Sentence stress is a complex but important aspect of American English. When combined with intonation, it produces the rhythm of the language.
According to Ethnologue, there are over 7,000 spoken languages in the world today. Although not all languages have vowels and consonants, there are characters that help speakers to denote words and sounds.
Fortunately, American English has vowels and consonants that aid communication. Also, word stress determines how a speaker pronounces each syllable in a word. But when words are pieced together to form a sentence, the speaker places emphasis on the most important words in the speech. This is known as sentence stress.
Stressing the right words in a sentence is important for one-on-one conversations and team interactions. When you are in contact with clients and coworkers, you do not want to be misunderstood.
In the article, we will discuss sentence stress and why we should use it correctly, especially in the workplace. We will also look at the relationship between the word stress and empathy and how it creates a hostile or safe space.
Sentence stress gives meaning to your speech. It tells your listeners the important aspects of what you're saying so they can pay attention to them. Depending on its usage, sentence stress can change or add additional meaning to your speech.
If I say, 'Joe is going to the CINEMA,' my emphasis is on the place where the subject is going. It means Joe isn't going to the church, library, or office but to the cinema.
Also, if I say, 'Joe will DRIVE to the cinema,' my emphasis is on how the subject intends to get to the destination. Joe will drive, not walk.
When you combine word stress with intonation in a sentence, it highlights words that offer new information or a contrasting one.
Let's examine these sentences:
I WANT FISH and CHIPS.
I want fish AND chips, NOT fish OR chips.
The first sentence tells us the speaker's menu request. Hence, "want", "fish", and "chips" are highlighted. Those words convey the most important information in the speech.
Assuming this conversation is taking place in a restaurant, the second sentence reiterates the menu request. Therefore, if the waiter heard something different initially, the stressed words - "and", "not", and "or" - make the request clear.
Correct sentence stress also indicates when there is a transition from one subject matter to another so that your listeners won't be confused. It makes you sound intelligent, courteous, or empathetic. And empathy is a critical leadership skill in the workplace.
Empathy is the art of understanding how a person feels and why they act the way they do at a given moment. It literally means feeling the feelings of others. If you're empathetic, you will be able to express your ideas clearly so that it makes sense to your audience. But if you fail to stress the right words, you may come off as rude or insensitive.
When you listen to music, you move with the flow because it has a rhythm. This is what happens in American English. The beats may not be noticeable, but they are present. You can hear them when having a conversation with a native English speaker.
Each word has a unique sound that comes together to form a pattern, which you could also call a rhythm. And the way the words flow in a sentence is based on the stressed and unstressed words.
The English language is stress-timed. This means some words get more emphasis and stress than others. The stressed words have consistent beats that determine how long it takes to say a sentence.
On the other hand, the unstressed words are suppressed, irrespective of how many they are in a sentence. They appear less important so that they don't affect the timing of the stressed words.
Here's an example:
Boys beat drums.
The boys beat drums.
The boys beat the drums.
The boys will beat the drums.
The boys will be beating the drums.
The highlighted words are stressed while the others are unstressed. So, no matter how long the sentence looks, the unstressed words are compressed to give the same timing to the stressed words. Therefore, it will take you approximately the same time to say all four sentences in the example because the stressed words are "boys", "beat", and "drums."
In the English language, important words, also known as content words, are stressed. The unstressed words are called function words.
Content words ensure that your listeners have an idea of what you're saying even if the other words are absent. Function words only help your sentence to sound grammatically correct; they can't stand alone.
Content words include the following:
Function words include the following:
Let's look at a few examples.
In the sentence above, "interested" is an adjective, "studying" is a verb, and "Law" is a noun.
The content words in the sentence are "won't" (negative word), "meeting" (noun), "Joe" (noun), "wants" (verb), and "go" (verb). The other words are function words.
There is an already established pattern for placing stress in individual words. You can find it in an English dictionary or by studying the general rules. When it comes to stressing words in a sentence, it is totally up to the speaker to determine what is important and what isn't.
However, an easy way to know which words to stress is to dissect the sentence. Identify the words that will still make sense even if other words are missing.
For instance, "He bought a new car"
If you take away "he" and "a", the listener will still get the message you're trying to convey.
Below are examples of good stress placements:
You can find more speeches from popular speakers, authors, and podcast hosts for daily practice.
Empathy helps to build a good rapport with coworkers and customers. It convinces people to feel safe around you since they know that you understand and respect their feelings. However, it all starts with pronouncing words correctly and speaking with the right intonation.
Intonation is the way your voice rises and falls. It goes beyond the words you speak to portray your emotions. Also, it indicates when you are asking a question, making a statement, or confirming information.
Let's examine some workplace scenarios that involve empathetic communication.
A coworker looks moody because they couldn't close a deal. You may go over to their desk to find out how they are faring. The ideal thing to say is, "How are you feeling?"
Placing emphasis on "you" or "feeling" coupled with the right facial expression shows that you really care. It presents an opportunity for them to speak openly. Even when they don't bare their hearts to you, they will feel relieved because you showed concern.
Another colleague has a backlog of work from the previous week and is already looking fatigued. You may ask, "How can I help?"
If you use a flat note, it may suggest that you are mocking them for taking up more work than they can handle. But placing emphasis on "can" and "help" indicates that you are being supportive and genuinely want to help.
Furthermore, someone just won an award for being the best performer of the year. The most sensible way to compliment their hard work is to give them a pat on the back and say something that will make them feel great.
Assuming you say, "Well done," it can be interpreted in different ways. When said with enthusiasm and a smiling face, it shows you are happy for them and wish them all the best. But if you do not stress the words, it suggests you don't think they deserve the award.
The correct use of word stress is important when practicing empathy. It helps your listener to know that you mean what you say.
Anecdotal Situations Caused by Wrong Word Stress?
We have established the fact that word stress is a key to clear American English. It gives clues that enable your audience to understand you. You may not pronounce the words correctly, but stressing the right syllable of each word could be helpful. However, if you do not use the correct word stress, your listeners will assume a different meaning.
Non-native speakers usually use word stress wrongly when pronouncing contrasting bi-syllabic nouns and verbs. Here are some examples:
PREsent (noun) means a gift. PreSENT (verb) means to introduce or to give.
REcord (noun) means a collection of facts, while reCORD (verb) means to collect facts.
INcrease (noun) means the rise in something, while inCREASE means to make something become bigger.
DEsert (noun) means dry land with little to no rainfall and little vegetation, while deSERT means to abandon someone or something.
There are more words with contrasting meanings such as combine, permit, project, object, and so on. But with constant practice, you will be able to stress the right syllable and communicate the right message.
The rhythm of English is related to the use of word stress. So, if you want to speak like an American native speaker, you should know which words to stress in a sentence. You should also know which syllable to stress in a word. Afterward, add a bit of emotion to your speech to ensure that everyone understands precisely what you're saying.
These tips will help you master the rhythm of English:
While hiring a coach might be expensive or time-consuming, a pronunciation checker offers various features and is quite affordable. One such checker is the Pronounce app, an AI speech assistant.
Using the Pronounce app is a discreet way for English-Language learners to learn how to speak American English with confidence. To get started, sign up on the website using your Google account. You can also install the chrome browser extension on your computer to record conversations and listen to them afterward.
Here's what you'll get from the Pronounce app:
Read aloud: Whether you are reading an ebook or surfing the internet, highlight the text and Pronounce will read it aloud. Depending on your preference, you can choose a male or female voice. Pronounce is also generous enough to include voices for British, Australian, Indian, and Welsh English.
Speech Recording: Read aloud and the app will record your voice. By clicking the listen button, you can instantly listen to your recording. Pronounce also shows you a transcript of your speech so you can see the words you may have mispronounced.
Speech Feedback: After recording your voice, Pronounce provides suggestions for improvement. This feature helps you to quickly learn how to pronounce words correctly.
Progress Tracker: Pronounce tracks your progress so you can know whether you're improving or not. Just as a speech coach would cheer you on, Pronounce would do the same and even more. The goal is for you to stay motivated until you can speak confidently.
Sentence stress is a complex but important aspect of American English. When combined with intonation, it produces the rhythm of the language. And the correct use of sentence stress in difficult situations shows that you are empathetic. If you still find it difficult to stress the right words in a sentence, start by stressing verbs. Record your voice using the Pronounce app, then listen and try continuously until you get it right.