Sentence Stress

What is Sentence Stress?

Words in a sentence are not all given the same salience in oral English. Some words are picked out and are stressed in contrast to others. The one that is the most stressed is said to receive the sentence stress. This usually implies differences in meaning. In the following sentences, the sentence stress is indicated in bold case. Consider the difference in meaning for each of these scenarios.

Sentence Stress Illustrated:

Sentences Meaning
1. I don’t think she would write it. I don’t think that, but someone else does.
2. I DON’T think she will listen to him. It is not true that I think that.
3. I don’t THINK she will listen to him. I don’t think that, I know that. Or: I don’t think that, but I could be wrong.
4. I don’t think SHE will listen to him. I think that someone other than her will listen to him.
5. I don’t think she WILL listen to him. I think that she is will not be willing or agreeable to listening to him.
6. I don’t think she will LISTEN to him. Instead of listening, she might talk to him.
7. I don’t think she will listen to HIM. I think that she will listen to someone else than him.

Now listen to the sentences to hear the differences:

As you can see, the sentence stress depends a lot on the context. It is closely related to the meaning.

Sentence Stress Rule

Usually:

  • Content words are stressed (words that still have some meaning if you put them out of context: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.)
  • Grammatical words are not stressed (words that help structure a sentence in English but that do not really have some meaning if you put them out of context: a, an, the, is, etc.)

But, as in the examples above, even grammatical words can be stressed in some specific contexts.

 Sentence Stress Cartoon

Click here or on the image below to read a funny example of how sentence stress can be used to convey different meanings.

1 Sentence, 7 Different meanings. By David Recine.

Sentence stress: 1 Sentence, 7 Different meanings. By David Recine.

 Sentence Stress Exercise

Do this short exercise to check if you can recognize sentence stress!

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