American English Pronunciation: Sentence Stress

Phrasal Verb Stress

Phrasal verbs can make learning the rhythm of American English pronunciation a little more difficult because they cause the stressed word to move from a content word (the verb) to words that are usually considered function words (the prepotition or adverb).

A phrasal verb is a combination of a verb and another word, usually a preposition or an adverb. Prepositions and adverbs are called particles. The idiomatic combination of the verb and the particle has a different definition than either word alone.

Example of a particle

For instance, up, as a preposition, means to go higher. We climb up stairs and look up at clouds. Down, as a preposition, means to go lower. We go down stairs, or look down at the ground.

Example of a phrasal verb

To catch up, however, means to get to the same place as someone else, and to calm down means to become less excited. Neither of those phrasal verbs has anything to do with a physical direction.

Here are some other examples of phrasal verbs that use up and down. In each phrase, the preposition receives more stress than the main content word.

  • to catch up
  • to calm down
  • to break up
  • to let down
  • to give up
  • to turn down
  • to dress up
  • to break down

In the neutral stress pattern of spoken English, it is the particle (instead of the main content word) which becomes a stressed word when the particle is a part of a phrasal verb. Listen to the difference between the phrasal verb calm down, and the same phrase when used as an adjective followed by a preposition.

A (phrasal verb): I was so excited about going to Hawaii. It took me a week to calm down after I first saw the water.

B (adjective near particle): It was very windy up the hill, but quite calm down by the water.

In sentence A, calm down is used as a phrasal verb. In sentence B, however, the adjective calm happens to be followed by the preposition down, as in "Where was it calm?" "Down by the water." The words are not being used as a phrasal verb, so they follow the typical stressed content word guideline.

Neutral stress pattern of a sentence with a particle

Particles, when used alone, are not usually stressed words in a sentence. (Particles are italicized.)

Janet swims in a lake.
   
I'm speaking into a microphone.
         

Neutral stress pattern of a sentence with a phrasal verb

Particles, when used as part of an phrasal verb, are usually stressed words in a sentence. If the particle comes after a single-syllable verb, the verb might not be stressed. This is due to the Rhythm Rule, which states that English is spoken with a pattern of stressed and unstressed beats. (Phrasal verbs are italicized.)

Juan hung up on me.
 
Don't give up; keep trying
 

If the particle of a phrasal verb comes after a milti-syllable verb, the verb is more liely to be stressed, if stressing it still allows an unstressed syllable between stressed syllables.

Jane got carried away with baking cupcakes.
       

Sometimes an object may come between the verb and particle in a phrasal verb. The particle will remain stressed, and the verb can be stressed, especially if doing so will still allow the Rhythm Rule to work.

Will you take the trash out?

To sum up:
Native English speakers generally stress the particle of a phrasal verb in order to help the listener comprehend the change in meaning it causes. The Rhythm Rule helps determine if the verb of a phrasal verb will also be stressed. Non-native English speaker and ESL/ELL students can improve their listening comprehension and perception of fluency by learning to correctly stress phrasal verbs.

Review lessons
Introduction to sentence stress
The Rhythm Rule
Sentence stress guidelines
Content words and function words
Open compund nouns


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