When you’re absorbed in listening to a song, you naturally nod your head or move your body based on the rhythm.
There’s a certain rhythm to speaking English too. It may not be as noticeable as loud drumbeats, but there are certain words in sentences that English speakers emphasize – while other words are said more quietly.
This is called sentence stress. Although people don’t think about it consciously when they’re listening, sentence stress is essential for clear, fluent English, and stressing the wrong words can affect the meaning of your sentence or even make it sound strange.
In this post, we’ll look at what sentence stress is all about, along with how to identify which words to stress in a sentence.
What is Sentence Stress?
Sentence stress simply means that when you speak English, you put more force or stress into specific words so they stand out. To stress a word, you say it more slowly and loudly, with a higher pitch. In contrast, unstressed words sound quieter and softer, as If you’re drawing attention away from them.
The rhythm of English is created by this shifting from stressed to unstressed words and then back again. In fact, English is a stress-timed language. The stressed words act as a consistent beat, with the unstressed words smushed together in between them.
In other words, the time between stressed words stays the same no matter how many unstressed words there are between them. Because of this, how long it takes you to say a sentence in English depends on the number of stressed words.
Here’s how this would work in a sentence:
- Therewerealotof people atthe meeting today.
The bolded words are stressed, while the regular words are unstressed. Note that the unstressed words (“There were a lot of” and “at the”) are smushed together to keep the beat in the phrases.
This pattern of stressed and unstressed words gives English a distinct melody and rhythm. When you can match the sentence stress of standard English, your speech will be much easier to understand. For a more interactive guide to sentence stress, you can turn to the Creativa course on Mastering North American Pronunciation. It has an entire video episode that dives deep into sentence stress, complete with plenty of effective yet uncommon tips and techniques.
All in all, the course delves into aspects of English pronunciation that learners tend to struggle with and yet are necessary for speaking English confidently. Curious about it? Check out this free video from the course.
How to Identify Sentence Stress
In standard English, the most important words in a sentence are the ones that you stress. This is actually pretty logical because it signals to the listener that you want them to focus on those words.
These words are called content words. They carry the meaning of the sentence. If you remove all of the other words and say only the content words, your speech will sound broken and your grammar incorrect, but the other person can still get a rough idea of what you’re trying to say.
- I bought a bottle of water from the store.
The content words are bolded here, so if you remove them, the sentence becomes: “bought bottle water store.” Even without half of the words in the sentence, you can still guess the meaning!
In this sentence, the other words are called function or grammar words, including “a,” “of,” “from,” and “the.” These words are the glue that holds the sentence together and makes it grammatically correct, but they can’t stand on their own.
When it comes to sentence stress, content words are usually stressed, while function words are unstressed.
Content Words vs. Function Words
Let’s take a deeper look into what we can consider as content words or function words:
Content words are usually nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs.
- There isn’t anyone around here.
- Do you need to use my laptop?
- Rainy mornings can be cozy.
- He’s scared about his exam results.
- The company was doing well when I checked.
Function words are usually articles, prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns, and be verbs.
- We’re excited about watching this movie.
- That’s his most important goal for the year.
- Risk is inherent in everything.
- The view from the mountains is beautiful.
- It might have to be rescheduled.
A quick way to figure out whether a word is a content word or a function word is to ask: if I remove this word, does the sentence still retain its message?
Expressing Yourself with Sentence Stress
Since sentence stress emphasizes the most important part of a sentence, it also gives you more room to be expressive when you speak English. The words that you stress can add a new level of meaning to the sentence.
Although English speakers generally stress content words and unstress function words, there are situations when this isn’t followed. Here’s what happens if we stress specific words compared to others in a sentence:
- We’re excited about watching the movie. -> Focuses on who’s excited to watch the movie (we, not other people)
- We’re excited about watching the movie. -> Focuses on how we feel about watching the movie (excited, not uninterested or bored)
- We’re excited about watching the movie. -> Focuses on the action that we’re excited about (watching the movie, not going hiking or eating outside)
- We’re excited about watching the movie. -> Not as natural, but focuses on the fact that we’re excited about watching a specific movie, not a random movie
- We’re excited about watching the movie. -> Focuses on what we’re excited to watch (the movie, not a TV series or a basketball game)
It’s technically the same sentence, but there are different implications based on which words you emphasize the most! “We” as a subject and “the” usually aren’t stressed, but it’s possible to stress them if you want to make a point. This isn’t done as often, though, so until sentence stress becomes more intuitive for you, you can stick with generally stressing content words.
We’ve compiled some sentences for you to practice on! Try reading these out loud while putting stress on the bolded words:
- I’m thirsty. Is there any water?
- The internet isn’t working.
- She passed me the book across the table.
- He didn’t make it to his job interview.
- They found it relaxing to live by the beach.
- There’s a gallery exhibit that features glass sculptures.
- We met at the festival.
- Everyone’s happy because their team won.
- I sent you the document on our group chat.
- What’s your favorite spot in the city?
If your native language doesn’t have sentence stress the way English does, then you can get used to it by reading a diverse range of sentences out loud.
English might not seem like an especially musical language, but a key element of it is rhythm – and part of this comes from sentence stress. Aside from improving your speaking, becoming comfortable with sentence stress will also give you better listening comprehension. Ever get confused when someone speaks English fast? Knowing all about sentence stress can help you with that!
Pronunciation and vocabulary might be the building blocks of English, but beyond those, mastering higher-level concepts such as sentence stress will fine-tune your English communication – both in terms of speaking and listening.
English is the fastest growing language in human history.
Today, about 1.75 billion people around the world speak the language.
That’s almost 25% of the world’s population!
English is not just used in everyday situations—it is also used in businesses and professional settings all over the world. Learning English is not just a fun and interesting thing to do, it is an important career move!
If you are learning English with the purpose of advancing your career, you are probably taking professional English courses, classes or training programs. Getting professional help is an important step towards improving your English and learning language specific to the work setting.
But are these courses enough? To learn even faster and more effectively, you should be practicing your English outside of the classroom setting.
There are a number of things you can do in your daily life to make professional English a part of your routine. The more you practice, the better you will get—and the more opportunities you will have!
Reasons for Learning Professional English
There are many reasons for learning professional English, even if you are not looking for an English-speaking job right away:
- You will have more job opportunities. Many large businesses now require that you speak English, especially if they deal with any international customers or partners. Knowing English will open doors for you to better careers and make you stand out as an applicant. Learning professional English is a great way to master English for advanced learners.
- You will be able to communicate better. No matter where you are in the world, since so many people know at least a little bit of English, you can use the language to communicate.
- You will have an easier time getting promotions. Even if you start at the bottom of a company where knowing English is not that important, you will have an easier time getting promoted if you know English. Many managers, executives and other important company members must know English.
- You will have the chance to work abroad. If you’ve been hoping to move someplace that speaks English, getting a job there will be important. Knowing English will give you an important advantage when you are applying.
As you can see, learning professional English has many benefits!
The Difference Between Professional and Casual English
Do not worry if you’ve been learning “regular” English all this time—you need to know basic English reading, writing and speaking skills to learn business English well. The basics of English are the same whether you are talking about the great movie you saw yesterday or the important meeting you have coming up.
The differences are found in the vocabulary and topics of conversation. Professional English is focused on communicating clearly in a business setting, with co-workers, customers, your boss or anyone else related to work.
Knowing professional English really means knowing how to make phone calls, write reports, engage during meetings and be a part of the everyday office routine.
You will also need to know how to speak about the area of expertise of your company in English. In other words, if you work in a law company, you might need to speak about law in English.
There are ways to make professional English part of your everyday life, so you can be ready to apply your skills to your career.
Tips to Make Professional English Part of Your Everyday Routine
1. Focus on a profession.
“Professional” is a catch-all category. That means it is a very general term that includes many different professions.
Professional English classes and courses such as Creativa cover the basic ideas, topics and vocabulary that you will need to know in any business setting. In Creativa’s case, this includes business greetings and openings, the different parts of a business meeting, keeping the attention of your audience and talking about future plans and ideas over 10 video episodes.
In other words, they teach more general language that is useful for all the students taking the class.
However, depending on where you want to work, you are definitely going to need some specialized vocabulary in addition to your general business English.
To make sure that you can actually use your English skills in the real world, use your time outside classes to learn professional English that is relevant to your industry. The vocabulary you learn, the news you read and every other part of your learning should have your industry in mind. This will make you even more prepared for a job in the field!
2. Listen to the radio.
Wait, the radio still exists? Yes! Even in an age of computers, streaming services and TVs, the radio is still one of the best places to get your news and information on the go.
There are many news and talk shows on the radio, which you can listen to on the way to work or school or while you are doing other things around the house. Listening to news or industry talk shows can expose you to professional English, as well as to opinions and ideas about things that are happening in the business world.
The radio has also learned to work together with the internet to be heard anywhere you live! Many radio websites stream their current program. If you cannot access the station that way, you can use a service like Tunein, which lets you listen to radio stations from anywhere in the world.
Some great general business talk and news shows are the “Bloomberg Radio,” “The Larry Kudlow Show” and many others that you can find here.
3. Always be listening.
And while we’re on the subject of listening…always have your ears open!
If you already work in a place where people speak English, listen to the language they use. Listen during meetings or in lunch outings. Just listening to the language will help you learn it better. Pay close attention to the words they use, when they use them and how the use them. Listen to accents. Listen to jokes, slang, idioms, phrases and anything else that you hear people saying.
If you do not understand something, ask what it means. Do not feel shy!
If you do not work in an English-speaking environment, visit one! Find a place where people from your profession of industry go, and listen to them speaking. If it is a public place, you can even introduce yourself, explain that you are learning business English and ask them if they’d mind if you just sit and listen to them talk. You might make a connection that way, too!
4. Mix business English with regular English.
Even if you are learning professional English, you might still be learning regular English as well. The two do not have to be separate! You can easily learn both at the same time. Learn things in pairs, combining your casual English learning and vocabulary with the professional version of it.
For example, if you are learning words related to shopping, you can also learn words related to business expenses.
A receipt is called an invoice in the business world. The store you just bought pants at is a retailer, which buys the pants in large numbers from a wholesaler. You wanted to buy more things, but you have a low balance in your bank account. If you were on a business-related shopping trip, you would have called your low balance a small budget.
Let the business and the casual worlds of English join together into one!
5. Go face to face.
Nothing beats real conversations and meeting people in person!
Talk to people who work in the business you are interested in, visit meetings or special events open to the public, and just get yourself out there! You will be getting practice, but you will also be networking—that is, meeting people who might be able to help you in your career one day in the future.
If you are nervous about your level of English, and it is preventing you from joining conversations, tell people that you are still learning. Most people will be happy to help, slow down, or explain things if they know you are learning.
Professional English learning does not have to happen only in the classroom. Now get out there and start learning!
Teaching English in the classroom has that scholarly dictionary feel, and is often associated with conjugating verbs, memorizing vocabulary and taking quizzes to see how many you get – or guess – right. When it comes to teaching a language in the corporate world, although most language learners inevitably went through the same stages at some point, teachers should be geared for a context that is quite particular.
First off, these are clients and should be treated as such. They have objectives and expectations. These persons tend to be more mature, not just age wise of course. Interestingly, their motivation to learn English comes with stakes that are not the same as the typical high schooler. They indeed have different reasons for wanting to learn the most communicated language in the world – spoken by an estimated 1.5 billion speakers according to EF.com. This inspiration may spur from business targets: a desire to tackle an English-speaking clientele, or a need to communicate with colleagues and management located in anglophone headquarters or subsidiaries. Some may even have a project to change jobs and transpose skills from their own language to English. You may encounter a small percentage though who take up English somewhat grudgingly if this became an unexpected work-related requirement. With an engaging, persuasive style and valuable lesson material, this can be deftly converted into a new experience they should take advantage of. The task would most likely not be as daunting as students who study English simply because it is on their curriculum.
If the ability to speak English is needed for a business environment, this may call for catch phrases and content such as ‘getting the green light, ‘signing the dotted line’, ‘looking at the big picture’, ‘raising the bar’ and so on. Generally, language learners like quick fixes that make them sound authentic. Basic level learners may need to brush up on polishing their introductions to talk about their career experience and expertise. However, these speakers want above all to learn practical vocabulary that they can put to proper use in the workplace. They may have specific presentations to work on, conference calls to conduct or participate in, physical meetings to attend while travelling on business. Assessing the learners to make sure there is a well-rounded base is excellent too for confidence and credibility. Are they able to talk about their personalities and backgrounds with anglophone colleagues? Order a taxi or a meal at a restaurant with ease? Express an opinion on current affairs?
In addition to doing business, areas that companies are active in can be technical, financial, scientific, among other genres. Being a native level English speaker is not sufficient in all cases to teach the language within a company. Sometimes it is mandatory to have a teacher with a particular career path or familiarity with specific topics.
All in all, teaching English to adult learners in a corporate environment is exciting. It differs greatly from teaching within the traditional education system, and some may even see it as demanding. However, you have the chance to help your learners step out of their daily comfort zone and challenge and increase their language skills. To them, you are a brand and a service provider all in one. If you are dynamic and serious about the progress of the learners you coach, this type of teaching experience can be enriching for you. This context is also particularly interesting as your clients are adults who generally want to hone their abilities and chart their language development. They would thus expect you to deliver proficient English classes and feel the results in how they communicate.