How to Find the Primary Stress in Words

the primary stress in English
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One of the most challenging, and sometimes frustrating, aspects of English is predicting where the primary stress should be in a word. And since every word has a primary stress, it’s crucial to know where to place it in a word. Otherwise, it may compromise your intelligibility.

What is Primary Stress?

Primary stress is the one syllable in a word that sticks out the most: It’s longer, louder, and higher in pitch.

In the stress system of English, there are 3 levels of stress. There is always a primary stress, and there might be a secondary stress as well. The rest of the vowels are unstressed (and usually weak and reduced to a schwa – learn more about it here).

For example, in a word like “organization”, there is primary stress on the fourth syllable, and a secondary stress on the first syllable: or-guh-nuh-ZEI-sh’n. The other 3 syllables are weak.

How to Know Where You Place the Primary Stress?

Start by breaking down the word into syllables and say it slowly. Most likely you’ll feel which syllable is more dominant. You can also punch your palm once when you say the word slowly. It’ll probably be on the syllable you stress the most. You can also say the word out loud as if it was a child you’re calling to come home. You’ll notice that there’s one syllable that you stretch more than the others. That’s the syllable that you stressed.

But sometimes, you might misplace the primary stress. The stress rules differ from language to language, so it’s only natural, and on top of that, the stress in English specifically is somewhat inconsistent. But don’t feel discouraged. There are some patterns that can help you predict the right stress position in words.

Predicting the Right Stress Position

When you add a suffix to a word, you’re not only changing the meaning of the word. Sometimes, the position of the stress changes too. For example, in a word like ‘possible’, the stress is on the first syllable: PO-ssible. But when we add the suffix -ity, the position of stress changes and moves to the vowel before the suffix: possi-BI-lity. Knowing what suffixes change the stress position and what suffixes don’t is very helpful. Check out more about it here.

You can rely on another common pattern in English to predict the position of the primary stress. In two-syllable words, the stress usually falls on the first syllable if the word is a noun, and on the second syllable if the word is a verb. For example, RE-cord vs. re-CORD: She played my favorite RE-cord, and I wanted to re-CORD it.

Of course, there are some exceptions, but still, these are common patterns that you can already use.

But what can you do with words that you don’t know, which don’t fall under those categories? Watch the video to learn about my 3-step practice system and how you can incorporate it into your daily routine.

And if you’re in the mood for a fun challenge, check out my Primary Stress Quiz at the end of the video.

What words do you usually get wrong when it comes to primary stress? Try using my 3-step system and let me know if it helped in the comments below.

Also, here are the answers to the words in the quiz. Let me know in the comments below how many of them you got right:

  1. Democracy
  2. Economics
  3. Responsibility
  4. Graduation
  5. Psychology
  6. Vegetables
  7. Employee (also common: employee)
  8. Sitcom
  9. Abundance
  10. Profitable
  11. Comprehend
  12. Content
  13. Saturated
  14. Elusive
  15. Sexuality
  16. Residential
  17. Interpersonal
  18. Hidden
  19. Recreate
  20. Natural


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13 Comments on “How to Find the Primary Stress in Words”

  1. Hi Hadar. Thanks for the tips about finding the stress. It was correct 16/20, and I also had problem identify the ones that were até the end of the word

  2. Hi Hadar !
    The story I described earlier happened to me decades ago. I intended by sharing it just to underline the importance what you are teaching, on the one hand. On the second hand, I just wanted to point out that the mistakes due to mispronunciation rarely results in a “deadly serious” impact. Usually, even at a “serious” scientific meeting such errors elicit rather humorous (that is relaxing) effect. Since then I have developed a kind of rather instinctive capability to find promptly the right syllable. (Of course, I always check it on my dictionary program.) That is what psychology calls subconscious learning.

  3. That you very much.
    Very important leson .
    How can I have a group to discuss just , not facebook.

  4. Hi Hadar ! Thank you so much for your letter including the podcast and the videos. Just to illustrate the great significance of your schooling I would like to share one of my funniest pronunciation mistake story with you. It was a typical mistake due to wrong stressing. It happened decades ago at the Brown university. At lunch time I was for a while chatting freely with some staff members. I highly praised one of our colleagues who was just absent. I expressed my opinion that he wasn’t just an extraordinary good researcher but at the same time he was as an everyday man also “UNIQUE”. However, I stressed the first syllable of the word. (I hadn’t got rid of the habit of stressing mostly the first syllable.) So, unfortunately the word sounded on my lips something like “EUNUCH”. Before I had observed my mistake and apologized, of course everyone present there burst out laughing. Fortunately, each colleague had been my friend. So, finally we well amused ourselves on the unique pitfalls of English language. Laszlo

  5. Thank you Hadar for this excelent lesson. I like this video. BTW I have 18/20 right stressed words.

  6. Thank you so much Hadar Shemesh

    your lessons are incredibly helpful, I appreciate and you’re a great teacher…!

  7. 16/20 in the quiz about primary stress. When the primary stress is at the end is not easy to perceive the stress.

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