the first, but it is something I discovered that builds on the same idea.
So let’s take the word Shadow. Cleanse your palate, by repeating shadow without listening.
And now as you say it normally three times then stop on the first syllable and hold/sing it.
shadow, shadow, shadow, shaaaaaaaa-, ok now remember that frequency.
now for round two, repeat but hold the second syllable,
shadow, shadow, shadow, -dooooooo, now note that frequency
Now compare the two frequencies.
Is the -dooooo higher-pitched than the shaaaaa-?
Which one is the stressed or unstressed syllable?
The shaaa- is higher-pitched which means the SHAdow is the correct pronunciation.
Method 3: Yellin’
You are going to say the word, but really emphasize one part, not as dramatically as the title of this method suggests but noticeably enhance one syllable.
Now let’s try with Yelling
Say Yel- -ing
Now Say Yel- -ing
One of those should have sounded weirder than the other.
Which syllable do you think is stressed?
Method 3.5: Yellin’ Part 2
Now if Method 3 was not useful, I will give you another expanded method that will make it work.
This time, you should stress the word in a sentence and see if that solves the issue.
Take the word Water
Say: “Where is my wa- -ter bottle?”
Now Say: “Where is my wat- -ter bottle?”
One of those should have sounded much weirder than the other.
Which syllable do you think is stressed?
This is probably the most useful method on this list and should be used if you can’t hear the frequencies. Ok, one more flower picture.
Its the Wa,
Give me my WAter bottle. The other pronunciation sounds awkward and spasmodic.
~Method 4: The Dictionary & Practice
If every single method fails you, go here https://www.howmanysyllables.com/words/water, it will highlight the stressed and unstressed syllables in any word you look up. There are lots of possibilities: sometimes you may get words with only stressed syllables, and it will give you a primary and secondary: “daylight”, or where both are stressed “moonlight”. So have fun!
But just know that practice will make you much better at this and you will start to see patterns in 2,3, or 4 syllable words and be able to retrieve the results faster than taking out your phone and looking it up, so good luck practicing here is a list of words to try!
Make sure to try the frequency method before the sounding-it-out method, as practice will soon have you understanding where the stress is without having to repeat the word
Here is Some Practice Try Out Your New Skills!
FRESH (it’s only one syllable hehe) *Tip* Single syllable, Nouns and Verbs are usually stressed
Takeaways about Stressed and Unstressed Syllables
Even after reading this whole article, you may still be struggling to identify the stressed syllable every time. But Do Not Worry! With enough practice you will become a pro, just remember:
- Listen To The Frequency
- Hold The Frequency
- Yell (not actual yelling but emphasizing)
- And If All Else Fails Dictionary!
Want to learn more? Check out Pat Pattison. I developed these methods taking one of his courses!