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Pronunciation: Changing Meaning through Word Stress

Word Stress Explanation and Exercise

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Two businesswomen discussing project details
Thomas Barwick/ Iconica/ Getty Images
When you are speaking English the words you stress can change the underlying meaning of a sentence. Let's take a look at the following sentence:

I don't think he should get the job.

This simple sentence can have many levels of meaning based on the word you stress. Consider the meaning of the following sentences with the stressed word in bold. Read each sentence aloud and give a strong stress to the word in bold:

I don't think he should get the job.
Meaning: Somebody else thinks he should get the job.

I don't think he should get the job.
Meaning: It's not true that I think he should get the job.

I don't think he should get that job.
Meaning: That's not really what I mean. OR I'm not sure he'll get that job.

I don't think he should get that job.
Meaning: Somebody else should get that job.

I don't think he should get that job.
Meaning: In my opinion it's wrong that he's going to get that job.

I don't think he should get that job.
Meaning: He should have to earn (be worthy of, work hard for) that job.

I don't think he should get that job.
Meaning: He should get another job.

I don't think he should get that job.
Meaning: Maybe he should get something else instead.

As you can see, there are many different ways this sentence can be understood. The important point to remember is that the true meaning of the sentence is also expressed through the stressed word or words.

Here is an exercise to help you develop the art of correct word stress. Take the following sentence:

I said she might consider a new haircut.

Say the sentence aloud using the stress word marked in bold. Once you have spoken the sentence a few times, match the sentence version to the meaning below. You will find the answers to this quiz on the following page.

  1. I said she might consider a new haircut.
  2. I said she might consider a new haircut.
  3. I said she might consider a new haircut.
  4. I said she might consider a new haircut.
  5. I said she might consider a new haircut.
  6. I said she might consider a new haircut.
  7. I said she might consider a new haircut.

  • Not just a haircut.
  • It's a possibility.
  • It was my idea.
  • Not something else.
  • Don't you understand me?
  • Not another person.
  • She should think about it. it's a good idea.

Exercise: Write out a number of sentences. Read each of them stressing a different word each time you read them. Notice how the meaning changes depending on which word you stress. Don't be afraid to exaggerate the stress, in English we often use this device to add meaning to a sentence. It's very possible that when you think you are exaggerating, it will sound quite natural to native speakers.

Answers to the word stress exercise:

  1. I said she might consider a new haircut.
    It was my idea.
  2. I said she might consider a new haircut.
    Don't you understand me?
  3. I said she might consider a new haircut.
    Not another person.
  4. I said she might consider a new haircut.
    It's a possibility.
  5. I said she might consider a new haircut.
    She should think about it. it's a good idea.
  6. I said she might consider a new haircut.
    Not just a haircut.
  7. I said she might consider a new haircut.
    Not something else.

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