125. Stress and Emphasis


Stress in language is a property of most words but emphasis is an add-on with a specific message



In everyday English, the words stress and emphasis often mean the same: extra force that a speaker or writer might give to a message. In technical language descriptions, however, the words refer to different types of extra force. Quite often, these more technical meanings are used in coursebooks for learners of English. This means there is a possibility of confusion, either of the technical with the everyday meanings or of the two different technical meanings.

A further problem is that the ways stress and emphasis are achieved in English are very different from their equivalents in many other languages, so that speakers of those languages are likely when learning English to make incorrect choices, with consequent communication breakdowns. The aim of the present post is to clarify the difference between these two sometimes-confused technical concepts, and to highlight some of the important ways of achieving emphasis in English.



To understand stress, it is first necessary to understand what syllables are. In simple terms, they are separately-pronounced parts of a word. For example, ask and bite have one syllable, compose has two (com- and -pose), and ascertain has three. A useful guideline is that every new spoken vowel indicates a new syllable: ask has just “a”, while com– and -pose have two “o”s (ignore the final “e” because it is not spoken). Compo- and -se are not syllables because compo- has two spoken vowels and -se none. The centrality of vowels in syllables resembles the centrality of verbs in sentences (see 30. When to Write a Full Stop).

Stress in descriptions of English is associated with syllables. It is a kind of extra force given to the pronunciation of a single syllable in every word (though a few common single-syllable words, such as and, must, than and was, lack it and are consequently called “weak forms”). In multi-syllable words, the location of the stressed syllable is rarely predictable, so that learning which syllable to stress is a necessary part of learning the word. In this blog, a list of words that are commonly stressed incorrectly by learners of English is in the post 91. Pronunciation in Reading Aloud. Also notable are word pairs with the same spellings but different stress (see 11. Homonyms and Homographs).

The stressed syllable in a particular word is always the same, with the result that it is usually shown in dictionaries. Most dictionaries do this by placing the symbol just in front. For example, compose shows that -pose has stress.

In speech, the extra force of a stressed syllable is achieved primarily through changing its pitch (sound vibration frequency) as it is spoken. Its loudness may also be increased. A common consequence of a syllable being stressed is that its vowel is likely to be pronounced according to its spelling (though there are many exceptions – see 29. Illogical Vowel Spellings). Unstressed vowels, by contrast, such as the first “o” in compose, are often pronounced /Ə/ or /ɪ/ regardless of their spelling (see 91. Pronunciation in Reading Aloud).

One final point about stress is its relation to “accent”. The two words often have the same meaning, but not always. “Stress” seems more preferred in linguistic analysis, “accent” in literary contexts, particularly the appreciation of verse. Both words are uncountable, but “accent” can also be used countably as an abstract “substance location” (see 43. Substance Locations): an accent is either a symbol above a letter showing how it should be pronounced, or a particular way of pronouncing all the sounds of a language, as when we speak of a BBC accent or a Chinese accent.



Emphasis is also an extra force that may be found in a word. However, it is different from stress in the following ways:

(i)  It is optional: it may be absent from a sentence altogether, or be added to any number of the words in one.

(ii) It has some meaning.

(iii) It can be shown by means of grammar and vocabulary as well as by pitch and loudness. Grammar and vocabulary are the main possibility in writing, whereas pitch and loudness are often preferred in speech.

(iv) Although it mostly applies pitch and loudness to the same syllables that stress does, it does so more strongly.

(v) It can apply pitch and loudness to weak forms (unstressed single-syllable words).


To illustrate these various points, consider the following sentence:

(a) To STAY THIN it IS adVISable to EAT MOderately, AND to EXercise.

Each of the underlined words may or may not be emphasized, independently of others. The single-syllable ones (stay, thin, is, eat, and) need a strong pitch change across all of them; the others need it on their stressed syllable (shown in capitals). The weak form and, normally pronounced /әnd/ or even /n/ (see 144. Words that are Often Heard Wrongly), changes its vowel and becomes /ænd/.

In many cases the emphasis will suggest a contrast with an opposing idea. For example, emphasis on stay in (a) suggests a contrast with become (thin) and on is a contrast with is not. In other cases, the emphasis means simple importance, suggesting that the listener takes particular note of the emphasised word. This is the case with advisable and and.



English has some ways of showing emphasis in writing, although it does not use them always – it sometimes leaves the reader to recognise emphasis without them. A widely-used writing technique is putting the emphasised word(s) in italic letters. One special grammar choice is the use of one instead of a to mean “not more than one” (see 67. Numbers in Spoken English). The following are other noteworthy situations where special grammar and/or vocabulary might be used.

1. Emphasising the Subject of a Sentence

Many speakers whose mother tongue is not English incorrectly try to emphasise a noun or pronoun at the start of a sentence by placing for in front of it and repeating it with a pronoun. The following example was attributed by the Guardian newspaper (11 Jan 2016) to Arsène Wenger, the French manager of Arsenal Football Club:

(b) *I believe that for the Germans they are maybe more surprised (by English football custom) as they have a good winter break.

Many English speakers would, I am sure, simply say the Germans are instead of the underlined words, leaving the listener to recognise the contrast from the following comparative adjective more surprised. However, if additional wording is considered necessary, one could add after the Germans for their part or in particular or on the other hand or, in certain cases, themselves (see 143. Problems Using “-self” Words).

A similar solution can be used with the following further example

(c) *For scientists, they think that the climate is changing.


2. Emphasising a Verb

Two different types of emphasis are possible with verbs. One contrasts the verb with other verbs. Added to think in (c), this kind of emphasis would make a contrast with a different verb like say or know. The other type of verb emphasis contrasts the positive use of a verb with its negative, or vice versa. Giving this kind of emphasis to think in (c) would make a contrast with do not think.

The first kind of verb emphasis is achieved in speech by a pitch change on the verb, i.e. saying it more “strongly”. The main written equivalent seems to be italicisation. To use grammar or vocabulary instead, one would have to be very wordy, saying something like think rather than say/know.

The second kind of verb emphasis is normally achieved in speech by strongly pronouncing a particular word next to the verb: either an “auxiliary” verb for positive emphasis, or a negative word (not, never etc.) for the opposite.

In writing, these alternatives are quite easily shown with grammar or vocabulary alone. The simplest way is to add an adverb like certainly, definitely, emphatically, indeed or undoubtedly, as in this example:

(d) Constructing new roads definitely solves (or does not solve) traffic problems.

An alternative with positive one-word verbs like solves is to add DO (…does solve…). It is even possible to combine DO with one of the adverbs (definitely does solve).

One use of emphasised positive or negative verbs is for showing reluctant agreement with an inconvenient fact. For details, see 51. Making Concessions with “May”.


3. Highlighting the New Information in a Sentence

Sentences usually convey information. However, this information does not always take up the whole of the sentence: in many cases it is combined with information that the speaker is not trying to convey because the listener is expected to know it already. The two types of information are often called “new” and “given” (see 156. Mentioning What the Reader Knows Already).

In many cases the new information is obvious from other clues (e.g. sentence-final position), but sometimes a speaker may feel that it needs further emphasising. Placing it in a sentence starting with it or what is one possibility, like this:

(e) It is economic development that causes population growth to fall.

(f) What causes population growth to fall is economic development.

This use of what is considered in detail within this blog in 145. Highlighting with “What” Sentences.


4. Emphasizing a Conjunction

This can be done by placing a connector immediately after, e.g. also or additionally after and in (a). Other common combinations are but nevertheless, and yet, and then, and consequently and or in other words. For the difference between conjunctions and connectors, see 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors.


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