20: The Rhythm Rule and Sentence Stress

Spoken English rhythm follows patterns of stressed and unstressed words and syllables.


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is podcast number 20. Today's podcast is exciting for a number of reasons.

First, I am looking for input from all of you. I am planning to start adding supplemental podcasts in addition to these regular ones that are language specific. I know I am going to do one for Japanese speakers first and Spanish speakers second, because many of our listeners come from Japan as well as Spanish speaking countries. After that I will go down the list of what I can guess other listeners speak, based on the country you are listening from. If you're listening from the United States, I have no idea what your first language is. I can't get that information through my podcast tracking software. I need you to tell me.

In addition, I am wondering what your language's specific problems are. Send me a quick email and tell me what language you speak as well as what sounds or aspects of pronunciation you find the most troublesome. The more I hear from a language group, the more likely it is that I will do a special podcast for your language, and the more specific I can get with resources to help you.

The second reason that this is an exciting podcast is because it is first in a set of podcasts about sentence stress and the rhythm of spoken English. It is a bit too detailed to be able to cover all in one podcast, so I'm going to spend 2 or 3 weeks on it.

I've talked about the rhythm of English before during the podcasts on contractions and reduced pronouns. Those were episodes numbers 12, 13, and 16. But this podcast finally gets into some specifics about how to deal with sentence stress.

Think about sentence stress as simply saying the most important words of a sentence at a different pitch, or a little bit louder, or for a little bit longer than the other words of the sentence.

It isn't surprising that the most important words (we'll call them content words) are usually nouns, verbs, adjectives, and some adverbs. Those are the words that help us form a picture in our head; they give us the contents of our story. We want our listener to be able to quickly grasp the main content of our story, so we make the content words easier to hear by bringing attention to them.

The other words (we'll call them function words) are the words we use to make our sentences grammatically correct. Function words are words like pronouns, determiners, and prepositions. If our function words were missing or used incorrectly, we would be considered poor speakers of English, but our listener would probably still get the main idea of what we're saying. Since function words don't give us the main information, we don't usually want or need to do anything to give them added attention. In fact, sometimes we do things to deliberately push them into the background.

I'll have a chart with the transcripts to this show that gives examples of content and function words.

Content Words

Function Words

I want to make sure to mention that not very many aspects of English are concrete, and the idea of stressing content words, but not function words, is a generalization and not a rule. Not every content word receives stress, and not every function word is left without it. A speaker chooses exactly which words to stress based on the message he or she is trying to send.

Here is an example of a sentence with typically stressed content words and unstressed function words.

I bought a car.

That is a very simple and straightforward sentence, and it follows an important concept in spoken English: the Rhythm Rule.

When English is spoken, the speaker alternates between stressed and unstressed syllables in regular intervals, with the stresses falling within content words. This is called the Rhythm Rule.

I'll repeat that again. When English is spoken, the speaker alternates between stressed and unstressed syllables in regular intervals, with the stresses falling within content words.

The Rhythm Rule is more of a guideline than a rule because it is often not followed exactly. The main idea is that stresses in spoken English happen in regular intervals, or beats. My sentence I bought a car had a pattern of an unstressed syllable, then a stressed syllable, then an unstressed syllable, then another stressed syllable. The stressed syllables create the beats that I could tap my fingers to.

I bought a car.

I can easily add to the sentence and keep the rhythm.

I bought a car on Tuesday.

How can you tell if a word is stressed? A speaker can stress a word in any combination of the following three ways:

  1. by changing the pitch of the stressed syllable of the stressed word compared to the syllables around it
  2. by saying the stressed syllable of that word for a longer period of time than normal
  3. by saying the stressed syllable of that word louder than the surrounding syllables

Notice that I didn't say that entire word is stressed, just the stressed syllable of that word. This stress is in addition to the normal stress placed on the stressed syllable, emphasizing it even further. Also note that while we are discussing syllables as the parts of speech which receive the beats, it is the words they are part of that are being emphasized.

The sentence I bought a car on Tuesday is seven syllables long and the content words alternate with function words. We can easily tap our fingers on the table during each stressed syllable and hear that the taps are equally spaced on the verb (bought) and nouns (car and Tuesday) of the sentence. Only the first syllable of Tuesday is stressed because it is the normally prominent syllable of that word.

What if I were to give you more information and tell you the color of the car?

I bought a blue car on Tuesday.

Now I've added another content word, the adjective blue, and things become trickier because I've created choices for which words to stress and how to stress them. The Rhythm Rule says that we will stress content words and that the stressed syllables will occur at regular intervals. With the simple addition of the word blue, there is no longer an unstressed syllable present between stressed syllables of the content words. I've opened up three options for placing word stress. With all of the choices, I'd naturally try to keep the stressed beats at regular intervals. We'll talk about why I'd choose one option over another a little later; for now, we are just trying to understand how I would do it.

I can:

  1. Stress bought and car and Tuesday
  2. Stress bought and blue and Tuesday
  3. Stress all the content words (bought, blue, car and Tuesday)

Let's listen to all three examples.

I bought a blue car on Tuesday.
I bought a blue car on Tuesday.
I bought a blue car on Tuesday.

Now listen again. I want you to notice what happens when a content word is not stressed, as well as what happens when two single-syllable content words next to each other are stressed.

I bought a blue car on Tuesday.
I bought a blue car on Tuesday.
I bought a blue car on Tuesday.

In the first sentence, when I stressed car, but not blue, the word blue was said very quickly. Even though we added a word between the words bought and car, the syllable taps remained constant.

I bought a blue car on Tuesday.

In the second sentence blue is stressed but car isn't, so car is said quickly and the beat moves to the word blue. Still, the beats happen regularly.

I bought a blue car on Tuesday.

The third sentence is where I need to make the biggest alteration in speech to allow the Rhythm Rule to work. Because blue and car are both only one syllable long, and because they are next to one another in our sentence, the syllable of the word blue needs to take more time or the beat will be off. Remember that lengthening the stressed syllable of a content word is one of the techniques we can use to stress it. In this situation, we need to lengthen the word blue for extra time just to allow us to follow the Rhythm Rule.

I bought a blue car on Tuesday.

Well, that's all I am going to cover for today. Although this podcast was not thick with examples, there was a lot of information here. Next week I will get into more details and hopefully we'll get to listen to another clip from The Incredibles to hear these concepts in action.

As always, I would love to hear from you! Specifically, I'd like to know the languages of the listeners of this show, and specific problems that you know you have. Please email me at podcast@p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n.com.

This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. Seattle Learning Academy is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening everyone!