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When I bring up the topic of word stress to a group of non-native, English-speaking professionals, I’m usually met by blank stares. Word stress plays a minimal role among non-native speakers, but an enormous role in the intelligibility of your spoken English when speaking with native English speakers across borders.
Don’t know what I’m talking about? Let’s look at a simple example. The word calendar can be broken down into 3 syllables: cal-en-dar. Of these three syllables, one is stressed more than the others, meaning it is said louder, longer, at a higher pitch, and/or with a purer vowel sound. In this case, the stressed syllable is the first one: CAL-en-dar. In Singapore for example, this word stress has changed to the second syllable, so it is common to hear it pronounced cal-EN-dar. This pronunciation has little resemblance to the standard one, and this is why native English speakers might have a really hard time making the connection.
There are many differences between Singapore English word stress and standard word stress. In this short article, I would just like to focus on one small piece in this puzzle: 2-syllable words. These words are so short it’s surprising that a simple shift in word stress can make such a huge difference – but it does.
2-syllable nouns and adjectives
Most 2-syllable nouns and adjectives have stress on the first syllable.
In Singapore however, this stress is often moved to the second syllable, or both syllables are given equal stress. Some words I often hear in Singapore are collEAGUE (instead of COLLeague) and purCHASE (instead of PURchase). This pattern of word stress is so ingrained in Singaporeans, many will fight me on this point until they are blue in the face (if we don’t find a dictionary before then).
And it’s not just Singaporeans! My husband, a non-Singaporean and non-native English speaker, came home the other day and told me he had to write up a few purCHASE orders. When I corrected his pronunciation, he completely resisted and declared that this time, I was definitely wrong! I asked him where he learned this word, and when he said, “From my collEAGUES!” I decided to give up.
2-syllable nouns, when used as verbs, shift their stress to the second syllable.
The majority of nouns that also have a verb form (eg: progress, present, object, produce, record) will be stressed on the first syllable when used as a noun, and the second syllable when used as a verb. Take for example the word progress. Watch how the stress changes depending on how the word is used.
We are making great PROgress in this field. (noun)
New technologies are helping us to proGRESS in this field. (verb)
Unfortunately for us, there are many exceptions to this rule. Some words will remain the same (keeping stress on the first syllable), such as answer, picture, travel, visit and several others.
Remember the old taxi booking recording? “Please do not hang up. We are proCESSing your booking now.” According to our general rule, this pronunciation would make sense, but unfortunately, the word process is an exception. Listen carefully the next time you order your taxi. You’ll notice that they now use the proper pronunciation, ‘PROcessing.’
If you had never heard about word stress before this article, please don’t get too stressed out! The good news is that non-native English speakers pay little attention to word stress when speaking English with each other. Ironically, it’s only the native English speakers that get confused! If you find that native speakers are having trouble understanding you, pay special attention to how you are stressing your words. Sometimes it isn’t what you say, but how you say it that matters!