Phonology describes the sound structure of a language; morphology describes the structure of words; and syntax describes the uses of words in phrases and sentences. To explain the place of stressed syllables in different words we need to consider facts about sounds, word forms, and syntactic classes.


In some languages the position of stress in a word is invariable. In Czech and Finnish it is always the first syllable of a word which is most prominent; in Polish the next-to-last syllable is stressed; in French, insofar as there is any stress difference at all, the last syllable is generally the most prominent. In languages like these, where stress is fixed on a particular syllable and therefore predictable, stress cannot differentiate meanings. In contrast, Spanish and Russian have sets of words which differ only in the position of stress. How about English?

English is not like Czech, Finnish, Polish, or French. We have already seen that the stress of a polysyllabic word may be on the first syllable (lcannibal), the second (alrena), the third (afterlnoon), or some later syllable. In a general sense stress is variable in English. To be sure, stress is invariable for any specific word. Although there are dialect differences in stress ( garage is stressed on the second syllable in North America, on the first syllable everywhere else) just as there are dialect differences in vowels (eitherhalfroof, for example), we are not free to put stress on whatever syllable we want. If a person still learning English as a new language says lbeginner instead of belginner, those who already know the language consider it a mispronunciation, even though the meaning is probably clear enough. In English words stress is not fixed – but does that mean that it is not predictable?

On the other hand stress does not play a large role in differentiating words. Billow and belowreefer and refer are sometimes cited as pairs of words which differ mostly in position of stress, but there are not many such pairs. There are somewhat more pairs like the noun linsult and the verb inlsult, noun labstract, verb and adjective ablstract, a type which we examine later, sets of words which are semantically related but grammatically different.

Every English dictionary uses some kind of key to pronunciation. Following the orthographic form of every word that is listed there is some kind of respelling in the special key to indicate the pronunciation of the word. Such a respelling implies that the usual orthography is not sufficiently regular for us to deduce the pronunciation from the ordinary spelling, and of course there is considerable truth in the implication; the irregularities and inconsistencies of English spelling are well known (though sometimes they are exaggerated).

One part of the respelling, for polysyllabic words, is an indication of stress. For every word of more than one syllable the dictionary’s respelling indicates which is the stressed syllable; for example maintain (m!n.t!nl). Here again there is an obvious implication: that stress is completely unpredictable, that a reader cannot look at a written word and correctly figure out where the stress is. The implication is not entirely accurate; while it is not possible to predict the stress in all English words, there are many which follow general principles.

There are general rules which account for the place of stress in numerous words, though not in all the words of the language. Many of these rules you know already, though not in a completely conscious way. Words which end in –tion, such as constitutioncompositioninterruptionproclamationsimplification – literally hundreds of words – are stressed on the vowel before this ending. Similarly, words with a final –ity have stress on the vowel before the ending (asininityhumiditymediocrityrelativitysentimentality, sentimentality). These are two small generalizations that can be made about stress placement. There are other, more subtle ones which, by and large, are known to speakers of the language. For example, the following words may be new to you (or half-new), but you can probably stress each one of them correctly:

comatula    lobatic             metrify     polyphase    spiriferous


In the remainder of this chapter we explore the rules – that is, general statements – regarding the place of stress in different groups of words. We will see that there are limits to the rules. Each rule has its particular domain; not everything is predictable.

Stress rules are based on three kinds of information: syntactic, morphological, and phonological.

Syntactic information The place of stress in a word depends partly on what part of speech it is. The noun insult is stressed differently from the verb insult. Similarly, compare the adjective content and the noun contents, the noun present (‘gift’) and the adjective present (‘not absent’) with the verb prelsent. The words we examine here are nouns, verbs, and adjectives, and somewhat different rules apply to each of these parts of speech.

Morphological information We have seen that the suffixes +tion and +ity have a role in the location of stress. Every word has a morphological composition. A word may be simple, consisting of a single base: for example, armbabycirclefatmanage. Some words, like armchairbabysitice-coldsquare dance are compounds, consisting of two bases together (whether our orthographic conventions prefer them written as a single word, or with a hyphen, or with a space between the parts). Finally, some words are complex, consisting of a prefix plus a base (disarmencirclemismanagerenew) or a base plus a suffix (babyishfattenhappinessmanagement). A word may contain prefix + base + suffix (mismanagementunhappiness), base + base + suffix (babysittingsquare dancer), base + suffix + suffix ( fatteningsharpener), and so forth. The morphological composition has a role in determining stress. We will see that different kinds of suffixes, especially, are important in determining the place of stress. Strictly speaking, a prefix or a suffix must have a meaning or a function, as in the examples above. For the purpose of locating the stressed syllable in a word we consider certain elements which occur at the beginning of numerous words, ‘prefixes,’ and elements which often occur in final place, ‘suffixes.’

Phonological information The place of stress in particular words depends in part on the nature of the last two syllables, the ult and penult. We need to consider whether a syllable has a free vowel or not and the number of consonants, if any, which close the syllable. Since phonological facts interact with syntactic and morphological facts, we shall see that rules about vowels and consonants are different for nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

To review, a free vowel is one which can occur at the end of a one-syllable word. Free vowels are illustrated in these words:

see, seat                sue, suit           spa, calm

bay, bait                 go, goat            law, laud

by, bite                  cow, scout         toy, void

Notice that in each of the following words the last syllable, the ult, has a free vowel:

agree   remain     rely     destroy     cellophane     anecdote

And in each of the next words the next-to-last syllable, the penult, has a free vowel:

Arena     aroma    diploma     hiatus     horizon

In the next group of words the penult ends with a consonant – the syllable division is between two consonants:

enigma    veranda      parental     detergent     amalgam

But in the following words the penult does not end with a consonant and does not have a free vowel:

abacus     cinema      generous     melody      evident

In the rest of this chapter we will be weaving in and out among the three kinds of phenomena, syntactic, morphological, and phonological.


It was noted that when a suffix of Old English origin is added to a word, stress does not change; e.g. lneighborlneighborlylneighborlinesslneighborhood. We say that suffixes of Old English origin (and a few others) are neutral: they are added to independent words and have no effect on the stress. For example, the words ablsorbinglinterestingprelvailing, and lterrifying have the same stressed syllables as ablsorblinterestprelvail, and lterrify, respectively. This #ing is a neutral suffix, and so are #hood#ly, and #ness, illustrated above. (A neutral suffix will be marked with the boundary symbol # before it.) Although most neutral suffixes are of Old English origin, this does not mean that the words to which they are added are necessarily of Old English origin.


Nouns which end in –oon typically have stress on the ending: balloonraccoonmacaroonsaloon, etc. An ending like this is a tonic ending. Most words that have tonic endings have been borrowed from Modern French, but not all. Some, like absentee, have been formed in English with a suffix of French origin.

debonaire, millionaire

refugee, internee

Congolese, Vietnamese

brunette, kitchenette

antique, technique


Once we have recognized the neutral suffixes and the tonic endings we are ready for more general statements about stress. Let’s consider the following sets of verbs:

1a                    2a                    3

agree                diagnose          abolish

delay                exercise            consider

exclude            intimidate        develop

cajole               monopolize      imagine

invite               persecute         remember

pronounce       ridicule            solicit

1b                    2b

attract              compliment

consist              gallivant

depend             manifest




Note that in groups 1a and 1b the last syllable, the ult, is stressed; in 2a and 2b the third syllable from the end, the antepenult, is stressed; and in group 3 the penult, the next-to-last syllable, is the stressed syllable. Why?

The verbs in group 1 have what we may call a stressable ult: either the ult has a free vowel (1a) or it ends with at least two consonants (1b). Furthermore, each verb in the group consists of just two syllables. The ult is stressed.

In group 2 also each verb has a heavy ult, because of the free vowel (2a) or because of the cluster of consonants at the end (2b). These verbs have three or more syllables. The antepenult is stressed. (In centuries past they were stressed on the ult. Even today, in Scotland and in the Caribbean, one may hear diagnose or dominate stressed on the ult.)

Each word in group 3 has an unstressable ult: the ult contains a checked vowel followed by not more than one consonant. The penult is stressed. This general statement, or rule, for what we have observed for verbs can be put into the form of a decision tree:

  1. Exercise with verbs

All of the verbs below follow this basic rule. Note which syllable is stressed in each one and mark it 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, or 3, according to the scheme above. (There aren’t many examples of group 2b here because there aren’t many such verbs in the language.)

adopt               exonerate         produce

answer             furnish             remark

covet               inhabit            substitute

dehumidify      mechanize       supplement

exhaust           offend              transcribe



The first question to ask about verbs when determining the position of stress is: ‘Is the ult stressable or not?’ Nouns are different. The first question to ask about a noun is: ‘How many syllables does the noun have?’ The next question is: ‘Does the ult have a free vowel or not?’ It doesn’t matter how many consonants occur in final position. Examine these sets of nouns.

1a                    2                      3a

alcove              appetite           affidavit

membrane        hypotenuse      aroma

statute              institute           horizon

termite              porcupine        hypnosis

textile              vicissitude       papyrus

1b                                            3b

cavern                                      appendix

focus                                        intestine

menace                                    memorandum

premise                                    synopsis

ticket                                       veranda







Note, first, that each noun of groups 1a and 1b has just two syllables. The penult is stressed whether the ult vowel is free (1a) or not (1b) – but see the note at the end of this chapter. If there are more than two syllables in the noun, it makes a difference whether the ult has a free vowel or not. If the ult vowel is free, as in group 2, the antepenult is stressed. If the ult vowel is not a free vowel, as in group 3, we ask if the penult is stressable. The penult is stressable if it has a free vowel (3a) or ends with a consonant (3b). If the penult is not stressable, the antepenult is stressed (3c).

The basic noun rule can be summarized in this decision tree:

  1. Exercise with nouns

Note the stress in the following nouns and mark each one as 1a, 1b, 2, 3a, 3b, or 3c, according to how it fits the classification above.

javelin              closet               diploma

idea                  satellite            veteran

bonanza           opera               platinum

harmonica        hypothesis       neuritis

tabloid              formaldehyde   vestibule



We do not need a new rule for the stress of adjectives. There are essentially two types of adjectives, so far as the place of stress is concerned: one type follows the stress rule for verbs, the other the stress rule for nouns.

Type I Observe these sets of adjectives:

(1a)      contrite       (2a) asinine      (3) academic

inane                      bellicose         decrepit

obscene                 erudite            intrepid

serene                    grandiose       periodic

(1b)      absurd         (2b) difficult

correct                   manifest

distinct                  moribund

Note that these are exactly parallel to the grouping of verbs in section 11.5. Group 1 adjectives have two syllables and the ult is stressable, either because of the free vowel (1a) or the final cluster of consonants (1b); the ult is stressed. Group 2 adjectives have more than two syllables and a stressable ult, because of the free vowel (2a) or the final consonant cluster (2b); the antepenult is stressed. Group 3 contains adjectives with an unstressable ult (almost always –ic or –id or –it); the penult is stressed.

Type II adjectives end with one of these suffixes: +al, +ar, +ant/ent, or +ous. Note that these suffixes are all monosyllabic, do not have a free vowel, and the vowel is initial in the suffix. We refer to these as weak suffixes. In adjectives with these suffixes either the penult or the antepenult is stressed, depending on the nature of the penult. The following exercise will help you to determine the general rule.


  1. Exercise with nouns

11c Exercise with adjectives

(a) Mark the stress in each of these words:

fatal global polar stellar cogent decent dormant nervous

General statement: If an adjective has a weak suffix preceded by a base of

just one syllable, stress is on the ________.

(b) Each of the words below has a base of more than one syllable. Do three


  1. If the vowel of the penult is a free vowel, put a macron over the vowel letter, e.g. complacent;
  2. If the vowel of the penult is followed by two consonants (a consonant cluster which cannot occur in word-initial position), draw a line between the two consonant letters, e.g. abun|dant;
  3. Use the tick to show whether the penult or the antepenult is stressed, e.g. comlplacentrelluctantladamant.

ac   ci   den    tal          re     luc    tant        pe   ri     phe    ral

e     ter  nal    mag       ni     fi      cent        a     na    lo      gous

vi    gi   lant                  bar   ba    rous       a     bun  dant

ma  lig  nant                 ge     ne   rous       a     nec  do     tal

We note that the penult is stressed if it meets either of these conditions:



If the penult meets neither of these conditions, the antepenult is stressed.

Adjectives of this type are just like nouns which have a checked vowel in the ult. In fact, the weak suffix +ant/ent appears in nouns as well as adjectives; compare detergentoccupantparticipant.

To go a bit farther, we may consider the following noun endings also weak suffixes:

+a              mica, aroma, enigma, cinema

+ance/ence hindrance, reluctance, evidence

+is                         thesis, neurosis, synopsis, emphasis

+on            nylon, skeleton

+um           fulcrum, platinum

+us            circus, hiatus


Consider these verbs and adjectives:

copy          envy            marry         worry      easy     happy   ugly

argue        continue      issue          rescue

borrow      follow            swallow     hollow   narrow      yellow

The words in the three lines end with vowels that we have written, respectively, as /i/, /u/, and /o/. Are these free vowels? that different speakers give different answers to this question. In final position there is no contrast between a free vowel /ii/ and a checked /c/, a free /uu/ and a checked /m/, nor between /ou/ and /o/. For the stress rules these three vowels in final position act like checked vowels. The ult is not stressable and therefore stress falls on the penult, just as it does in such verbs and adjectives as considerdepositcomicvalid.

Similarly, in nouns the ult is light if it contains one of these three vowels without a consonant following, as in the following examples:

albino        macaroni   commando    jujitsu     avenue         revenue

In the first four of these words the penult is stressable, because it has a free vowel or is a closed syllable, and so receives the stress. If the ult were strong, the antepenult would be stressed. In the last two words neither ult nor penult is stressable; the antepenult is stressed.

Rule: Final /i u o/ count as checked vowels, making the ult unstressable.

A word with one of these vowels in final position has stress on the penult or antepenult according to the usual rules.


Neutral suffixes are mostly of Old English origin. Other suffixes have generally entered English from French, Latin, or Greek, originally as parts of words borrowed from those languages. But often these suffixes have come to have a life of their own in English and are used to form new English words. So it happens that some suffixes behave like heavy endings in words of foreign origin but act like neutral suffixes in words which have been created in English. Notice the following sets of words:

(a)        agreement                    (b)  compliment

            encouragement                  implement

            confinement                       document

            development                      impediment

            punishment                        monument

In set (a) –ment is a neutral suffix. It is added to words which stand alone; stress in each suffixed word is on the same syllable as in the independent word to which the suffix is added. The words in set (b) are regularly stressed, but by a different principle: stress is on the antepenult of each word. In effect, these are two different suffixes, and they should be labeled differently. We might refer to them as –ment1 and –ment2, but these labels do not tell what the suffixes have to do with the position of stress. A better way is to use different symbols for different kinds of suffixes. So we write #ment and +ment, where ‘#’ indicates that what follows is a neutral suffix and ‘+’ marks a suffix (or a special ending) which is not neutral.

The following groups of words illustrate three apparent suffixes which, like –ment, turn out to be three pairs of suffixes. In each pair one suffix is neutral and the other is a strong ult.

(a)        materialize       (b)  apologize

            naturalize               antagonize

            characterize           mechanize

            Americanize           monopolize

            popularize              hypothesize

(a)        federalist          (b)  anarchist

            industrialist            botanist

            modernist              ornithologist

           revolutionist          protagonist

           violinist                 scientist

(a)        nationalism      (b)  ostracism

           imperialism            recidivism

          parallelism             somnambulism

          radicalism              syllogism

          secularism              ventriloquism