Stress and rhythm part 2 – sentence stress


Sentence stress is the main means of providing rhythm in speech. Rhythm is the key to fluent English speech. Sentence stress occurs when we say certain words more loudly and with more emphasis than others.

Rhythm comes from the combination of the two types of stress in American English:

1) Syllable stress in words (as discussed in the part 1. If you haven’t already, here’s the link:

2) Word stress in sentences


There’s a bit problem. Some words in a sentence are stressed more than others, but which words in a sentence are usually stressed? Have a look at the sentence :

“We’ll be arriving on the train tomorrow from Paris”

which words do you think sound a little bit longer,  a little bit stronger ? Actually, there’re 3 words arriving, train and Paris that sound a little longer and a little stronger.


  • Is “arriving” a verb?
  • What about train and Paris? They’re nouns

Basically, nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are content words and content words are stressed. That’s why the English language has been called “the stress timed language”.

Let’s quickly talk about the function words and content words

  • Focus words (content words or even key words) are very important to the meaning of the sentence, so the focus words are going to convey some content. They can be nouns, verbs, adjectives,pronouns. They’re super important words in the sentence.
  • That’s going to contrast with function words, which convey less meaning. They’re helping add some structure to our language, but they’re as not important as focus words. They can be Prepositions, articles, conjunctions.

Generally speaking, focus words are stressed and function words are not stressed. That’s why you’re gonna make that word louder and longer and higher in pitch. You gotta do three of them, not 1 out of three or 2 out of three. You must make the three of them longer, louder and higher.

What is the difference between stressed words and unstressed words?

  • Unstressed words: softer – shorter –  lower
  • Stressed words: higher – louder – longer

Let’s take a look at some sentences

  • The kids are at the park.
  • Do you have any brothers or sisters?
  • Why didn’t you do your homework?
  • He bought red car for his daughter.
  • We are not familiar with this new computer program.
  • She doesn’t know the answer.
  • don’t know the answer, either.
  • We aren’t sure.
  • I’ve never heard of that before, but it makes sense.
  • They’ll ask the teacher for help.
  • She is going to study tonight.
  • I can speak French.

Word stress is unchangeable, it’s always the same. For example: person has 2 syllables and the first syllable is stressed, which is pronounced louder, longer and higher in pitch, but sentence stress can change and does change.


Look at the sentence: “I really love sleeping on the fence”.  (Love,sleeping and fence are words mostly stressed,) but I have a question “WHO?” – I really love sleeping on the fence” ( I is stressed. It’s stronger than the rest of words). “WHAT”-  “I really love sleeping on the fence” (sleeping is stressed. It’s stronger than the rest of words) and “WHERE” – I really love sleeping on the fence (fence is stressed. It’s stronger than the rest of words)

*REMEMBER: “Stress can change in sentences depending on what the important information is”

Another example:

John is leaving Paris next week.                (Emphasize the time)
John is leaving Paris next week.                  (Emphasize the place)

John is leaving Paris next week.                  (Emphasize the action)
John is leaving to Paris next week.             (Emphasize the person)

For more example: I like here


I like her (means she’s the one I like)

I like her (means I’m the one who likes her)

I like her (means I like her very much)

Listen to the sentences to hear the differences in the sentence “I never said she stole my money” 

Some activities and ideas you may want to use in your class or self-study

  • Teacher says the sentence in different ways to indicate different meanings. The students listen and choose the correct meaning.
    • I wanted him to say the sentence.
    • I wanted him to say the sentence.
    • I wanted him to say the sentence.
    • I wanted him to say the sentence.
    • I wanted him to say the sentence
  • Break class into pairs, a student looks at the board and says the unstressed words and the other (who turns back to the board) has to correct his partner. It’ so fun!
    • I don’t want to do my homework
    • I dare you take your pants off
    • I dare you punch in Mr.Lee’s face.
    • She doesn’t know that her boyfriend has another girl
    • My father would be really upset
    • She’s going to cry like a 5 year old girl

(Student should write the sentences down and then underline the words they think sound a little bit stronger and then correct their parter. Of course, they’re not allowed to look at the sentences on the words)

  • Correct me. I’m going to say the sentences with unstressed words and my students will have to correct me. They love correcting their teacher if you give them permission to say “You’re stupid, you better say like this”. Wow, your class is so amazing because your students are pretty bossy.
    • I don’t want to become a chef.
    • I love teaching English as well as cooking.
    • Marry went to my party yesterday
    • Obama doesn’t know how to use chopsticks to eat Bún Chả at a restaurant called bún chả Hương Liên.
    • I don’t want to kiss you because of your mouth.
    • My mother doesn’t let me get married with Taylor Swift.

That’s it and we’ve just done the second part of stress and rhythm series. Hope you liked it and had tons of fun learning English.


Some useful links and websites about sentence stress

Jo Gakonga – CELTA lesson:

Podcasts links:

English pronunciation pod:




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