Last week I introduced lexical stress, the oomph we inject into words to distinguish those words from other ones. There is another kind of stress called sentence stress. Sentence stress is achieved using the same sort of changes in volume, pitch, and length that are used within words for lexical stress. The big difference, though, is that these changes are applied to words instead of syllables. Research shows that these changes do not happen in all other languages (like Japanese).

The emphasized word in a sentence can make that word’s meaning stand out from the rest of the sentence. Here are some examples:

We are walking to the party. (We are walking together. Both of us. You and I.)

We are walking to the party. (We are not driving, we are not taking a helicopter or submarine, we’re walking.)

We are walking to the party. (We are walking right this very moment. It is really happening, don’t try argue about it.)

We are walking to the party. (We are not walking to the pharmacy, not to the bingo hall, but the party.)

If you master sentence stress, you’ll be able to pack more meaning into your sentences. In fact, it’s the words that carry meaning that tend to be emphasized in sentence stress. Let’s break that down.

The 3 Steps to Mastering Sentence Stress

  1. Figure out which words carry meaning and which don’t. The words that carry meaning are sometimes referred to as content or operative words. They’re not spies, they’re nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. All those other little words (prepositions, conjunctions, articles, auxiliary verbs, pronouns) are the glue that holds the meaning together (and also, hard to learn). If you emphasize the content words by drawing them out, using more volume, and maybe using a higher pitch for part or all of the word, it will sound pretty good.

But you don’t want to just sound pretty good, you want to master sentence stress.

  1. Know when and how to stress the little words (function words) to change the meaning of what you’re saying. Some of these words have a different pronunciation in the stressed versus the unstressed, or weak, form. Here are just a couple of examples of weak and stressed articles:

The

Weak, it rhymes with duh. The vowel is the neutral schwa.

Stressed, it rhymes with sea. (This stressed version is always used when the next word starts with a vowel.) Give it extra oomph by making it longer, slightly raising your pitch, and stressing the word that comes next. When you do this, it communicates to your listener that the thing that you’re referring to is really special or particular.

Example: Lingua East is the place to work on your accent.

A

Weak, it also rhymes with duh. The vowel is the same neutral schwa as in unstressed the.

Stressed, it rhymes with day. Specify that you’re talking about one (as opposed to several) things by drawing out this vowel sound with a higher, falling, pitch.

Example:

I don’t need the whole library, I just need a book!

  1. Practice sentence stress. Try saying the same sentence in different ways by moving the stress around. Try recording yourself and listening to the different sentences. Can you hear different meanings?

A Note About Rate of Speech

In general, the stressed words take up as much time as the unstressed words in a phrase. You’re not putting the emphasis on every word, but the words that do carry stress are lengthened. When you put the whole phrase or sentence together, you generally spend as much time saying these words as you do all the other little weak words.