Episode 2: Small Talk


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Rhythm: Sentence Stress

In English, we don’t say all words in a sentence with equal emphasis. Rhythm means you need to change from low to high, short to long, and soft to loud sounds. In other words, rhythm is the combined changes in the pitch, duration, and volume of sounds in speech.

In a sentence, we stress key words by saying them louder, longer, and with higher pitch than others, so the listener understands the most important parts of the message.

Normally, we place stress on content words and not on function words.

Content WordsFunction Words
Nouns: house, doctor, idea Articles: a, an, the
Main verbs: sleep, drink, run, go Helper verbs: am, is, does, did, has, had, can
Adjectives: small, ugly, wonderful, funny Personal pronouns: I, me, you, he, her, him
Adverbs: rarely, happily, sometimes Possessive adjectives: my, his, her, your, its, their
Demonstrative pronouns: this, that, these, those
Demonstrative adjectives: this, that, these, those
Possessive pronouns: mine, yours, his, hers, theirs Relative pronouns: whose, that, which, who, whom
Question words: who, what, where, when, why, how
(but often not in common phrases)
Conjunctions: and, but, so, or, before, because, while
Negative: not, isn’t, don’t, hasn’t, can’t Prepositions: to, in, on, with, for, under, over

To understand how rhythm involves the change between stressed and unstressed syllables, read the following examples of these rhythm patterns shared by words and sentences.

The big O represents the stressed syllables and the small o represents the unstressed syllables.

O o
GET it.
o O
o O o
He WANTS it.
O o O o
(“en” receives secondary stress)
DAVE’S a DOCtor.

In many languages, every syllable in a sentence gets the same amount of stress. These languages are called syllable-timed languages.

However, English is a stress-timed language, which means the amount of time between the stressed syllables stays about the same, no matter how many unstressed syllables there are. The unstressed syllables are shortened to keep this pattern.

Read the following examples that illustrate this point.


CATS have to EAT some FISH.

CATS might have to EAT a lot of FISH.

Each of these sentences takes about the same amount of time to say. In order to keep the time between the stressed syllables the same, we say the unstressed syllables quickly, and that makes the important stressed words clearer.

Please note that the stress in a sentence is not always on the same words for every speaker and context. While there is a general pattern, the placement of stress can depend on which words each individual speaker thinks are important.