How is Word Stress Represented?

How is Word Stress Represented on Paper?

[cryout-pullquote align=”right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”33%”]Action from student neededCheck how the dictionary or dictionaries that you use the most frequently represent word stress. It is important for you to know how to check where the stress is.[/cryout-pullquote]

There are various ways to represent stress in writing. Dictionaries, textbooks, and other materials do not always use the same notation system. Some dictionaries may simply indicate the stressed syllable in bold case or to differentiate it with a bigger font. Whichever the system, the important thing is to be able to recognize which syllable receives the primary stress. Here are the most common ways to represent word stress in writing:

Word Stress in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

If your dictionary indicates the phonetic transcriptions of the words using the International Phonetic Alphabet, the primary stress is represented with this symbol ‘, as in the following example: /ɪɡˈzɑː̩/, where the stress falls on /ˈzɑːm/.

On this website, two different systems are used to represent word stress in English. Each of them has advantages over the other. Using two systems allows us to choose the most appropriate and logical one depending on the task at hand.

1. A numerical system

In the numerical system, each syllable is given a number to indicate the degree of stress within the word. The number 1 is used to represent the primary stress, 2 for the secondary stress, 3 for the tertiary stress, etc. Unstressed syllables are represented with the number 0. In this system, the level of stress is indicated for each syllable in the word. These numbers are put in between slashes as a way to avoid misinterpretations.[1]

  • Example: The first syllable of the word sentence receives the primary stress while the second is unstressed. Consequently, the stress pattern in this numerical system is: /10/.

This system is useful for long words with several levels of stress.

  • Examples: the stress patter for the word preservationist would be /20100/; presentation /2010/; randomize /100/; indivisibility /2030100/

2. A visual system

In this visual system, the primary stress is indicated in bold case and with capital letters. The secondary stress is in bold case and underlined. The tertiary stress is not indicated in this system because it is so rare that we will not focus on it here. The syllables that are not in bold are not stressed, and are consequently often reduced.

  • Examples: preserVAtionist; presenTAtion; inFECtive.

This system makes it easier to apply the word stresses as you read the word, since it is easier to conceptualize the variations in the pronunciation when reading letters with a different font size and boldness.


[1] Also, a hyphen may be used to indicate an undetermined number of syllables. E.g.: /-01/ would represent the stress pattern for words of two or more syllables for which the last syllable receives the primary stress and the second before last is not stressed.


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