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Sentence Stress in American English | How to Emphasize Content Words for English Rhythm

Want to sound more like a native English speaker? Then you need to create the natural rhythm of American English through sentence stress.

What do I mean by sentence stress? Sentence stress is when we put extra attention on the words that convey the meaning of the sentence.

As I mentioned in my video on how to understand fast native English speakers, we signal which words are truly important in our speech by making them longer, louder and higher in pitch.

Specifically, we make the stressed syllable of these words longer, louder and higher in pitch.

If the idea of stressed syllables is new to you, be sure to check out my article and video on word stress in American English for more details.

Before getting into the details of which words are normally stressed in English, I want to emphasize a key point.

The words that convey meaning in English are super clear and easy to understand because we stress them.

We stress words by making them longer, louder and higher in pitch so that they really get your attention.

This makes the key words in our sentence easy to identify and understand.

This means that the words that don’t matter are not stressed; they’re even de-emphasized and reduced.

You can think of these less important words as quieter – you can’t really hear them, shorter – we rush right through them, and lower in pitch – they’re not supposed to stand out.

You can think of us as hiding the less important words below the stressed words. You can’t hear them as much.

If you think about it, this is a very efficient way to speak! We’re trying to focus your attention on the words that truly matter, while hiding and deemphasizing the ones that don’t.

As we go into more depth about sentence stress in this video, I want you to really keep this in mind.

The words that carry the meaning of the sentence are stressed: they’re obvious, they’re clear, they’re easy to understand and easy to hear.

The reason I want you to understand this is that in order to speak English more like a native speaker and understand native English speakers, you need to tune your ear to this.

You have to understand why the words are stressed in addition to the rules for which words are stressed.

In the rest of this article and video, we’re going to talk about the rules for sentence stress, but in order to clearly convey your meaning in English, simply make sure you stress these key words.

In order to understand native speakers, you want to listen for the words that are clearest and easiest to hear.

Got it? Good. Let’s get started.


Learn English Rhythm in Normal, Neutral Sentences

In this article and video, we’re focusing on the natural rhythm of English for normal, neutral sentences.

When we change the expected stress of the sentence, we can actually change the meaning.

For examples of how this works, learn about stress and intonation changes the meaning of the phrase “I don’t know” and the question “What do you think?”

As I keep emphasizing, when you hear the words that are longer, louder and higher in pitch, you’ll be able to follow the meaning of the sentence.

In fact, you don’t really need the rest of the words. Think of a little kid beginning to speak.

A lot of times they just use the key words; they don’t use those connector words, but their meaning is still clear.

Let’s look at an example sentence: I bought some food at a store in my neighborhood.

If I only emphasize the key words of the sentence – bought, food, store, neighborhood – you can still understand the meaning. Am I right?

I BOUGHT some FOOD at the STORE in my NEIGHBORHOOD.

The key words are the ones that are clearest and easiest to understand. The rest of the words just help the sentence flow.

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Content Words and Function Words for Sentence Stress

Now, let’s go into more detail. When we talk about sentence stress, we have two categories of words: content words and function words.

As I mentioned earlier, content words are the words that convey the meaning of the sentence.

Content words include:

  • nouns
  • verbs
  • adjectives
  • adverbs
  • question words
  • demonstratives, and
  • most negatives.

Function words, also called structure words, are the words that are basically the grammar of the sentence. They help connect the content words.

Function words include:

  • articles
  • prepositions
  • auxiliary (or helping) verbs
  • pronouns
  • conjunctions
  • determiners, and
  • relative pronouns.

If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed with these parts of speech, that’s why I encourage you to go back to what I said at the beginning of the video:

Think about the words that convey the meaning of the sentence and focus on those.

If you feel the need to categorize them, this list can help you.

In order to create the natural rhythm of English through sentence stress, you’re going to emphasize, or stress, the content words.

The function words are going to sound weaker or even be reduced.

You can hear the natural rhythm of English when you hear the contrast between content and function words.

You’ll hear the pitch change. You’ll hear that stressed syllables are longer. You’ll start hearing a difference between words that are stressed, and words that are not stressed.

On stressed words, one syllable will be longer, louder and higher in pitch. In sentence stress, these content words will be longer, louder and higher in pitch as well.

To create the natural rhythm of English, you need to have this up and down (the contrast) between content and function words.

If you don’t, it’s going to be hard for a native speaker to follow your speech.

It’s important to understand that the rhythm does not come from an even spacing of words.

You may have several content words in a row or you may have several function words in a row. The rhythm will come from the stressed words.

It doesn’t matter how many content words or function words there are. The beats are going to be the same between words that are stressed.

You may very well have a string of content words, so make sure that they are all stressed. That means they’re longer, louder and higher in pitch.


Examples of Sentence Stress in American English

Let’s look at some example sentences: I am planning to go to the beach this weekend.

Can you identify which words are stressed in the sentence? I am planning to go to the beach this weekend.

As you can hear, the stressed words are planning, go, beach, weekend.

I’m PLANNING to GO to the BEACH this WEEKEND.

If I just say, “planning go beach weekend,” you can follow my thought, right?

Here’s another example: I love to drink tea first thing in the morning. Which words should be stressed?

As you can hear in the video, I’m stressing love, drink, tea, first, thing, morning:

I LOVE to DRINK TEA FIRST THING in the MORNING.

Let’s look at a third example: You need to cross the street to catch the bus downtown. Which words am I stressing?

Let’s talk about the words that are stressed: need, cross, street, catch, bus, downtown.

You NEED to CROSS the STREET to CATCH the BUS DOWNTOWN.

In these examples, I’m using a number of short content words because we use so many short one- or two-syllable words in natural speech.

I want you to pay extra attention to these short content words.

Be sure to check out my video on how to stress short words so you can understand how stressing these short content words will help you speak English more clearly.

More Advanced Sentence Stress: Stress Patterns and Word Partnerships

Now that you understand how stressing content words helps you create the natural rhythm of English, I want to give you a few more details.

You may hear that there are different levels of stress within a sentence. There are more complex stress patterns, especially within word partnerships.

For a clear example, watch my video on how to stress phrases with the word “and.”

As you continue to advance your understanding of sentence stress, you’ll notice that there are certain stress patterns based on the words that appear together, certain chunks of words, or phrases.

You’ll also hear different stress based on the intonation of the sentence.

Different people may use stress slightly differently based on the cadence or the ups and downs of their own speech.

But for right now, I encourage you to focus on making sure you stress these content words.

Even if you stress them evenly, it’s definitely going to help a native speaker understand you.

You’ll be able to create the natural rhythm of English by stressing the content words and de-emphasizing or reducing the rest.

Sounding as natural as a native speaker comes with time and practice. Let’s get started with the most important element of highlighting the content words with your voice.

From there, you can evolve the way that you speak to sound even more like a native speaker, but first, let’s focus on those content words.


Use Sentence Stress to Be Easily Understood By Native English Speakers

You definitely want to get started stressing those content words to be understood by a native English speaker!

Like I said earlier, using the expected natural rhythm of English will help native speakers understand you because you’re emphasizing the words that carry the most meaning of the sentence.

You’re emphasizing which words are most important. You’re giving them what they expect to hear, and you’re making it really easy for them to identify which words matter.

Even if you stumble over or mispronounce a word, this natural rhythm will make it easier for people to understand you.


How to Practice Sentence Stress

Now you’re probably asking yourself, “How can I practice sentence stress?”

It can be a little overwhelming to try to keep it all in your mind at the beginning.

That’s why I encourage you to practice with written information at first: blog posts, articles, books, short stories, emails.

I encourage you to analyze these texts and identify which words you think should be stressed.

By practicing with written information, you don’t have to worry about clearly conveying the meaning and you can focus on the rhythm.

Once you’ve made notes on which words should be stressed, try reading the texts out loud. Try creating the natural rhythm of English yourself.

Another excellent way to practice sentence stress is to find a short audio clip with the transcript.

You can listen for the words that are stressed (remember, these are the words that carry the meaning) and mark the transcript. Then you can try repeating the text out loud yourself.

From there, you can start using sentence stress in your own speech.

You may want to practice speaking out loud by yourself first before bringing it into conversations.

Or if you’re feeling ambitious, start using stress in conversations.

When you notice that native English speakers understand you, you’re going to feel more confident because you know that you’re making your speech as easy to understand as possible.


Your Turn

I’ll repeat it one more time: sentence stress makes it easy for people to follow what you’re saying because you’re signaling which words are important.

You’re telling them what they should listen to.

It’s not always about your accent. It is sometimes just about this rhythm that we’re expecting to hear.

If you think of any questions about sentence stress, be sure to ask away. I’ll be answering your questions about sentence stress in future videos.

Now it’s your turn to practice sentence stress! Leave a comment with a practice sentence (you can talk about anything you want) and CAPITALIZE the stressed words.

I’m EXCITED to HELP you with your SENTENCE STRESS! 😉

Want to master word and sentence stress in American English more quickly? Consider my Stress Simplified program. In this self-guided accent reduction program, you’ll be able to practice stress patterns with over 30 drills and exercises. Through detailed video lessons, you’ll learn how to create natural-sounding syllables, learn stress patterns in words and phrases, and understand how to use sentence stress to speak effectively. Learn more here.

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Stress Starter Kit

Learn how to use word and sentence stress to speak clearly so that people will definitely understand what you say.

When you sign up for this email course, you'll also receive accent advice and useful resources to help you improve how you sound. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Learn more and review my privacy policy.

Thanks for signing up! I'm so excited to connect with you.