English Pronunciation

Introduction to Syllables

A syllable is a "beat" heard in a spoken word. Every word is at least one syllable in length, and many words have multiple syllables. The number of syllables in a word is easier to discover directly than to have explained. The process of discovery most easily begins with a physical movement of some sort, such as tapping a finger on the table. Tap the table for each syllable in the words below.

Tapping Syllables
2 syllables 3 syllables 4 syllables

Stressed, Unstressed, and Secondarily-Stressed Syllables

Spoken English follows a loose, rhythmic pattern of soft beats. Stressed syllables form the underlying basis of that rhythm. Unstressed and secondarily-stressed syllables are necessary off-beats that fill the space between stressed syllables in spoken English.

Stressed Syllables / ˈ /

When a word has more than one syllable, a single syllable within the word is given more emphasis than any of the other syllables. That syllable is considered to be the stressed syllable. The vowel sound of the stressed syllable is emphasized by being pronounced longer, louder, and often at a higher pitch than the surrounding syllables. Vowel sounds of stressed syllables are more likely to be phonetic (pronounced as the spelling would suggest).

The symbol / ˈ / is used to represent the stressed syllable of a multi-syllable word.

Unstressed Syllables and Schwa /ə/

Within a multi-syllable word, an unstressed syllable is frequently located next to a stressed syllable. Often, this vowel sound is not phonetic (not pronounced the way it is spelled), and is instead pronounced with a quick, neutral vowel sound called schwa. Because schwa is a function of syllable stress and not spelling, schwa can have almost any spelling.

In dictionary transcriptions, the vowel sound scwha is represented with an upside-down e: /ə/.

Secondarily-Stressed Syllables

Secondarily-stressed syllables most often occur two beats off a main stress. They are given more emphasis than unstressed syllables, but not as much as a stressed syllable. Secondarily stressed syllables are more likely to be pronounced phonetically than unstressed syllables.

The symbol / ˌ / is used to represent secondarily-stressed syllables of a multi-syllable word.

Syllable Stress Representation

Along with the symbols for stressed and secondarily-stressed syllables, dots are used to show the rhythm of spoken English stress patterns. A large dot represents a stressed syllable, a medium dot represents a secondarily-stressed syllable, and a small dot represents an unstressed syllable.

Example Stress Representation
com ˈpete
ˌvol un ˈteer
ˌin spi ˈra tion

Syllable Stress Patterns

Learning syllable stress patterns is often overlooked and seen as too complicated for most students to manage. This is unfortunate, both because of the importance of syllable stress in proper English pronunciation, and because the patterns of syllable stress fit into just a few broad categories. Those categories are:

  • 2-syllable word stress
  • Compound noun stress
  • Words with stress derived from suffixes (stress-controlling suffixes)

Taking the time to learn and understand syllable stress improves spoken communication and increases spoken English fluency.

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