Word stress and prominence

Let’s consider two terms that are related but different: stress and prominence. Most dictionaries which give the pronunciation of words also indicate which syllable(s) have stress.
For example, we can see that ‘party‘ and ‘remember‘ have stress on only one syllable:

party /ˈp ɑː t i / remember / r ɪ ˈm e m b ə /

and that ‘controversial‘ and ‘kindergarten‘ have stress on two syllables:

controversial /ˌk ɒ n t r ə ˈv ɜː ʃ l̩ / kindergarten /ˈk ɪ n d ə ˌɡ ɑː t n̩ /

When a word is used in conversation and emphasised, one of the stressed syllables is made prominent. In a one-stress word this is the stressed syllable, and in a two-stress word it is usually the syllable with main stress. Prominent syllables can be shown by using capital letters:

I’m going to a PARty. I can’t reMEMber.
It was controVERsial. She goes to KINdergarten.

Prominence can move to the secondary stressed syllable in a word like ‘controversial’ when it is followed by a word with another prominent syllable, particularly when the first syllable of the following word is prominent:

She gave a CONtroversial ANswer.

This is sometimes called stress shift. Stress shift can only happen in words where a secondary stress comes before main stress. Here are some more examples:

ˌunder’stand – I UNderstand EVerything.
ˌdisap’pointing – It was a DISappointing OUTcome.

Other words which often have stress shift include:
• ˌalto’gether, ˌinde’pendent, ˌindi’stinct, ˌmedi’ocre, ˌsatis’factory, ˌuni’versity, ˌweek’end, ˌworth’while.
• some place names which have main stress on the last syllable, such as: ˌBer’lin, ˌMontre’al.
• -teen numbers – ˌthir’teen, ˌnine’teen; and two-part numbers – ˌforty-‘five, ˌseventy-‘eight.

Note : Some other words with secondary stress rarely have stress shift. For example:
ˌapproxi’mation, ˌcorre’spondence, ˌinde’cision, proˌnunci’ation.
For particular emphasis or contrast, syllables other than those with main or secondary stress can be made prominent:

A: I agree with you that it’s HOPEless.
B: No, I said it was hopeFUL.

A: Apparently, Kim’s been dePORTed.
B: No, he’s been REported.


Exercise 1
Are these one-stress words (write 1) or two-stress words (2)? Capitalize the main stressed syllables and underline the secondary stressed syllables. Use your dictionary if necessary.

EXAMPLES      exPERiment (1)     thermoSTATic (2)
1 occasional ( )              4 cosmopolitan ( )     7 electronic ( )
2 supplement ( )           5 pedestrian ( )           8 spectacular ( )
3 temperamental ( )   6 incoherent ( )           9 documentary ( )

Now listen, check your answers and repeat the words.

1 ocCAsional (1 )              4 cosmoPOlitan (2 )     7 elecTROnic ( 2)
2 SUPPlement (1 )           5 peDEStrian (1)           8 specTACular ( 1)
3 temperaMENtal (2 )   6 incoHERent (2)           9 docuMENtary ( 2)

Exercise 2
Underline the syllable you think is most likely to have prominence in the words in bold. In which two of these words is stress shift not possible?

We used to live near the Berlin Wall.
She’s got a job in Berlin.

1 I’m working on my pronunciation.
2 It was just a routine job.
3 The film was made for propaganda purposes.
4 The region has a Mediterranean climate.
S Next month she’ll be sixteen.
6 There was a satisfactory outcome.
7 The country was declared independent.
8 I love living next to the Mediterranean.
9 It cost sixteen euros.
10 The book was just political propaganda.
11 The operation was quite routine.
12 They appointed an independent judge.
13 The result was satisfactory.
14 I’m doing a pronunciation course.

Now listen and check your answers. Then say the sentences aloud.
*indicates stress shift.
1 pronunciation
2 routine *
3 propaganda
4 Mediterranean *
5 sixteen
6 satisfactory *
7 independent
8 Mediterranean
9 sixteen *
10 propaganda
11 routine
12 independent *
13 satisfactory
14 pronunciation

The words which do not have stress shift are ‘pronunciation’ and ‘propaganda’.

Exercise 3
Listen and underline the syllable that has main stress in these words:

handbag      concise       disarming        footbridge         lifelike   paintbox      subjective          tablecloth


handbag      concise        disarming      footbridge        lifelike     paintbox          subjective     tablecloth

Now use the words to complete these conversations. Then underline the syllable in the word that you think is likely to be prominent.

EXAMPLE A: So we have to take the old footpath ?
B: No, we take the old __footbridge__.

1 A: So you thought the work was precise ?
B: No, I said it was _______ .
2 A: You&

#8217;ve lost your handbook, have you ?
B: No, I’ve lost my ________ .
3 A: Yes, I thought the performance was lifeless, too.
B: No, I said I thought it was ________ .
4 A: I didn’t think his findings were very objective.
B: No, they were very ________ .
S A: Does the tabletop need washing?
B: No, the ________ .
6 A: I’ve brought you the paintbrush you asked for.
B: No, I wanted my ________ .
7 A: Did you say the country’s rearming ?
B: No, it’s ________ .

Now listen , check your answers and repeat the corrections.

(Speaker A = South Africa)
1 concise
2 handbag
3 lifelike
4 subjective
5 tablecloth
6 paintbox
7 disarming

2 thoughts on “Word stress and prominence

  1. hello! to my mind, the main stress can be put on a short content word or on a syllable, whereas prominence is the highlighting of one word whatever it is a content or a function word, so as to call the listener’s attention on this part of the sentence. for example in the sentence “I put it on the table.” I could highlight the word “on” to mean that I did not put it elsewhere but precisely on . . .

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