How to Use Sentence Stress in Spoken
If you’ve ever listened closely when Americans speak you’ve
probably noticed that they say some words with more emphasis
than others. This is because English is a stress-timed
language. Stress-timed means that the most important
words in spoken phrases and sentences (called
focus words) receive more
emphasis than the less important words (called
Let me explain what I mean.
Content, Focus and Function words
In spoken English we pronounce the most important words with
strong emphasis or stress. These important words are called
content words and focus words. Focus words are often the last
content word in a sentence or phrase and they receive the most
The less important words in spoken English are very reduced.
These reduced words are called function words. The tables below
show some samples of typical content words and function
Content Words (one of these will be the focus word
in a sentence):
||cats, food, house
||play, eat, listen
||great, fun, happy
||don’t, can’t won’t
Function Words (these words are
||the, a, an
||on, in, under
||he, she, they
||but, and, because
||be, can, do, have
Continue on to the Mini-Lesson below to practice pronouncing
sentences with content, focus and function words.
Mini Lesson: Content, Focus and Function
As you just learned in the article, the most
important words in English sentences are called content
words and focus words. In spoken English, content and
focus words are louder and have a
higher pitch than the other words in a sentence.
Function words such as articles and prepositions are not as
important to the meaning of a sentence so they are usually
The combination of stressed and reduced words
creates the stress-timed rhythm of spoken English.
Pronunciation Activity-Practice Sentence
In each sentence below the CONTENT words are
written in capital letters. The FOCUS words
are in bold. The function words are in written in normal
The STUDENTS can PRONOUNCE all the
Will the EMPLOYEES be GOING to
The FOOD is on the TABLE.
Is it TIME to go HOME yet?
Listen and say each sentence. I will emphasize
the content and focus words and reduce the sounds of the
function words. Play the audio as many times as you like to
listen and repeat each sentence.
Click the play button to listen:
Insight: American English
An idiom is a unique expression in which the meaning cannot
necessarily be understood from the literal definitions of the
words. Every language has idioms and this week I’ve chosen two
of my favorite English food idioms to share with you.
The first one is: Like two
peas in a pod.
Americans use this idiom to describe two things that are
nearly identical just as 2 peas from one peapod would be. For
example: If John and Lisa enjoy many of the same foods I might
say, “When it comes to eating, John and Lisa are like two peas
in a pod”.
My second idiom is: As cool as
Americans use this idiom to describe someone who stays calm
in stressful situations. For example: If Thomas looks very
relaxed the night before a big exam I might say, “Even though
Thomas has a big exam tomorrow he is cool as a cucumber”.
Listen and say both of these idioms.
1. “John and Lisa are like two peas in a pod”.
2. “Thomas is as cool as a cucumber”.
Click Play to listen now:
Resource: Voice of America Special English
In this VOA
Special English Broadcast, Lida Baker, a
well know professor from the University of
California at Los Angeles, explains how to
use sentence stress in spoken English.
Click on the image to go to the site