Home / English Lessons / Stress and Rhythm in American English Pronunciation (Part 1)

Stress and Rhythm in American English Pronunciation (Part 1)


Many students think that learning English is about learning grammar, consonants, vowels, and vocabulary. These form the basic foundation of a language, however, if you want to be understood when speaking American English, and if you want to understand native speakers, it is essential that you improve your stress and rhythm.


Stressing means that speakers of English make certain syllables and words:

  • louder 
  • longer
  • higher in pitch

Basically, stressing means to emphasize a sound. Every word in English has just one syllable with a primary stress or emphasis. 

However, it is not only essential to stress certain syllables and words, but we must also de-stress other syllables and words.

De-stressing means that speakers of English make certain syllables and words:

  • more relaxed
  • weaker

Examples | Listen & Repeat

  • Engineer –> [en gə NEER] (2nd syllable is de-stressed; 3rd syllable is stressed)
  • English –> [ING glish] (1st syllable is stressed; 2nd syllable is slightly de-stressed)
  • Photograph –> [PHO də graf] (1st syllable is stressed, 2nd syllable de-stressed, 3rd syllable is secondary stress)

Stressing and de-stressing syllables and words gives us rhythm in English.


Rhythm is the musicality of English–the ups and downs and the connected speech and the linking of words, which together, change how we say sentences.

Remember, speaking with correct rhythm (musicality) is essential to being understood when you speak!

Rhythm comes from the combination of the two types of stress in American English:

1) Syllable stress in words (as discussed above)

2) Word stress in sentences


Word stress in sentences

Americans stress words in sentences that are important to the meaning of the sentence. They carry the content of the sentence. Basically, if you took these content words out of the sentence, you would not understand the meaning of that sentence.

Content Words

  • main verbs
  • nouns
  • adjectives
  • adverbs
  • negatives
  • wh-words
  • interjections

Examples | Listen & Repeat

  • I HAVE to GO to SCHOOL.
  • It’s NOT the BEST IDEA.


Function Words

Remember, rhythm and musicality in your speech is not just about stressing, but also requires de-stressing, weakening.
In English we de-stress the non-essential, non-content words in a sentence, called the function words. These function words are made weaker, and sometimes practically disappear from a sentence.
Function words include: 

Listen and Repeat

(Function words written in lower case)

  • I HAVE to GO to SCHOOL.
  • It’s NOT the BEST IDEA.
Notice, I did NOT say, “I HAVE TO GO TO SCHOOL”, but I said “I HAVE to GO to SCHOOL” [ay HAV t’GOW t’SKOOL].
I said the function words quicker and more relaxed than the important content words. They almost become part of the content words that follow them [t’GOW; t’SKOOL].
If I left out the non-essential function words from my sentences, you would still understand the general idea of what I’m saying.



In fact, we hear children speak like this all the time when they’re learning to speak English, and we still understand their basic messages.

Listen and Repeat

  • “She WANTS to PLAY a GAME.”
  • “I’d LIKE you to JOIN us for DINner.”
  • “We’ll CHOOSE the WINner on SATurday or SUNday.”
  • “MAny of the STUdents are GOing on vaCAtion  toMOrrow.”

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  1. That’s very very helpful for me as esl student,
    Please keep going 🙂
    Thanks a lot.

  2. I’m Indonesian … I have looked for this material for long time.. now I’ve gotten it… thank you…. thank for explaining this material.
    but I need to see the video… where can I see it?????

  3. It’s very helpful.very well explained.thanks a lot 🙂

  4. english learner

    it was vwry helpful. thanks a lot.

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