30: 2-syllable word stress and -tion/-sion syllable stress

English syllable stress follows some very common patterns that can be learned.


Hi everyone, and welcome to Seattle Learning Academy's 30th American English Pronunciation Podcast. Today, we have a long show to introduce you to the complex rules of syllable stress.

But first, I hope everyone found last week's episode about the short i and long e sounds helpful. It really is a show that everyone should pay attention to. I hear people from nearly every language group have trouble with the short i. The best way to notice the problem is generally to compare and contrast that sound with the long e. Remember, the short i is said with the tongue lower and more relaxed, and for a shorter amount of time than the long e.

As a really quick review, repeat the following pairs after me.


itch, each
list, least
slip, sleep
grin, green
still, steal


I have been waiting a long time to do today's show about syllable stress. Syllable stress is often overlooked as the issue when mispronunciation is concerned. This is really too bad. I think if syllable stress rules were taught alongside other grammatical English rules, non-native speakers would be able to develop a more intuitive approach to syllable stress.

For the most part native speakers can guess which syllable would be stressed in a multi-syllable word, even if they have no idea how they know that information. Today I am going to let you in on some secrets of syllable stress. It starts simple, but can get complicated really quickly, so you have to pay attention.

The first general rule I'm going to give you is also the most well known. When dealing with 2-syllable words, syllable stress depends on the part of speech a word is in. Nouns, adjectives, and adverbs are generally stressed on the first syllable, and verbs are generally stressed on the second syllable. This rule is not 100 percent, so don't rely solely on it.

A fun way to play with and demonstrate this rule is with a special class of words called heteronyms. Heteronyms are two words that are spelled the same, but have two different pronunciations based on way the word is being used. Here is an example you may be familiar with: p-r-o-j-e-c-t. That word can be said two different ways, PROject, or proJECT.

PROject, stressed on the first syllable, is a noun.


I finished the project on time.


ProJECT is a verb, meaning to estimate.


We project earning to grow in 2009.


The list of heteronyms in English continues to grow as people make up new ones. Wikipedia lists at least 170 pairs of heteronyms based on moving the stress to the first syllable. In my text, Pronunciation Pages: Sounds of American Accent, I list the more commonly used heteronyms in the appendix, and include an exercise to help train your ear to identify heteronyms as nouns, adjectives, or verbs.

But, hopefully for most of you, that little 2-syllable word rule is old news.

What I am really excited to teach you next is how to deal with more complex words, words that are longer than 2 syllables. I can't teach you a rule for every word, but I can teach you rules for lots of them. Unfortunately, it isn't just one rule; there are a whole bunch of rules. The only way to become fluent with your pronunciation is to memorize them all, and there are few shortcuts.

Here's the first trick to learning syllable stress: look for suffixes. The key to syllable stress in many, many words is in the suffix.

Here's the second trick, learn to count syllables from the end forward to the front. That nasty bit of information is why syllable stress doesn't seem intuitive. We don't say that we stress the first, or second, or third syllable. Nope, it doesn't work that way. Instead, we say that we stress the first, or second, or third syllable from the end. Because of that, it seems like the elusive stressed syllable hops around the in word. But it doesn't.

Lets start with one of the very most common set of suffixes, the consonant plus -ion suffix. This rule will cover the -tion, -sion, -ation, -cion, and -xion suffixes. When we have a word that ends with any of those suffixes, the second from last syllable gets the stress. Let's check it out.

Here's a little 2-syllable word, nation. Nation is stressed on the second from the last syllable. That's simple. We would also expect it to be stressed there because it is a 2-syllable noun, and, as per our first rule above, it would be stressed on the first syllable.

Let's take a 3-syllable word, emotion. We want to stress the second from last syllable, so we will stress on the -mo- syllable. Listen closely: emotion.

How about 4 syllables? Try reputation, reputation. We will stress on the second to last syllable, on the -ta-: reputation.

Can we go to five syllables? Sure we can: specification, specification. Again, just like all the others consonant plus -ion words, we stress the second to last syllable: specification.

Isn't that great? I love it. But, let's make it even better. Let's make this rule work for even more words. In English, we have a peculiar way of stacking suffixes on top of suffixes. We can take a simple verb, like direct (stressed on the second syllable, as most verbs are) and make it into a noun by adding a -tion to it. Now we have direction (which is stressed on the second to last syllable). Then, we can add another suffix, -ally, and turn our noun into an adverb. Now I have the word directionally, Sure, directionally isn't a very common word, but it makes my point well. The suffix -ally, does not alter a syllable stress. We will still rely on the -tion of that word to dictate the stressed syllable. So the word directionally gets stressed in the same part of the word as direction, on the -rec- syllable.

Let's try another word: emotion. It will be stressed on the -mo- syllable because of our consonant plus -ion rule. We can add an -ally, and the stress won't move. Listen closely, emotionally.

Would you like another one?

Profession, stressed on -fess-, keeps its stress in the same place for the word professionally.

The -al suffix, when added to any other suffix also won't cause a syllable stress move.

Nation, stressed on the first syllable, keeps it's stress in the same spot for national, and keeps it in the same spot for nationally. Nation, national, and nationally will all be stressed on the same syllable because of the -tion in each of those words.

Nutrition, stressed on the -trit-, holds that stress in nutritional.

See why I said you'd need to pay attention closely today?

Just think of how many words you learned the correct syllable stress for today. You now can guess the stress of 2-syllable nouns, adjective, adverbs, and verbs, as well as all words that end in the letters consonant plus -ion, consonant plus -ional, and consonant plus -ionally. That is a lot of words, my friends.

Now, because I am an English teacher, I will say that these rules are not foolproof, and that I am speaking about American pronunciation of these words. I do not claim to know the rules of the other world-English pronunciation patterns.

I know this was a huge amount of information, and more than I usually give in one podcast. But, because we have a lot of suffixes to get through, I need to cover a lot in each episode.

If you want a sneak peek at other syllable stress rules that are based on suffix, go to pronuncian.com and click stress, then syllable stress lessons. Pronuncian.com is also where you will find the transcripts for this show and direct links to lessons that correspond with this show.

This podcast is made possible because of those of you around the world that have bought my book Pronunciation Pages: Sounds of American English and MP3 sound files. That text does include longer lists of words for each suffix than are listed on the webpage in the drills section, so if you have already bought the book, don't miss that resource at the end of it. If you haven't purchased the book, there's another reason to. As I've said before, I truly appreciate your financial contributions to this show.

Next week I'm going to continue on this topic. Actually, it will probably take a month's worth of shows to even begin to introduce you to this topic fully. Let me tell you, though, it is well worth the time invested in learning all these rules. Syllable stress leads to miscommunication as much as sound mispronunciation does. For those of you who like to analyze things and like rules, you'll probably enjoy these shows even better than sound practice.

In Seattle, I teach a lot of scientists, engineers, and computer programmers, and they love these lessons because something that seemed to make no sense, finally does. It is just hard to notice because we count backwards.

I challenge you to go out his week and begin to notice how many suffixes we use in English. I hope you'll come back next week and learn even more about syllable stress.

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