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ESL Intonation - Stress Types

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ESL Intonation Guide

Improving sentence intonation is one of the key elements in your English pronunciation. Let's discuss the four basic types of word stress that lead to proper intonation in English.

  • tonic stress
  • emphatic stress
  • contrastive stress
  • new information stress

If you are unfamiliar with intonation and stress here are a number of resources on the site to help you understand the basics:

Tonic Stress

Tonic stress refers to the syllable in a word which receives the most stress in an intonation unit. An intonation unit has one tonic stress. It's important to remember that a sentence can have more than one intonation unit, and therefore have more than one tonic stress. Here are some examples of intonation units with the tonic stress bolded.

He's waiting
He's waiting / for his friend
He's waiting / for his friend / at the station.

Generally, the final tonic stress in a sentence receives the most stress. In the above example, 'station' receives the strongest stress.

There are a number of instances in which the stress changes from this standard. Here are short explanations for each of the changes with example sentences to illustrate.

Emphatic Stress

If you decide to emphasize something, you can change the stress from the principal noun to another content word such as an adjective (big, difficult, etc.), intensifier (very, extremely, etc.) This emphasis calls attention to the extraordinary nature of what you want to emphasize.

For example:

That was a difficult test. - Standard statement

That was a difficult test. - Emphasizes how difficult the test was

There are a number of adverbs and modifiers which tend to be used to emphasize in sentences that receive emphatic stress.

extremely
terribly
completely
utterly
especially
etc.

Contrastive Stress

Contrastive stress is used to point out the difference between one object and another. Contrastive stress tends to be used with determiners such as 'this, that, these and those'.

For example:

I think I prefer this color.
Do you want these or those curtains?

Contrastive stress is also used to bring out a given word in a sentence which will also slightly change the meaning.

  • He came to the party yesterday. (It was he, not someone else.)
  • He walked to the party yesterday. (He walked rather than drove.)
  • He came to the party yesterday. (It was a party not a meeting or something else.)
  • He came to the party yesterday. (It was yesterday not two weeks ago or some other time.)

New Information Stress

When asked a question, the requested information is naturally stressed more strongly.

For example:

Where are you from? - I come from Seattle, in the USA.
What do you want to do? - I want to go bowling.
When does class begin? - The class begins at nine o'clock.

Use these various types of stress to help improve your pronunciation and understandability.

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