When you stress particular words more than others, it boosts your overall intelligibility. In this section, you will learn when to stress a word.
If you’re familiar with grammar and parts of speech (e.g., verbs, prepositions, and pronouns), you may start to notice what kinds of words receive the most stress. Let’s look at the following example:
He’s interested in taking economics.
Above, interested, taking, and economics all receive stress on their strong syllables, while he’s and in do not. That’s because content words (e.g., words that carry the most meaning when we speak, such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs) typically receive stress in phrases, while function words (e.g., words that have very little meaning, such as prepositions, articles, pronouns, and auxiliary verbs) do not.
Since stressed syllables are typically longer than unstressed syllables, sentences with the same amount of stressed syllables take nearly the same amount of time to say, regardless of the number of unstressed syllables. For example:
Kids beat drums. The kids beat drums. The kids beat the drums. The kids will beat the drums. The kids will be beating the drums. The kids will have been beating the drums.
Despite the difference in the number of words, the time required to say each sentence is roughly the same. This is largely due to the stress of content words. Did you notice that kids, beat, and drums are the only content words?
Let’s dive deeper into the topic of content and function words. The chart below illustrates the differences between these categories.
|Content Words (more stress)||Function Words (less stress)|
|Nouns (paper, coffee, Mr. Smith)||Prepositions (it, on, for, with)|
|Main Verbs (talk, watched, need, find)||Determiners (a, the, some)|
|Adjectives (tall, blue, enchanting)||Helping verbs (I’m going to leave, She has seen it etc.)|
|Wh-words (why, what, how, etc.)||Conjunctions (for, and, but, yet, etc.)|
|Adverbs (slowly, nervously)||Most pronouns (she, it, they, them, him, etc.)|
|Negation words (no, not, isn’t, won’t)||The verb “be” (He’s a teacher, She is right., etc.)|
|Possessive pronouns (Those are hers.)|
|This/that as pronouns (She wants this.)|
Content or Function?
Look at the list of words below. Determine whether each is a content or a function word, and click the buttons to check your answer.
Here are some examples of how content and function words are used in English speaking.
Listen to how they sound to hear how the content words are stressed more than the function words. Repeat the sentences to practice.
What do you think about the black shirt?
This sentence has four content words: what, think, black, shirt
There are also four function words: do, you, about, the
I can’t call you yet, but I’m going to call you tomorrow.
This sentence has five content words: can’t, call, call, tomorrow, yet (adverb)
There are also seven function words: I, you, but, I’m, going, to, you
You try it!
Identify the content words in each sentence.
Wait for the bus.
I won’t be at the party, but Mary wants to go.
The teacher forgot to send the class the notes.
Suggested Extra Speaking Practice
1. Answer the following questions out loud. Record yourself and listen to your recording. Did you appropriately stress the content words more than the function words?
What classes are you taking at Baruch?
What is your dream job?
Who is your biggest role model, and why?
There are many reasons different words may be stressed in different situations. Some of this deals with individuality in speaking, while stress can also be impacted by new and contrasting information, highlighting, and emotions. Visit our other sections on these topics to learn more about how to incorporate stress and rhythm into your conversations.
2. Below is an excerpt of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, also used in the Thought Groups section. Listen to the clip and read the transcript. Note which words receive the most stress. Are they all content words? Why do you think King might sometimes stress other words?
“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.'”
3. Listen to 30 seconds of a television show you enjoy. If possible, find the transcript online. Pay attention to how the content and function words are stressed differently by the characters.