What is sentence stress?

Sentence stress in English is the way a speaker highlights certain words in each sentence. It helps the listener focus on important parts and understand the speaker’s meaning.

For example, The doctor will see you now.  Some words will be more prominant than others and one will be the most prominent.

Stress is achieved the same way in a sentence as it is in a word – this may be by making the stressed syllable longer, louder or a different pitch.

Why is stress important?

Stress is a useful way of signalling what’s important in a sentence. It gives the listener clues to listen to parts of the sentence which are more important.

If stress is not used, or used incorrectly, the listener may misinterpret the intended meaning, or have difficulty picking out important concepts.

In a sentence like "I'll write you a referral now" you can choose to highlight different parts, depending on what you mean. 

Stress is used to signal things like new information, contrasting information, and transitions (changes of topic).

Stress combines with intonation and phrasing to highlight different parts of a sentence.

Why is sentence stress difficult?

You can't choose where to place the stress in an individual word, but you can choose where to place the stress in a sentence. It depends on what you’re trying to highlight. Stressing a different word can change the meaning.

Common problems include

  • stressing too many words in a sentence
  • not stressing any word clearly

Knowing which words to stress depends on the meaningcontext and what you and your listener already knows (shared knowledge).

If you can hear stress in the speech of the person you're talking with, you'll be able to pick up what they think is important too.

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