How Stress Changes the Meaning of Words and Sentences

Knowing where stresses fall in words and sentences helps us understand their meanings.

Many words change their meaning according to which syllable is stressed when the word is pronounced. Stressing one word in a sentence over the others can change the meaning of the entire sentence. The sentence then takes on a whole new focus or offers information that would not have been there otherwise.

1 Stresses and Word Meaning

Words with more than one syllable are spoken with a stress on one of the syllables. This is important for correct pronunciation as well as for using the word correctly. For example, one definition of the word "subject," when pronounced SUB-ject, is a topic of discussion. If the stress falls on the last syllable, as in sub-JECT, then the word becomes a verb, meaning to cause someone to suffer.

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2 Learning English

It is important for those learning English as a foreign language to be aware of how a stress on the wrong syllable of a word can obscure its meaning. The word “handle” for instance is pronounced HAN-dle, and the word “motel” is pronounced mo-TELL. However someone new to the English language could easily switch these stresses, pronouncing them MO-tle and han-DELL. These words are not recognizable to the native English speaker and could easily cause misunderstanding in conversation.

3 Word Stresses Within a Sentence

When a particular word in a sentence is emphasized when spoken or printed in bold or italics, the meaning of the sentence changes. For example, look at the sentence "Karen doesn't think George wants to go to college." The meaning of this sentence is simple when you first read it. But if certain words are stressed in the sentence, the meaning either changes or we gain some new information.

4 Changing Sentence Meanings

An example of change in meaning due to word stress might be: “Karen doesn't think GEORGE wants to go to college.” The stress on “George” then becomes a clarification -- someone might want to go to college, but not George. “Karen doesn't think George WANTS to go to college” tells us that George has considered college, but doesn’t like the idea. “Karen doesn't think George wants to go to COLLEGE” indicates that George may have plans, but not a plan to attend college.