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Pronunciation: The Bigger Picture Part II

pronounciationIn the Spring 09 issue of BLB, the article “Pronunciation: The Big Picture” looked at how speed, volume, breath groups, eye contact and interpersonal skills affect successful communication. In this article, we take a look at “second ring” elements: word stress, sentence stress, intonation, and linking. These elements are commonly called supersegmentals.

Handling supersegmentals correctly can have a huge impact on your ability to be understood clearly. Let’s explore them.

1. Word Stress: Words have different stress patterns. When you learn a new word in English, you also need to learn its stress pattern. For example, we say “PHOtograph” for a picture, but “phoTOGrapher” for the person who takes the picture. When individuals stress the wrong syllable of a word, the listener becomes confused. There are two basic rules in English: 1) only one stressed syllable per word and 2) stress vowels not consonants.


  • Learn the basic stress patterns of words, starting with words you use frequently. Guidelines that cover most words can be found here.
  • Whenever you write down a word, make sure to jot down the stress pattern. Most dictionaries will show you the stressed syllable.
  • Make sure you’re pronouncing the words you use everyday correctly. If you’re not sure, ask a friend for feedback, or look them up in a dictionary.
  • Use your body to help you place the stress correctly. For example, make a gesture on the word that carries the primary stress. Watch how native speakers move their bodies in time with word and sentence stress, and then try to copy what they do.

2. Sentence Stress:

English is a stress-timed language which means that the stress in a sentence occurs only on certain words and the length of time it takes to say something depends on how many stressed syllables there are. Many other languages are syllable-timed—meaning that each syllable is said with approximately the same amount of stress as the others. Words within a sentence in English do follow predictable stress patterns. Content words (the words that carry the meaning of the sentence) are stressed, while function words are not stressed. Content words include nouns, main verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Function words include pronouns, articles, prepositions, and auxiliary verbs. Using the proper sentence stress will help people understand you better, especially if you’re on the phone or if they don’t know you.


  • Use the links listed in the “Resources” section to learn more about sentence stress.
  • Write a dialogue that you might have with someone at work and mark the sentence stress. Record it on your voicemail and listen to it. Use sentences from that dialogue at work later.
  • Listen to native speakers. Try not to focus on the words, but listen to the stress pattern. Repeat the stress pattern in your mind. It’ll go something like this: daDAdaDAdadadadadaDA)
  • Imitate native English speakers. Spend 5 minutes a day doing this.

3. Intonation:

There are two main intonation patterns in English: rising and falling. We use rising intonation with yes/no questions and questions that begin with modals, for example, “Would you like a coffee?” We use falling intonation with WH-questions, for example, “What would you like to drink?” Falling intonation also signals the end of a sentence or a thought, giving the listener important cues and time to process information.
Our intonation emphasizes key information in a sentence. In every phrase, one of the stressed words is emphasized with a higher tone than the other words—usually the last content word of the sentence. We also emphasize unfamiliar, surprising or interesting information.


  • Record yourself reading or talking and then listen to yourself. It’s a great way to monitor your intonation.
  • Try shadowing a native speaker of English. As he or she talks, repeat every word you hear, just after he or she says it. If you don’t catch a particular word, just substitute “blah, blah,” but make sure you use the right intonation. You can shadow silently, just moving your lips, or whispering out loud. Shadowing out loud is the most useful, but if you’re attempting to shadow someone in the lunchroom, silently works better! Check out the website in the “Resources” section for detailed information on shadowing
  • Try shadowing a movie or a TV show.
  • You’ll find slower speech to shadow at While you’re listening, try the free software program “Audacity” which you can use to record your shadowing, and then listen to yourself.

4. Linking and Rhythm:

Linking means blending together the ends of words with the beginnings of the following words. Linking improves fluency and contributes to natural flow and rhythm. It also allows for the endings of words to become audible to the listener. Learning about linking and rhythm also improves listening comprehension.

Word stress, sentence stress, spacing and pausing combined form the music or rhythm of English. If you have ever read any children’s poetry, you most likely have realized that there is a pattern to the phrasing and a logical rhythm to the pausing and spacing between the words, phrases and sentences.


  • Learn more about the rules of linking. See the resources below.
  • Practice “chunks” of language and use linking. For example, “It’ sa beautiful day!” “Ca nI hava coffee?”
  • If you have young children, read to them and experiment with linking words and finding the rhythm. You can find many children’s poems on YouTube.

When we’re focusing on improving our pronunciation, we sometimes miss the bigger picture. By focusing on the supersegmentals of English pronunciation: word and sentence stress, intonation and linking, you’ll get a better bang for your buck and will improve your ability to be understood by others. In our next issues, we’ll explore improving sounds.

Andrea Griggs is the founder and president of Catalyst Communication Inc.

Useful Resources

Word Stress:

Sentence Stress:


Linking and Rythm: