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Stress And Intonation in English—Contrastive Stress

Updated on June 14, 2016
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Seçkin Esen has been working as an English teacher for 6 years. He obtained his Bachelor's degree in ELT from Hacettepe University in 2010.

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Stress is a vital part of both speaking and listening in stress timed languages. As English is a stress timed language, we have to take the stress in consideration while examining it. The stress can occur on both syllables in a word and words in a sentence. So we can divide stress as word stress and sentence stress. I will focus on a type of sentence stress which is called contrastive stress in this paper because this aspect of the language can cause problems for learners in both their speaking and perhaps more importantly listening. This paper attempts to explain what contrastive stress is, how this type of stress occurs and shifts in sentences, how it changes the meaning in spoken English, and it consists suggestions for English language teachers how to teach contrastive stress to their students with exercises.

If you want to sound more natural English when you speak, you should learn how stress affects the meaning of the sentence.
If you want to sound more natural English when you speak, you should learn how stress affects the meaning of the sentence.

What is Stress?

Before writing about contrastive stress, we have to mention about what stress is and what features stress syllables or words have. Stress can be divided in two as word stress and sentence stress.

Word Stress:

If we mention about the stress within a word, we define the term ‘stress’ as syllable prominence. Prominence may, of course, derive from several phonetic factors such as increased length, loudness, pitch movement or a combination of these aspects (Ball and Rahilly, 1999:105). Roach (1983:73) identifies the four characteristics that make a syllable stressed. A stressed syllable;

1. is louder,

2. is longer,

3. has a higher pitch and

4. contains a vowel different in quality from the neighboring vowels.

Sentence Stress:

When mentioning the sentence stress which means the stress in sentence;

The stresses that can occur on words sometimes become modified when the words are part of sentences. The most frequent modification is the dropping of some of the stresses (Ladefoged, 2001:98). English words have the stress on their first syllables when they are used alone. But when used in a sentence, the stress shifts. It is clear in the example that Ladefoged mentions: There is a stress on the first syllable of each of the words ‘Mary, younger, brother, wanted, fifty, chocolate, peanuts’ when these words are said in isolation. But there are normally fewer stresses when they occur in a sentence such as ‘Mary’s younger brother wanted fifty chocolate peanuts’. If we put the stress on the first syllables of all the words in the sentence, it will not sound nice and the meaning may be hardly understood. The sentence should be ‘Mary’s younger brother wanted fifty chocolate peanuts.’ The first syllables of ‘younger’, ‘wanted’ and ‘chocolate’ are pronounced without stress.

The place of the stress in sentences is indicated according to such reasons as emphasis or contrast in the meaning. So, we can divide sentence stress into some types of stress which are tonic stress, emphatic stress and contrastive stress. This paper will focus on contrastive stress and its features in a sentence.

Contrastive Stress

There is one word in most phrases that receives the phrase (sentence) stress under ordinary occasions. However, the stress can always be shifted from this normal place to some other place in the sentence. This shifting always changes the meaning of the phrase somewhat or makes it fit into some special context. As Çelik (2003:58) indicates that when a choice for contrast is not intended on a contrasted item or notion crops up in conversation, the contrasted item or notion should be intelligible to the address. In other words, the contrasted item should make sense in the context of discourse at the time and place of speaking.

The simple sentence below can have many levels of meaning based on the word you stress according to the contrastive choices. The stressed words are written in bold.

1. I don’t think he should get the job.

Meaning: Somebody else thinks he should get the job.

2. I don’t think he should get the job.

Meaning: It’s not true that I think he should get the job.

3. I don’t think he should get the job.

Meaning: That’s not really what I mean. Or I’m not sure he’ll get the job.

4. I don’t think he should get the job.

Meaning: Somebody else should get the job.

5. I don’t think he should get the job.

Meaning: In my opinion it is wrong that he is going to get the job.

6. I don’t think he should get the job.

Meaning: He should have to earn that job.

7. I don’t think he should get the job.

Meaning: He should get another job.

8. I don’t think he should get the job.

Meaning: Maybe he should get something else instead.

As we see in the example, the meaning changes when we shift the stress in the phrase according to our contrastive choices.

In an answer statement, a word has the stress on it when it is contrasted with an item in the question statement. It is more clearly understood with the examples below:

A) Would you prefer coffee or tea?

B) Tea, please.

The answer shows which option you choose in respond to the question, so ‘tea’ has the contrastive stress.

A) Did you go to the campus yesterday or not?

B) I went to the campus yesterday.

The verb ‘went’ appears to be the old information and it has the meaning of confirmation.

A) Did you park your car inside the garage?

B) No, I parked my car outside.

‘Outside’ is contrasted with ‘inside’. The meaning is: the car is parked outside, not inside.

Contrastive stress does not only appear in response statement, it can also be seen in the speech of one speaker. Let’s look at the example:

‘Tom is very good at football whereas he is really bad at doing other sports.’

We can give many more examples to explain the subject of contrastive stress.

Suggestions For Teachers To Teach Contrastive Stress

Teachers should try to teach the contrastive stress with exercises after giving the main points of the subject. The exercises below can be efficient for teaching contrastive stress:

Exercise 1:

Make your students say this sentence aloud using the stress word marked in bold. And have them match the sentence version to the meaning below.

1. I said she might consider a new haircut

2. I said she might consider a new haircut

3. I said she might consider a new haircut

4. I said she might consider a new haircut

5. I said she might consider a new haircut

6. I said she might consider a new haircut

7. I said she might consider a new haircut

a. Not just a haircut

b. It’s a possibility

c. It was my idea

d. Not something else

e. Don’t you understand me?

f. Not another person

g. She should think about it. It’s a good idea

Exercise 2:

Have students write 10 FALSE sentences. They could be about anything, as only as they are not true. Next have students read the statements to their partner. The partner must correct each of the incorrect statements.
For example: "Christmas is in July." - "No, Christmas is in December ."

Exercise 3:

Put students in pairs. Give student A a list of questions or statements. Give student B a list of replies. Student A should hum the intonation patterns of his utterances. Student B should reply with the correct response.

Student A
Student B
I like pizza, pickles, and chips.
Not all together, I hope.
Would you prefer coffee or tea?
Tea, please.
Would you like some ice cream and cake?
No, thank you. I'm not hungry.
Next week we are flying to Rome.
Really? How long will you be there?
Is he going to the dentist?
Yes. He has a toothache.


Contrastive stress is an important part of phrase stress in English. Apart from the other types of stress, as Çelik (2003:58) indicates, the contrasted item receives the tonic stress provided it is contrasted with some lexical element or notion in discourse. This kind of phrase stress is a vital part of both speaking and listening because the contrasted item defines the meaning of the phrase. In response statements, the contrasted item is defined as old information and in some occasions, the contrast between new and old is named contrastive stress.

In this study, I tried to describe the contrastive stress by narrowing down the stress subject together with suggestions for how to teach it to the intermediate students of English language.


Ball, M.J. and Rahilly, J. 1999. The science of speech. London: Arnold Publishers.

Çelik, M. 2003. Learning intonation and stress. Ankara: Gazi

Ladefoged, P. 2001. A course in phonetics. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

Roach, P. 1983 English phonetics and phonology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stress and intonation. 1997. Washington D.C: Collier Macmillan Publishers.

© 2014 Seckin Esen


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    • this information is very useful to students learning English as a second language 8 months ago

      I like the information. It is very much useful for the students learning English Language as a second language.

    • Seckin Esen profile image

      Seckin Esen 22 months ago from Ankara, Turkey

      You are welcome Shane. And thank you for your nice comment.

    • Shane Ilagan profile image

      Shane M. Ilagan 22 months ago from Philippines

      another helpful guide from you ! Thank you for the new knowledge provided in this post.

    • Seckin Esen profile image

      Seckin Esen 2 years ago from Ankara, Turkey

      Thank you for the nice comment teaches12345.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 2 years ago

      Another great lesson to be learned and I thank you for sharing.

    • Seckin Esen profile image

      Seckin Esen 2 years ago from Ankara, Turkey

      Hi vkwok, you are welcome. I'm glad that you like my hub.

    • vkwok profile image

      Victor W. Kwok 2 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for sharing this awesome hub about stress in English.

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