53: Phrasal verb sentence stress

Typical sentence stress changes when phrasal verbs are involved: stress the preposition, not the verb.


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 53rd episode.

I want to send a welcome to all the new listeners from Brazil today! I have had a sudden jump in Brazilian listeners due to a link from a prominent English learning website there. I've gotten emails from a few of you this week, and I want to make sure you all know we have forums on Pronuncian, and that is a great place to post your questions. That way everyone can learn from your question!

Today podcast is dealing with the rhythm of English, specifically sentence stress. Spoken rhythm is primarily created through a pattern of stressed and unstressed words. I'm sorry, but a bit of grammar is necessary here. Generally, content words are the stressed words, and function words are unstressed words. Nouns, main verbs, adjectives, and certain adverbs are usually content words, the other words, including pronouns, auxiliary verbs, and prepositions are usually unstressed words.

Before we get started, I want to make sure everyone remembers that verbs tell us the action of a sentence. In the sentence

Janet swims.

The word swims is the verb, and verbs are considered content words.

In the sentence

I am speaking.

The words am and speaking are verbs. Speaking is the main verb, and am is the auxiliary verb. In sentences that have a main verb and an auxiliary verb, main verbs are content words, and auxiliary verbs are function words. The main verb gives the main information, and the auxiliary verb allows us to use the main verb in a grammatically correct way.

Prepositions are words that tell the relationship between a noun and another word.

In the sentence

Janet swims in a lake.

The word in is a preposition. It relates swimming to the place it happened. Prepositions are usually function words.

In the sentence

I am speaking into a microphone.

The word into is a preposition. It is relating speaking to the microphone.

Besides in and into, other prepositions include the following words:


and many more. I hope you get the idea.

We also need to talk about adverbs. Adverbs are words that give additional information to verbs. They help to describe the activity. In the sentence

Janet swims quickly.

The word quickly is an adverb. It is describing how Janet swims. Other adverbs include:


This list could also be very long. Some adverbs and prepositions look very similar, and sometimes the same word can be an adverb or a preposition depending on how it is used in a sentence. For what we will talk about today, it doesn't matter if the word is technically an adverb or a preposition, so don't worry about it too much. In fact, we are going to clump prepositions and adverbs that have this feature into their own group of words called particles.

Now I am going to talk about idioms that happen when a verb gets combined with a particle. These are called phrasal verbs. Most of you are probably aware of phrasal verbs, and many of you may hate them for their complexity. Phrasal verbs can make English comprehension difficult because they have a different meaning than either word alone. This will be easier to understand with examples.

To hang up is a phrasal verb. It can mean to put something, such as clothing, on a hook, or it can mean to end a conversation transmitted over phone or cellular lines, or even over the Internet. To hang up has nothing to do with the direction "upward", as in looking up at the clouds. For English rhythm, while it isn't overly important to be able to tell a preposition form an adverb, it is important to be able to tell as phrasal verb from a verb the just happens to be near a preposition or adverb.

Is everyone still with me? Well, if not, I'll link to some other websites from this episode's transcripts page for more help learning about phrasal verbs. Learning phrasal verbs is just another part of learning vocabulary, so don't skip over learning this feature of English.

I want to talk about a peculiar thing that happens when we speak using phrasal verbs; the particle becomes a stressed word; it behaves like a content word. If the verb is a small, single-syllable word, often the particle is given more stress than the verb. This is because of the Rhythm Rule. Remember, the Rhythm Rule tells us that the stressed words of English happen on regular beats. Stressing the particle of a phrasal verb and can be easily demonstrated with the phrasal verb to hang up. Listen to the following sentence.


Juan hung up on me.


Hung was a small, single-syllable word, and the particle up took the stress. I'll say it again.


Juan hung up on me.


To give up is another phrasal verb with a single-syllable main verb. To give up means to quit, and the word up will usually become a stressed word in the sentence.


Don't give up; keep trying.


Here's another example; to hang out means to spend time together casually. Here it is in a sentence:


Wanna hang out for a while on Sunday?


Did you hear that the word out was stressed, and the word hang was not? I'll say it again.


Wanna hang out for a while on Sunday?


If the verb of our phrasal verb is more than one syllable, the likelihood of it being also stressed increases. The verb is still important, but the particle is more important because of the shift in meaning it causes.

The phrasal verb to carry away mean to lose self-control. Since the word carry is two syllables, it may also be stressed in spoken English. Here's an example:


Jane got carried away with making cupcakes and baked one for every student in the school.


In that sentence, the words carried and away were both stressed. It was easy to do so because we had the unstressed syllable of the word carry before the stressed syllable of the word away. Remember, the Rhythm Rule is all about keeping the beat of the sentence. We need alternating stressed and unstressed syllables in order to follow it.

Sometimes that can get even more confusing because objects may appear between the main verb and the particle. An example is the phrase to take out. If I asked you to take out the trash, I would like you to put it outside. I can ask you this in a couple of different ways. Listen closely.


Will you take out the trash?
Will you take the trash out?


I the first example, "Will you take out the trash?" the word take is probably not going to get stressed because it is only one syllable long and occurs next to the particle "out". I'll say it again.


Will you take out the trash?


In the second example, " Will you take the trash out?" I can easily stress the word take because it is followed by the word the, which is not being stressed. That makes it easy to still stress the word "out". Listen again.


Will you take the trash out?


Wow, I know that was a lot of complex grammar stuff, and if phrasal verbs are new to you, this episode will take listening to a few times to get what I am talking about. You'll also want to go back and listen to earlier episodes on the subject of sentence stress. I'll link to those episodes from the transcripts for this episode on Pronuncian.com to make them easier to find. I'll also link to the free Pronuncian lessons related to this topic. For now, let's practice all the phrasal verb sentences we heard today. I'll leave time for you to repeat after me.


Juan hung up on me.
Don't give up; keep trying.
Wanna hang out for a while on Sunday?
Will you take out the trash?
Will you take the trash out?


How did you do? If you find this, and similar topics interesting, you'll be able to pre-order my new book on the topic of the rhythm of English in a couple of weeks. The ebook is scheduled for release in mid-May, and you'll find big savings if you order it before it is released.

That's all for today, everyone. I know this was another long, and kind of complicated show. Go to Pronuncian.com to view the transcripts and free lessons if this was a tough concept for you. Be bold, and practice your sentence stress!

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

Thanks for listening.