Intonation is not unique to the English language, all languages use pitch to convey surprise, irony, emphasis; and most commonly, to pose a question. It is one of the assessment criteria for many English tests like the IELTS, TOEFL, and TOEIC where speaking (and hence pronunciation) is assessed. This article will briefly cover individual sounds, word stress, sentence stress elision, assimilation, linking, and intonation.


Here is a little warm-up sentence. Read it aloud:


  • This photograph was taken by an excellent photographer


What are the differences in pronunciation between photograph and photographer?


  • The ‘er’ sound at the end.
  • The word stress.
  • The changed vowel sound in the second syllable.



Subtle Rule 1: Word Stress


Normally, words with two or more syllables, one syllable will be stressed. Two words may be similar like “photograph” and “photographer” but the stress may be on a different syllable. Word stress is part of the English language, native and fluent speakers use word stress to communicate rapidly and accurately. Two simple rules to remember about word stress:


1. One word has only one stress.

2. We only stress vowels, not consonants.


Other things to remember:


The pitch of a stressed syllable is often higher and is said more clearly. It sounds clearer because you say it louder and longer.


  • PHO’-to-graph
  • Pho-TO’-graph-er


Some simple rules:


  • Stress the third-from-last syllable of words that end in -al, -cy, -ty, -phy, and -gy.
    • E.g.: words like democracy, uncertainty, geography, and radiology.
  • You will stress the first syllable of most two-syllable nouns and adjectives.
    • Such as: spacious, perfect, knowledge, thirteen, Thursday, donate, Mumbai, office, climate, and picture.
  • You will stress the last syllable of most two-syllable verbs and prepositions
    • For example: require, decide, entertain, relax, receive, direct, among, aside, and between.
  • Stress the second-to-last syllable of words that end in -ic , -sion, and -tion.
    • Examples of these words are: ecstatic, geographic, and extension.


Those are just some general rules. Let’s try another word! Here is another little warm up:


  • Say the word ‘computer’ aloud: com-pu-ter.


Computer is a three-syllable word. We will stress the second of the three. We stress this syllable by making it longer: com-p-u-ter, and by making it louder:


English has many words that don’t end in -al, -cy, -ty, -phy, -gy, -ic, -sion, and -tion. The language also has many words that have more than two syllables and words with just one syllable. Defining the position of the stress is unpredictable and it can’t be generalised.


For example, the words “insight” and “incite” are distinguishable in pronunciation. Because for insight, it is the first syllable that is stressed and for incite, it is the second syllable that is stressed.



Initial-stress-derived nouns


When the stress of certain verbs is moved to the first syllable, we refer to them as initial-stress-derived nouns. These are not general amongst all dialects but is becoming more standardised. Many of these pairs exist and in my personal opinion, it is one the most important things to study in order to sound like a native. Not using the correct stress when speaking is a dead giveaway when telling the difference between a proficient non-native speaker and someone who is not. For examples:


  • ‘I read five books last month’ - verb
  • ‘She loves to read’ - noun


Also, consider the examples in this paragraph:


‘There is a bit of a problem and I hope that there will be no conflict between you two. You see, Charles and I will be going to Rome, Dublin, Moscow, and Porto in the summer. I do hope that my plans will not conflict with yours in any way. Let the record show that I gave you ample time, five months to make sure your future plans do not interfere with mine. I want to get an international driving permit as well. I know you got yours last summer. Do I have enough time to apply and receive one before the summer? I believe my Canadian driving licence will permit me to dive in Rome. I really hope I don’t have to deal with any major conflict whilst driving abroad’.



Subtle Rule 2: Connecting Sounds


English really isn’t a fast language but Americans and Australians more often than the British (they still do it but in a posh sort of way) connect our words when speaking and change the sounds of the words. Connected speech allows us to speak efficiently and with rhythm.




  • ‘What are you going to do? - Sounds like: ‘whaddya gonna do?’


Try to say these:


  • The information in this report is important.
  • Will you be busy tomorrow afternoon?
  • Give him something to eat.


‘Give him something to eat’ - sounds like ‘give-em sometin-ta-eat’. Connect ‘give-him’, you do this by dropping the h sound. Connect ‘something-to-eat’, you do this by dropping the g and using the schwa in to making it ta.


Consonant + Vowel


Push the consonant sound forward and connect it to the vowel in the next word.


For example:


  • ‘Stop it’ is pronounced ‘sto pit’ (staput)
  • ‘I need it’ is pronounced ‘I nee dit’ (aiyneedit)


Consonant + Consonant


When a word ends in a consonant sound and the following word begins in the same or similar consonant sound, you will only pronounce that sound once by lengthening or holding the sound. For example:


  • ‘I had the best time ever!’ is pronounced ‘I had the bestime ever!’ (bestime)


This tip always is a clear reminder of how different spoken English is from written English. Spoken English is a stream of sounds all strung together without clear-cut boundaries that causes problems for students of the language.


The consonants t, d, and h are often elided when they appear in a consonant cluster. For examples:


  • In a single word: sandwich sounds like ‘sanwich’.
  • In an entire sentience: you and me sounds like ‘you an me’.


Now that we have talked a little bit about elided sounds we can talk about letters that intrude on sounds. When two-vowel sounds meet, we often insert an extra sound, which resembles either a, j, w, or r to mark the transition sounds between the two vowels:


  • Intruding r: ‘law r and order’ or ‘the media r are to blame’.
  • Intruding w: ‘I want to w eat’ or ‘please do w it’



Subtle Rule 3: Sentence Stress


In English, we emphasize the most important words in a sentence. We pronounce them more slowly and a little louder. Where would you put the stress on the following sentences?

  • The train from Glasgow will be twenty minutes late.
  • I had a great time at the tea in the park festival.
  • Did you fly to New York when you were in the States?
  • I put your book back on the shelf.


Sentence stress is one of those topics best suited for a video or a podcast but I will try to give a few tips. Now that we have practised how to say the words, we need to put them all together.


While I am on the topic of sentence stress, I also would like to talk about some two-word phrases, these are also known as phrasal verbs. The two word phrases consist of a:


  • verb + adverb or verb + preposition.


These are best studied as you come across them. I will talk about a few that I have used and I have heard in multiple English speaking countries.


  • Essentially, words that have the most stress in English are nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and pronouns.
  • Auxiliary verbs, prepositions, conjunctions, determiners, and possessive adjectives are weaker and do not have as much.


That’s all folks! Thanks for the read and hope this helps!


Hero image by Jacob Sapp (CC0 1.0