How to Stress a Syllable :: The Shape of Stress

How to Stress a Syllable ::  The Shape of Stress

In this American English pronunciation video, we’re going to talk about the shape
of a stressed syllable. I’ve been talking a lot recently with my private
students about the shape of stress. Stress isn’t simply a higher pitch and a lower pitch.
Yes-ter-day. Da-da-da. But actually, there’s a swoop from one pitch to the next, so there’s
always a gliding feeling. Yesterday. When my students are able to switch into this mode,
it makes a world of difference. All of a sudden, the speech is much more natural, is much more
American. This applies even to one-syllable words and one-syllable sentences. For example,
yes, yes. It’s not yes, yes, all on one pitch; that’s very flat. Yes. Yes. Hi. Hi. Hi — do
you hear that change in pitch, that shape in that syllable? Very different from hi,
hi, hi. Hi. So the shape of a stressed syllable has the
pitch gliding up and the pitch gliding down. Let’s take for example the word ‘hello’. Hello,
-llo. Do you hear how the change in pitch isn’t abrupt. It slides from lower to higher
and lower again. This is very different from hello, hello, an abrupt pitch change of two
flat ideas. Hell-o, hell-o. Hello. It’s not a bad idea to practice words and
sentences very under pace, sliding from pitch to pitch. For example: hey, how are you? Then,
when you speed it up, don’t think of switching back into speaking mode. Think of taking this
stretched out, gliding from pitch to pitch speech, and speeding it up. We don’t want
the character of that uhh– to change. You want to keep that in your speech. So please
keep this in mind, and do practice speaking under pace sometimes. Stress is much more
than a change in pitch, it’s how you change the pitch. That’s it, and thanks so much for using Rachel’s

49 comments on “How to Stress a Syllable :: The Shape of Stress

  1. dhaka4040 Post author

    But how actually to practice American of stressing words while living in a country where English pronunciation is so nativized? Do we have to study stress pattern of every single word out there in the dictionary? Or is there an easy alternative?

  2. Rachel's English Post author

    @dhaka4040 No, especially because words will be stressed differently depending on where they fall in a sentence. I would get a clip of a native speaker from online, by watching one of my videos or ANY video, and study and repeat it. Do a YouTube search on "Rachel's English improve spoken English" for a video that might help. (It should be the top non-ad result.)

  3. dhaka4040 Post author

    @rachelsenglish: "words will be stressed differently depending on where they fall in a sentence."

    But how about stressing within a word rather than within a sentence? Take for example, the word "tomato": the 'to' gets the lowest stress (I'd like to consider 'pitch' and 'stress' interchangeable), while 'ma' gets the highest, and the last 'to' gets lower stress than 'ma'. It's something like: toMAto. So, how to learn these pitching/stressing within the words?

  4. Rachel's English Post author

    @dhaka4040 I see. There are some rules, and a book that I recommend on my website lays them out very well. If you visit my website, currently a link to the book is in the left sidebar.

  5. Rachel's English Post author

    @ewertonsoad The media is quite reliable for speaking Standard American (midwestern) — movies and TV will integrate more regional accents.

  6. Rachel's English Post author

    @saintforlife I live in NYC — but I do teach through skype. You can see all the options for studying with me me on my website, on the 1-on-1 page.

  7. Rachel's English Post author

    @plzhealme You can pronounce it with a stop D going into the TH, but you don't want to leave the D out. Without the stop, the vowel and L of 'told' will be too long.

  8. denzelping Post author

    Thank you for your videos! I have a question. I often hear 2 versions of the pronunciation of words such as "tube" and "Tuesday". One version has the [u] vowel sound as in "cool' while the other has a vowel sound identical to the word "queue" or "cube". Which is the correct one?

  9. Mottahead Post author

    This is by far the best video on pronunciation I've ever seen.
    This gliding up and down and sliding from pitch to pitch thing – I think that's where it's at.
    (By the way, practicing sliding from pitch to pitch slowly won't make one sound like like that forgetful blue fish from a famous animated movie? WooOOOooonnt iiIITTTtttt mmMAAaakke oOONNnnne ssSSOOOUUuunndd vvVEEeerry ssttTTRRAAANNNgggeee? And of couse I'm doing it, you can count on it. )

  10. Rachel's English Post author

    @Mottahead Unfortunately I don't think I've seen that movie! But, I think you'll sound great sliding from pitch to pitch! 🙂

  11. Mottahead Post author

    Well, I didn't want to name names but I was thinking of Dolly (Finding Nemo) telling Nemo's father that she could speak the language of whales.

  12. Rachel's English Post author

    @Mottahead I figured it was Finding Nemo … a movie that I always planned on seeing, but never got around to!

  13. john lee Post author

    Dear Rachel!
    Could you please help me answer my concern?
    -In the following example: "Sometimes it's hard to walk in a single woman's shoes", do we make the pitch gliding up and the pitch gliding down on every single words, or only on the content words and three stressed words, or only on the stressed words?
    -And, on the content words (sometimes, walk, woman), i know they are not the stressed words, but do our voices still go up a little bit or be flat?
    I love all your videos! Thanks so much!

  14. Rachel's English Post author

    Hi John, thanks for your question. This is a bit hard to answer because there are many choices about what to stress in a sentence, and many options will be 'right'. What is the most important is that you have contrast between long and short, and usually that means stressed syllables of content words vs. others. Content words that you choose to stress less can have less shape in the voice, but should still have more length than a function word like 'in' or 'a'.

  15. Teng Li Post author

    Dear Rachel,
    I find it hard to pronounce words end with "tly" .Take, for example, the word absolutely ['æbsəlutli]: I either pronounce ['æbsəlutəli], or pronounce ['æbsəluli].
    I try to fix it like this: I can say "little ['lɪtl]" very well, and little + y can make the sound ['lɪtli], which end with [tli], but it sounds like ['lɪtəli].
    Can you help me to fix that? Thank you !

  16. Rachel's English Post author

    To prevent the extra schwa sound between T and L, hold the air: stop it in your throat very quickly for the T, then go on to the L.

  17. GodofDance Lee Post author

    yea that I agree Ms. Rachel just explain how it go worse and worse

    this people don't know the problems

  18. GodofDance Lee Post author

    hel lo 2 syllables

    hel lo – 3 syllables

    hel lo – – 4 syllables

    what is the meaning of syllables

  19. totadol Post author

    I've learnt american accent except for 1 word that I found really difficult: Curtains, how do americans pronounce T here?

  20. Nana tanarattanapokin Post author


  21. cme4brain11 Post author

    This is interesting to see your description of pronouncing my native American english.  The fact that you are easy on the eyes helps as well.

  22. Coisas Da Língua Post author

    I used to think I knew everything about Rachel's English, and I've just found out this video. haha

    Great, great video, dear Rachel.

  23. Hans Kamp Post author

    To me, it is a very useful video. If there isn't much of a pitch change in one syllable (as explained in the video) the voice is more monotonous, less friendly. But the interesting part is: when I do not change the pitch and make the syllable very long, it sounds I am singing the syllable.

  24. pedacitodemadre Post author

    Hi, I found this video a revelation. Could you please make a video with several sample sentences (and intonation) slowed down like you did in this one? It would be so helpful! Thank you so much.

  25. Viper1 Darkslayer Post author

    and i figured it out by watching movies and some showes its really really important to know shape stress really much

  26. Maria Safonova Post author

    Thanks for video, but i've got a question. how do i understand what shape of stress in a word?

  27. אור הושמנד Post author

    Stress is way too hard for me to trandcribe when it should come before the first sound in the syllable because I don't know where the syllable starts, I prefer another way to transcribe stress: primary stress will be transcribed with a circumflex ( ̂) and secondary stress will be transcribed with a caron ( ̌), for example, pronunciation will be transcribed /prənʌ̌nsijêjʃən/. Or do you have another solution for me?


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