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How to sound more natural when you speak English (Part 3)

CLASS THREE ~ Vocal Workout to Keep the Music Alive The Rhythm Rule The Rhythm Rule in English is very simple and yet is so often forgotten by Native speakers of English.

The rule is that when English is spoken, the speaker alternates between stressed and unstressed syllables in regular intervals, with the stresses generally falling within content words.

Content words are the words that give us the meaning of what we are saying. They are usually the words that give us a picture in our head. In general, content words are stressed more than function words.

Let’s take a quick look at Stress and how where we place stress or emphasis (or accent) in a sentence or phrase alters the meaning.

Take a look at my favourite 7 word sentence: wherever you put the stress (bolded words), that word becomes the content word in the sentence.

Say this sentence out loud placing the stress pattern according to the bold print, and you will hear how the meaning of the sentence changes depending on which word you stress. The word taking the stress becomes the content word: it conveys the meaning of the sentence. The other words operate as function words: they have meaning, of course, but, more than the meaning, they are needed to keep the sentence together grammatically.

English sentences require a Subject, Verb, Object kind of word order. These are functions. Most words serve functions, content words are reserved to convey meaning. Content words take the stress; function words are distressed.

I didn’t say he stole the money. Someone else said it. I didn’t say he stole the money. That’s not true at all. I didn’t say he stole the money. I only suggested the possibility. I didn’t say he stole the money. I think someone else took it. I didn’t say he stole the money. Maybe he just borrowed it. I didn’t say he stole the money. Maybe he stole some other money. I didn’t say he stole the money. He may have taken some jewellery.

There are some really simple Rhythm Rules for you to practise with. But, let’s just take a little look at how to recognise the right syllable to stress.

The basic facts are:

  • Every English word with more than one syllable has to stress one syllable more than the other(s).

  • Some English words have even more stresses, giving one syllable primary stress (the strongest) and others secondary or tertiary stresses (not as strong as primary, but stronger than for an unstressed syllable.

  • English punctuation doesn’t provide any clue to tell you where to put the stress.

Get the primary stress right and the non-primary stresses will take care of themselves.

Eight Very Good Rules to Remember to Determine Which Syllable to Stress While it’s true that English grammar doesn’t provide hard and fast rules to determine which part of a word should be stressed, there are a few guidelines that can help.

Here are some pointers worth remembering. Keep in mind that these are just guidelines; some of them have exceptions. I give you the rhythm rule here because, it is my experience that many, many Native speakers of English are losing its beautiful rhythms. English is not a particularly pretty language like French and Spanish are. English is very utilitarian language; its sound rules, or rules of phonology, are so vast that English is able to pick up sounds from many of the world’s languages. It is a most elastic language; it comes to life when it is given music, rhythm, tones, style. It is an emotional language; its intonation patterns often follow our emotions.

Say the words that follow with some music in them. If there are three or more syllables, you should be hearing three different notes.

1. When a noun ends in ‘tion,’ stress the syllable before the ‘tion’ ending.

Examples: location solution petition imitation resolution

imagination globalisation communication

2. When a noun ends in ‘ity,’ stress the syllable before the ‘ity’ ending.

Examples: ability capability availability responsibility personality insanity reality nationality

3. When an adjective ends in ‘ical,’ stress the syllable before the ‘ical’ ending.

Examples: political radical practical comical analytical economical psychological musical

4. When an adjective ends in ‘ic,’ stress the syllable before the ‘ic’ ending.

Examples: fantastic realistic futuristic fatalistic democratic e economic materialistic optimistic

5. When an adjective ends in ‘ial’ or ‘ual,’ stress the syllable before the ‘ial’ or ‘ual’ ending. Examples: annual mutual punctual financial controversial unusual individual intellectual

6. When a verb ends in ‘ify,’ stress the syllable before the ‘ify’ endings.

Examples: ratify identify clarify simplify

modify specify qualify quantify

7. In a compound noun (a noun consisting of more than one word),stress the syllables that

would normally be stressed in each word but stress the first word harder than the second. Examples: stock broker music director police department share holders

health care press release book store school bus 8. In capital letter abbreviations, stress the last letter.


Common Words That Can Give You Trouble (when in doubt, consult a dictionary)

alternate inventory execute specific corporate

trustee subsidy authorise success intrigue retailing mechanism inventory decade distinct executive priority comparable categorically subsidiary

authority dividend category excel prospect curtailing stabilise oriented contractual operating designate interview simulate effect expertise proceeds strategy origin activism instinct prospectus intervene colleague excess constituency engineering strategic indicate influence efficacy constitutes legislative annuity necessary official proprietary specify influential severely regulatory

Sentences to Use in Practicing Please don’t think that these exercises are beneath your abilities. There’s not a speaker alive who does not have to keep their instrument in tune. Make sure you are using a lot of pitch variation. Remember the biggest pitch change comes on the stressed syllable of a word.

  1. The entrepreneur introduced many innovative ideas.

  2. We were involved in an intricate controversy.

  3. They pursued a diverse group of proprietary computers.

  4. Some executives severely curtailed their expenses.

  5. All proceeds went into the retailing business.

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