Word stress and suffixes

Some words are made up of a root  and a suffix:

dangerous   =    root –> danger  +  ous –<  suffix
commercial   =    root –> commerc(e)  + al –<  suffix

In some words with suffixes, the stress stays on the same syllable as in the root. Compare:

‘danger and: ‘dangerous

In other words, the suffix changes the stressed syllable. Compare:

‘commerce and: com‘mercial

Suffixes which don’t usually change the stress pattern in the root word include -able, -age, -al, -er, -ful, -less, -ness, -ous and -fy. For example:

‘comfort – ‘comfortable
per‘cent – per’centage
e‘lectric – e‘lectrical
‘amplify –‘amplifier
re‘gret – re‘gretful
re‘gard – re‘gardless
‘foolish – ‘foolishness
di‘saster – di‘sastrous
‘beauty – ‘beautify

Exceptions with -able and -al include:

ad‘mire‘admirable
pre‘fer‘preferable
‘medicine – me‘dicinal
‘agriculture – agri‘cultural

Note that before the suffixes -ious, -ulous, -orous and -eous main stress usually comes in the syllable before the suffix:

‘industry – in‘dustrious
‘mystery- my‘sterious
‘miracle – mi‘raculous
‘carnivore – car‘nivorous
ad‘vantage – advan‘tageous
‘outrage – out‘rageous

Some suffixes themselves usually have the main stress. These include -ee, -eer, -ese and -ette.

For example:


absen‘tee
refu‘gee
engi‘neer
mountai‘neer
Japan‘ese
Nepal‘ese
cigar‘ette
di‘skette

Exceptions include: ‘omelette, ‘etiquette, em’ployee (although less commonly we use employ’ee).

Note: Some people say ‘cigarette.

Words with these suffixes can often have stress shift:

She’s japanESE.
but: She’s a JAPanese JOURnalist.
He’s a refuGEE.
but: We saw photos of REFugee CHILdren.

Exercise 1

Complete the sentences with pairs of words the box. You should also mark the stress.

‘outrage – out’rageous
my’sterious – ‘mystery
re’gardless – re’gard
agricultural – ‘agriculture
percentage – per’cent
di’saster – disastrous ‘
industry – in’dustrious
‘medicine – me’dicinal

EXAMPLE:  The herb is used for __me’dicinal__  purposes, although it isn’t usually thought of as a __‘medicine__.

1 The journey was a ______ ; in fact, the whole vacation was ______.
2 The decision was an ______- quite _______ . I was appalled.
3 _________ of his mistakes, the president continues to be held in high _______.
4 Workers in the steel ________ are generally skilled and _______ .
5 The Democrats’ lead is now eight _______ points, and has risen three _________ in the last week.
6 Her _______ disappearance was never explained, and her whereabouts remain a _________ until today.
7 The region is mainly ________ land and most people here still work in ________ .

Now listen and check your answers. Then say the sentences aloud, paying attention to the stress in the words you have written.

(United States) (BRIT: /hɜːb/; US: /ɜːrb/)

(Example: Note also that ‘medicine’ is usually pronounced with 2 syllables /ˈmɛd sɪn/, but may be pronounced with three in slow, careful speech /ˈmɛd ɪ sɪn/.)

1 di‘saster – di‘sastrous
2 ‘outrage – out‘rageous
3 Re‘gardless – re‘gard
4 ‘industry – in‘dustrious
5 per‘centage – per‘cent
6 my‘sterious – ‘mystery
7 agri‘cultural – ‘agriculture

Exercise 2

This speaker is talking about the difficulty of getting cars repaired. Focus on the words ending with the suffixes -able and -al (in bold). Listen and tick (✓) the words which follow the rule of having the same stress pattern as their root.

You hear about the poor quality of car repairs so often
nowadays. You just can’t find dependable (✓)
mechanics, and the problem seems to be universal (no tick).
For example, the other day I was having problems
starting my car, so I took it to a reputable ( ) garage.
At least I’d heard it was quite reliable ( ). The people
there seemed quite professional ( ), and they said it
looked like just a minor mechanical ( ) problem.
They said it would cost about €100, which seemed
quite acceptable ( ). But when I picked it up, they’d
badly scratched the paintwork. They apologised, and
said it was accidental ( ) and offered to re-spray it, but
whether they’ll do a good job is debatable ( ).

Now listen and check your answers. Then say the sentences aloud, paying attention to the stress in the words you have written.

(Jamaica)

Words with the same stress pattern as their root:

de‘pendable (de‘pend)
re‘liable (re‘ly)
me‘chanical (me‘chanic)
ac‘ceptable (ac‘cept)
pro‘fessional (pro‘fession)
de‘batable (de‘bate)

Words with a different stress pattern from their root:

uni‘versal (‘universe)
‘reputable (re‘pute)
acci‘dental (‘accident)

Exercise 3

Here are some extracts from a radio news programme. Underline the syllable in each word in bold that you think is likely to be made prominent. Remember, some of the words in bold are likely to have stress shift.

EXAMPLE: An aircraft that crashed three years ago in the Andes has been found by mountaineers.

1 A report on the problem of absentee landlords is to be published today.
2 Five thousand volunteer helpers are to be recruited for the next Olympic Games.
3 Mandarin an

d Cantonese are the most widely spoken languages in China.
4 The government is considering a ban on roulette.
5 There has been an outbreak of cholera among Sudanese villagers.

Now listen and check your answers. Then read the extracts aloud.

1  ‘absentee * 2  ‘volunteer * 3  Canton’ese 4  rou‘lette 5  ‘Sudanese *

* indicates stress shift.

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