English is a stress-time language which means that some words are stressed and others are not when speaking. Generally, content words such as nouns and principal verbs are stressed, while structure words such as articles, helping verbs, etc. are not. These articles on intonation and stress in English will help you understand this concept, as well as provide exercises to improve English pronunciation.
- Intonation and Stress - Key to Understanding and Being Understood
- Sound Scripting
- Practicing Stress and Intonation - Lesson Plan
A number of structure words have both weak and strong pronunciation. As a rule, structure will take the weak pronunciation which means that the vowel becomes muted. For example, take a look at these sentences:
I can play piano.
Tom is from New England.
Here are these two sentences with accented words in bold.
Mary can play piano.
Tom is from Chicago.
'can', and 'from' and 'is' are unaccented and the vowel is very weak. This weak vowel sound is often referred to as a schwa. In the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) the schwa is represented as an upside down 'e'. It is, however, also possible to use these words with the strong form. Take a look at the same structure words, but used with strong pronunciation:
You can't play tennis. - Yes, I can.
Where is Tom from?
In these two sentences the placement at the end of the sentence calls for the strong pronunciation of the word. In other cases, the usually unaccented word becomes accented as a means of stressing that something is contrary to what is understood by others. Look at these two sentences in a dialogue.
You aren't interested in coming next week, are you?
Yes, I AM interested in coming!
Here is a list of the most common weak and strong words by letter. Try the following exercise to practice both the weak and strong form. Write two sentences: One sentence using the weak form, and one using the strong form. Try practicing these sentences taking care to quickly glide over the vowel in the weak form, or pronouncing the vowel or diphthong sound firmly in the strong form. Here are a few examples:
I work for a company in the city.
What are you looking for?
She is our sister.
OUR sister is so talented!
Common Weak - Strong Words
a / am / an / and / are / as / at
be / been / but
can / could
do / does
for / from
had / has / have / he / her / him / his
of / our
shall / she / should / some
than / that / the / them / there / to
was / we / were / who / would / will
you / your