If you’re like most non-native English speakers, the idea of pronouncing long, complicated words probably stresses you out – literally.
Many non-native speakers get really concerned about the pronunciation of four-, five-, and six-syllable words.
Where does the word stress go? How do I say each syllable correctly? It can get quite challenging to get these words right!
But there’s something you haven’t considered that’s actually affecting the way that you’re speaking English.
We need to talk about short one-syllable words.
So many non-native speakers pronounce one-syllable words really quickly, and that makes their English sound really choppy and robotic.
A few months ago, I talked about how native speakers tend to prefer clear, simple vocabulary over these complicated four-, five-, and six-syllable words.
(We even have trouble pronouncing them ourselves! 😜)
After all, many of the most common words in English are just one syllable long.
So what I want to focus on today is how you absolutely need to use word stress on one-syllable content words.
Word Stress on Short One-Syllable Words
Not every one-syllable word needs to be said quickly or be reduced.
Only the function words need to be reduced.
Most sentences contain many one-syllable content words.
When you stress a syllable, you make it longer, louder, and higher in pitch.
This is why when you’re stressing one-syllable words, the entire word needs to be longer, louder, and higher in pitch.
If you don’t stress these one-syllable content words, your speech is going to sound choppy, monotone, and even robotic.
When say one-syllable content words exactly the same as unstressed or reduced one syllable function words, it can make your language sound unnatural!
It also makes it harder for a native English speaker to understand you.
Remember, native English speakers are listening for that natural rhythm of English that comes from varying your stress throughout your speech.
In normal sentences, the content words are stressed, and the function words are unstressed or even reduced.
So if you’re not stressing your content words, it’s hard for native English speakers to hear which words are most important in your sentence.
Stressing words signals that these words are extra important and require extra attention from your listener.
(For more details on the difference between content words and function words, check out my article and video on Sentence Stress in American English.)
Stressing One-Syllable Words in Example Sentences
So let’s look at a number of example sentences that contain short, one-syllable words that need to be stressed.
Example: Let’s wait for the bus.
Let’s start with the sentence “Let’s wait for the bus.”
Many non-native speakers say each of these syllables about the same.
Think of a robot saying “Let’s wait for the bus” with each word very clearly and distinctly pronounced.
Because each word is given equal importance, it tends to sound robotic in English.
You get that monotone when it’s hard to distinguish which words are stressed and which words are not as important.
So let’s look at how we can stress this sentence.
LET’S WAIT for the BUS.
As you notice in the video, the words “let’s,” “wait,” and “bus” are stressed in this sentence. “For” and “the” are reduced because they are function words and they’re not as important.
LET’S WAIT for the BUS.
(The words in UPPERCASE and bold should be stressed in these examples!)
So if you pronounce all of those one-syllable words exactly the same, it’s not going to be clear to your listener which words are actually important.
By stressing “let’s,” “wait,” and “bus” – making them l-o-n-g-e-r, LOUDER, and higher in pitch – you can make it very clear that these are the most important words.
Example: When I’m tired, I drink some tea.
Let’s try another example: When I’m tired, I drink some tea.
Which are the most important words in this sentence?
Remember, these are your content words, and they need to be stressed.
If you pronounce each of these syllables exactly the same, you’re not going to distinguish the important words.
The important words are “when,” “tired,” “drink,” and “tea.” If you just said those four words – when tired drink tea – your meaning would still be clear!
Here’s how you should stress this sentence: WHEN I’m TIRED, I DRINK some TEA.
That creates the natural-sounding rhythm of English. (Be sure to watch the video to hear me say it!)
Example: When I left the house, it was cold.
Take a moment and consider the important words in this sentence.
Which are the words that tell you the most essential information?
If you said “when,” “left,” “house,” and “cold,” you’re right!
WHEN I LEFT the HOUSE, it was COLD.
Stressing these four words helps give you the main meaning of the sentence.
Example: After we eat, we’ll watch the show.
Here’s another example with just one two-syllable word: After we eat, we’ll watch the show.
Okay, you’ve got the hang of this now! Which words should be stressed in the sentence?
AF-ter we EAT, we’ll WATCH the SHOW.
By stressing these words when speaking, you signal the most important words in the sentence and create the natural rhythm of English.
Stressing One-Syllable Words in Longer Sentences
Now let’s try a couple of longer examples where the majority of the words are only one-syllable long.
This is very common in normal speech; most sentences contain a majority of one- and two-syllable words!
Example: The man you told me about came by the office.
How should I stress this sentence? The man you told me about came by the office.
The MAN you TOLD me ABOUT came BY the OF-fice.
You may have noticed that this sentence contains a phrasal verb: came by.
In this case, you are going to stress the word “by.” In phrasal verbs, the word that looks like a preposition is called a particle, and we stress the particle in order to indicate that this is a phrasal verb.
Even on these longer sentences, being sure to stress the one syllable words helps increase the clarity of your speech by pointing out the words that require extra attention.
One more example: When I’m tired, I drink some tea so that I can try and wake up.
Your turn! Which words are the content words in this sentence? Which words should we stress?
Here you go: WHEN I’m TIRED, I DRINK some TEA so that I can TRY and wake UP.
As you notice in this example, half of the words are stressed and half are unstressed. If you say all of the words with the same length and pitch, it’s hard to hear which words are most important.
Remember to stress the content words, even short ones!
Make them longer, louder, and higher in pitch.
Once again, the phrasal verb “wake up” will be stressed on the particle, or the word “up.” Wake UP. Wake UP. Wake UP.
As we’ve discussed, being sure to stress the content words and leave the function words unstressed or reduced really increases the impact of the sentence by making it really clear to the listener which words are important.
As you can see, syllable stress is essential even in one-syllable words!
When I work with my one-to-one clients, I often notice that they’re rushing through these one-syllable words and it’s a big reason why their accent is so strong.
If you’re not stressing the one syllable content words, you’re reducing the impact of your speech and you’re increasing your accent.
You really want to make sure you use word stress on these one syllable words!
I hope this tip has helped you speak more clearly by paying attention to the stress on one-syllable content words.
Now it’s your turn! Create an example sentence with several one-syllable words and leave it in the comments below. Let me know which words should be stressed in the sentence, and I’ll let you know how you did!