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How Sentence Stress Works and Why

In any given sentence in English there will be words that carry stress and others that don’t. This is not a random pattern. Stressed words carry the meaning orthe sense behind the sentence, and for this reason they are called “Content Words” – they carry the content of the sentence. Unstressed words tend to be smaller words that have more of a grammaticalsignificance – they help the sentence “function” syntactically and for this reason they are called Function Words (NOTE: sometimes “Function Words” are referred to as “Structure Words”).

Obviouslythe “content” of a sentence carries more significance than the particular “way” it is put together. An easier way to think of it is that if you take out all the “function” words (without realmeaning) from a sentence, the sentence will still have a certain amount of meaning and can be understood. Doing the opposite will remove the meaning from a sentence and render it obsolete. It is logicalthat the meaningful units within a sentence will carry the most significance and therefore stress.

Content Words include: (Main) Verbs, Nouns, Adjectives, Adverbs, Negative Auxiliary Verbs,Demonstratives, Question Words

Function Words include: Pronouns, Prepositions, Articles, Conjunctions, Auxiliary Verbs, (Main) Verb “to be”


Content Words | Function Words |
Main Verbs |go, talk, writing | Pronouns | I, you, he ,they |
Nouns | student, desk | Prepositions | on, under, with |
Adjectives | big, clever | Articles | the, a, some |
Adverbs | quickly, loudly |Conjunctions | but, and, so |
Negative Aux. Verbs | can’t, don’t, aren’t | Auxiliary Verbs | can, should, must |
Demonstratives | this, that, those | Verb “to be” | is, was, am |
Question Words |who, which, where | | |

I am talking to the clever students.
You’re sitting on the desk, but you aren’t listening to me.
He’s writing quickly, so it’s difficult for him to hear me.

A Note on...
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