Main Stress In English

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English Stress

Stress or main stress, for obvious reasons, while the other type of major stress is usually referred to as secondary stress. Secondary stress is optional, basically it only appears in longer English words under very specific circumstances (see below in more detail). For example, the first syllable of.

1. Historical landmarks

Gill (1619). Cap. XXV-XXVI.

Stress in english language
  • The rule: Some words in English can be both a noun and a verb. In those cases, the noun has its word stress on the first syllable, and with the verb, the stress falls on the second syllable. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see that this rule is a derivation from the prior.
  • To standard descriptions (e.g. Halle and Vergnaud 1987 and Hayes 1995), main stress in English words follow the rules in (5), although each rule have some exceptions. For ease of reading the syllable with main stress is underlined in the weight representation.
  • Speak English clearly and be understood! Word stress (or syllable stress) is important because syllables in English words are not all equal! This video lesson will show you how to recognise and practice word stress (or syllable stress) correctly. CLICK HERE to read the full lesson transcript.

Steele (1775) distinguished three levels of stress.

Jespersen (1909/1954):

Mr. William Archer, after a long list of seemingly arbitraryaccentuations in the English language (America To-Day, p. 193),goes on to say: `But the larger our list of examples, the more capriciousdoes our accentuation seem, the more evidently subject to mere accidentsof fashion. There is scarcely a trace of consistent or rational principlein the matter.' It will be the object of the following pages to show thatthere are principles, and that the `capriciousness' is merely thenatural consequences of the fact that there is not one single principle,but several principles working sometimes against each other. (p. 160)
Kingdon (1958) distinguished a) 'Romanic-type compounds' (derived Latinatewords) b) 'Greek-type compounds' (like lexical compounds) c) 'English-typecompounds' (lexical compounds).

Chomsky, Halle & Lukoff (1956), (summary account in Chomsky andMiller 1963):

These rules .. are ordered, and apply in a cycle, firstto the smallest constituents (that is, lexical morphemes), then to thenext larger ones, and so on, until the largest domain of phonetic processesis reached .. essentiallly the same rules apply both inside and outsidethe word. Thus .. a single cycle of transformational rules .. by repeatedapplication, determines the phonetic structure of a complex form.
a) A substantive rule that assigns stress in initial position innouns (also stems) under very general circumstances. [Germanic stress].
b) A nuclear stress rule that makes the last main stress dominant,thus weakening all other stresses in the construction.
c) The Whatvowel reduction rule.
d) A rule of stress adjustment that weakens all nonmainstressesin a word by one.

2. Chomsky & Halle (1968), especially chs. 2-3. The fulfillmentof their concerted effort to determine a complete set of rules for Englishphonology, dominated by stress assignment and its consequences.

2.1. Stress placement is sensitive to [syllable] weight

p. 29 weak cluster - 'a string consisting of a simple vocalic nucleusfollowed by no more than one consonant'.

strong cluster - 'a string consisting of either a vocalic nucleus followedby two or more consonants or a complex vocalic nucleus followed by anynumber of consonants.' (i.e. light vs. heavy rimes).

2.2. Stress rules are sensitive to lexical categories

(21) Main Stress Rule

V -> [1 stress] / X - C0]NAV

Rule (21) assigns primary stress to the final vowel of the word, e.g.eváde,supréme, exíst, absúrd, all ofwhich end in a strong cluster. If a verb or adjective has a final weakcluster, the stress is placed on the penultimate syllable e.g. rélish,cóvet,devélop, stólid, cómmon,clandéstine.

2.3. Sensitivity to the Latinate/Germanic distinction

a) Germanic affixes don't affect stress placement,e.g. éarth, éarthly, unéarthly, unéarthliness.
b) Latinate suffixes may affect stress placement,e.g. témpest, tempéstuous, tempestuósity.
c) Stress may shift onto Latinate prefixes, e.g.invést vs. ínverse, càtatónicvs. catastrophe.
d) Stress never shifts onto Germanic prefixes, e.g.òver[cóok] - no forms like ovéric [oUvrIk]

Segmentally homophonous Latinate and Germanic suffixeswith different stress behaviours:
-aIzmodern-izereprisecf. reprísal
-Idwretch-ed, dogg-edaridcf. arídity
-nwid-enmod-erncf. modérnity
tut-orcf. tutórial
-Iboy-ishelectríciancf. eléctric etc.
-mntcontain-mentcomplimentcf. compliméntary

2.4. Sensitivity to morpheme boundaries

pérson+al, not persónal SW+al
theátric+al not theatrícal WSW+al
anecdót+al WWS+al
dialéct+al WWS+al

Phonological operations restricted to specific morphologicaldomains / environments:im-c)Prefix

2.5. Alternating stress rule (p.78) (for secondary stresses)

V -> [1 stress] / - C0 V C0V1 C0]

hurricAn => hurricA1n [Main stress rule]
=> hu1rricA1n[Alternating stress rule]
=> hu1rricA2n[Stress subordination]

3. Liberman and Prince (1977)

'certain features of prosodic systems like that of English, in particularthe phenomenon of `stress subordination', are not to be referred primarilyto the properties of individual segments (or syllables), but rather reflecta hierarchical rhythmic structuring that organizes the syllables, words,and syntactic phrases of a sentence.'

-press-ionover- [im--press-ion] -able
Un-earth-li -ness
dew -coveredsswswwpricelaborPamela

'only a stressed syllable may be thestrong element of a metricalfoot'.

Digression on Iambic Reversal / Rhythm Rule / Stress Retraction

SPE and Metrical Phonology both capture the preservation of relativeprominence under embedding. But there are counter-cases,

e.g. thirtéen vs. thìrteen mén, àchromáticvs. áchromàtic lêns

Liberman and Prince: 'we need an account of linguistic rhythm in termsof which the appropriate stress configurations are marked as `clashing',thus producing a pressure for change.'

The Metrical Grid:
For more on the Rhythm rule, see Kager and Visch (1988), and papersby Grabe and Warren, Vogel et al. and Shattuck-Hufnagel in
Connell and Arvaniti (1995). According to these later studies, iambicreversal is not a phonological movement rule at all, bur arises from theinteraction of lexical stress and phrase-final accent:

Main Stress English Translation

- according to Liberman and Prince's stress-marking algorithm

'Since no cyclic rules in [Liberman & Prince 1977] are sensitiveto metrical structure, one could equivalently stipulate that metrical structureis assigned only on the last cycle.'

If assignment of metrical structure is cyclic (i.e. derivation respectsstructure built on earlier cycles) the (correct) derivation will be:
Sentence stress in english

'metrical structure assigned in earlier cycles is kept insofar as itis not redrawn by the reapplication of [foot construction].'


5. Hayes (1982): extrametricality

i) The final syllable is extrametrical in nouns and suffixed adjectives,e.g. serendipi<ty>, sensa<tion>, perso<nal>. With thisproviso, antepenultimate stress is eliminated. Word final syllables arestressed if heavy, otherwise stress is penultimate (modulo extrametricality).

ii) The final consonant is extrametrical in underived verbs and adjectives,e.g. soli<d>, supre<me>.

6. English stress parameters

As work in metrical theory progressed and was extended to many languages,our conception of English stress assignment became embedded in, and wasconstrained by, a parametric view of options for metrical structure(Halle and Vergnaud 1987, Booij 1983), taking a lead from Chomskyan syntax.

1) Principles: Words consist of feet and feet consist of syllables.

2) Parameter: In English the rightmost foot is strongest (domainof main stress) e(ráse), i(ráte), mu(tátion), (ècu)(méni)<cal>,(ànti)(dìse)(stàblish)<men>(tári)<an>.Cf. Russian: leftmost - (úa)(sàm).

3) Parameter: Bounded feet are maximally binary; ternary feetare dealt with by extrametricality, and can only ocur at the edges of words(or cycles). Thus: (Hàma)(mèlid)(ánthe)<mum>. Cf.unbounded feet in Khalkha Mongolian (xötElbr)`leadership', French (originalité).

4) Parameter: In words with an odd number of syllables (excepting extrametricalones), left-over syllables occur at the beginning; e.g. a(génda),To(péka), a(ríse). In Maranungku they occur at the ende.g. (lángka)(ràte)tì.

5) Parameter: In English, non-tonic binary feet immediatelyprecedethe tonic foot. Problem: (àbra)ca(dábra).

6) Parameter: The leftmost syllable in a foot is strongest e.g.(mán), (mánner), (mána)<ger>. Cf. Weri (kù)(lipú),(ulù)(amít), (á)(kunè)(tepál), in whichthe rightmost syllable is strongest.

7) Parameter: Feet are quantity-sensitive i.e. a heavy syllable mustbe the head of a foot. (Does not exclude possibility that light syllablescould be syllable heads too) e.g. (fùnda)(méntal), (spíral)but in(ért).

8) Paramter: Secondary stresses are placed from right to left on thehead of every foot other than the tonic foot. (Stress assignment is iterative.Cf. Spanish, Polish.) e.g. (hàma)(mèli)(dánthe)<mum>.

7. The Abracadabra problem.

(àbra)ca(dábra), Kalamazoo, Luxipalilla, Hardecanute,okefenokee, Nebuchadnezzar, paraphernalia, Kilimanjaro: these words appearto require either a medial extrametrical syllable or a ternary foot.

Hammond's solution: secondary feet are built left to right. FollowingHammond's suggestion, see also Halle and Kenstowicz (1991) section 7, McCarthyand Prince (1993) section 3.

American indian penpals. Bepositive2021 India, India Male, 50 While the World, specially my Country is going through real testing time, am positive that humanity like always will come out stronger and Just better prepared for bigger challenges ahead that nature keeps throwing at us.

8. Phrasal stress

Roca and Johnson follow Chomsky and Halle (1968) in contrasting e.g.lexical bláckbìrd vs. phrasal blàck bírd.But we cannot in general state that phrasal stress is right-headed. Noun-nounsequences are usually left-headed (e.g. dóg-hoùse),but there are exceptions (e.g. lòbster ragóut).


Booij, G.E. (1983) Principles and parameters in prosodic phonology.Linguistics21, 249-280.

Chomsky, N.& M. Halle (1968) The Sound Pattern of English.New York: Harper and Row. Reprinted in 1991 by MIT Press.

Chomsky, N., M. Halle and F. Lukoff (1956) On Accent and Juncture inEnglish. In M. Halle, H.G. Lunt, H. McLean and C.H. van Schooneveld, eds.ForRoman Jakobson: Essays on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday. TheHague: Mouton & Co. 65-80.

Chomsky, N.& G.A. Miller (1963) Introduction to the Formal Analysisof Natural Languages. In R.D. Luce, R.R. Bush and E. Galanter, eds. Handbookof Mathematical Psychology Volume II, New.York: John Wiley. 269-321.

Connell, B. and A. Arvaniti (1995) Phonology and Phonetic Evidence:Papers in Laboratory Phonology IV. Cambridge University Press.

Gil, A. (1619) Logonomia Anglica. [Scolar Press facsimile reprint,1967]. Or see Alexander Gill's Logonomia Anglica (1619), Part II: Biographicaland Bibliographical Introductions. Notes by Bror Danielson and ArvidGabrielson. Translation by Robin C. Alston. Stockholm Studies in EnglishXXVII. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell.

Halle, M.& M. Kenstowicz (1991) The Free Element Condition and Cyclicversus Noncyclic Stress. Linguistic Inquiry 22(1), 457-501.

Halle, M. and J.-R. Vergnaud (1987) An Essay on Stress. MIT Press.

Main Stress In English Literature

Hayes, B (1981) A Metrical Theory of Stress Rules. IULC.

Jesperson, O. (1909/1954) A Modern English Grammar on HistoricalPrinciples. Part I: Sounds and Spellings. London: George Allen andUnwin.

Kager, R. & E. Visch (1988), Metrical constituency and rhythmicadjustment. Learn english free. Phonology 5.1, 21-71.

Kingdon, R. (1958) The Groundwork of English Stress. London:Longman.

Main stress english translation

Kiparsky, P. (1979) Metrical Structure Assignment is Cyclic. LinguisticInquiry 10(3), 421-441.

Main Stress In English Writing

Liberman, M. and A. Prince (1977) On Stress and Linguistic Rhythm. LinguisticInquiry 8(2), 249-336.

McCarthy, J. and A. Prince (1993) Generalized Alignment. Yearbookof Morphology 1993. 79-153.

Steele, J. (1975) An Essay towards Establishing the Melody and Measureof Speech. [Scolar Press Facsimile edition, 1969].


Determine the stress of each syllable and the quality of each vowelin the following examples. (Refer to a pronouncing dictionary if you arenot a native speaker of English.) Parse the words into prefixes, stemsand suffixes. In each case, account for the alternations of stress andvowel quality in the prefix.