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Stress Assignment Rules For English Nouns And Verbs

In phonology, the term stress refers to an abstract property of syllables within the word domain. Stressed syllables are pronounced with more prominence than unstressed syllables. Prominence may involve greater amplitude, higher pitch, greater duration or greater accuracy of articulation (most notably in vowels).

Lexical stress may be distinctive, as in 'inCREASE' (verb) vs 'INcrease' (noun).

The term stress is also more generally used to indicate which words or phrases in a sentence bear accent (are in focus).

General rules of stress assignment in English

There is only one primary stress position per word. Only syllables with a vocalic nucleus may be stressed.

Rules of stress placement for nouns and verbs

There are several, partly competing rules of stress assignment in English. The rules are sentitive to at least four factors: (i) the lexical class of the relevant item, (ii) the number of syllables, (iii) the phonological make-up of each of the syllables involved, and (iv) the historical origin of the word.

Disyllabic nouns

are mostly stressed on the penultimate syllable: PRESent, EXport, CHIna, TAble; exceptions are found in recent loan words, e.g. poLICE, hoTEL.

Disyllabic verbs

  • ... are stressed on the ultimate syllable if it is heavy: carouse, esteem, fatigue, foment, maintain, etc.
  • ... are stressed on the penultimate syllable if the ultimate syllable is not heavy: ambush, banish, brevet, cancel, etc.

Trisyllabic nouns

  • ... are stressed on the penultimate syllable if it is not light: appendix, banana, intestine, etc.
  • ... are stressed on the antepenultimate syllable if the penultimate syllable is light: asterisk, citizen, cinema, etc.

Trisyllabic verbs

  • ... are stressed on the peunultimate syllable if the ultimate syllable is not heavy: abandon, accomplish, elicit, etc.
  • ... are stressed on the antepenultimate syllable if the ultimate syllable is heavy: analyze, celebtrate, culminate, etc.

Distinctive lexical stress

There are many disyllabic words in English whose meaning and class is distinguished by stress, e.g. present. If the word is stressed on the penultimate syllable, it functions as a noun (gift) or an adjective (antonym of absent); if the ultimate syllable is stressed, the word functions as a verb (offer). Similarly export, import, contract, object, etc.

Rules of stress placement for adjectives

Adjectives share properties with both verbs and nouns, as far as their prosodic behaviour is concerned. Many disyllabic adjectives are stressed on the penultimate syllable: ancient, fragile, hollow, narrow, etc. Often, the stress position within a disyllabic adjectives is a function of the final syllable or suffix. For example, adjectives ending in -ant, -ow, -ient and -ous are normally stressed on the penultimate syllable: flagrant, callow, ancient, anxious. Specific (mostly Latinate) suffixes attract stress, e.g. '-eme (extreme, supreme) and -ene (serene, obscene).

Stress in adjective-noun combinations

In cases of groups of two or more words, the place of stress depends on whether the group is a syntactic phrase or a compound noun. If it is a syntactic phrase, the adjective is usually less prominent while the noun carries the main stress: a nice GUY , a big HOUSE, a good IDEA. If two nouns form a compound noun, the stress is regularly put on the first word ('lefthand stress rule'): a HOT dog, a PICture frame. There are many (partly regular) exceptions to this rule, however, e.g. silk TIE and apple PIE (cf. Plag 2003).

Cases of stress variation among native speakers

In a few words, variation in stress assignment can be observed, which is partly conditioned by diatopic or diastratic variation, but which is sometimes also idiolectal. For example, some people say teleVIsion while others say TELevision. Another example is CONtroversy vs. conTROversy.


  • Burzio, Luigi (1994). Principles of English Stress. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Carr, Philip (1999). English Phonetics and Phonology. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • König, E. and Volker Gast (2009). Understanding English-German Contrasts. 2nd ed. Berlin: Erich Schmidt (Ch. 3 on stress).
  • Giegerich, Heinz J. (1992). English Phonology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Plag, Ingo (2003). Word Formation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
English Stress

1. Historical landmarks

Gill (1619). Cap. XXV-XXVI.

Steele (1775) distinguished three levels of stress.

Jespersen (1909/1954):

Mr. William Archer, after a long list of seemingly arbitrary accentuations in the English language (America To-Day, p. 193), goes on to say: `But the larger our list of examples, the more capricious does our accentuation seem, the more evidently subject to mere accidents of fashion. There is scarcely a trace of consistent or rational principle in the matter.' It will be the object of the following pages to show that there are principles, and that the `capriciousness' is merely the natural consequences of the fact that there is not one single principle, but several principles working sometimes against each other. (p. 160)
Kingdon (1958) distinguished a) "Romanic-type compounds" (derived Latinate words) b) "Greek-type compounds" (like lexical compounds) c) "English-type compounds" (lexical compounds).

Chomsky, Halle & Lukoff (1956), (summary account in Chomsky and Miller 1963):

These rules ... are ordered, and apply in a cycle, first to the smallest constituents (that is, lexical morphemes), then to the next larger ones, and so on, until the largest domain of phonetic processes is reached .... essentiallly the same rules apply both inside and outside the word. Thus ... a single cycle of transformational rules ... by repeated application, determines the phonetic structure of a complex form.
a) A substantive rule that assigns stress in initial position in nouns (also stems) under very general circumstances. [Germanic stress].
b) A nuclear stress rule that makes the last main stress dominant, thus weakening all other stresses in the construction.
c) The vowel reduction rule.
d) A rule of stress adjustment that weakens all nonmainstresses in a word by one.

2. Chomsky & Halle (1968), especially chs. 2-3. The fulfillment of their concerted effort to determine a complete set of rules for English phonology, dominated by stress assignment and its consequences.

2.1. Stress placement is sensitive to [syllable] weight

p. 29 weak cluster - "a string consisting of a simple vocalic nucleus followed by no more than one consonant".

strong cluster - "a string consisting of either a vocalic nucleus followed by two or more consonants or a complex vocalic nucleus followed by any number of consonants." (i.e. light vs. heavy rimes).

2.2. Stress rules are sensitive to lexical categories

(21) Main Stress Rule

V -> [1 stress] / X - C0]NAV

Rule (21) assigns primary stress to the final vowel of the word, e.g. eváde, supréme, exíst, absúrd, all of which end in a strong cluster. If a verb or adjective has a final weak cluster, the stress is placed on the penultimate syllable e.g. rélish, cóvet, devélop, stólid, cómmon, clandéstine.

2.3. Sensitivity to the Latinate/Germanic distinction

a) Germanic affixes don't affect stress placement, e.g. éarth, éarthly, unéarthly, unéarthliness.
b) Latinate suffixes may affect stress placement, e.g. témpest, tempéstuous, tempestuósity.
c) Stress may shift onto Latinate prefixes, e.g. invést vs. ínverse, càtatónic vs. catastrophe.
d) Stress never shifts onto Germanic prefixes, e.g. òver[cóok] - no forms like ovéric [oUvrIk]

Segmentally homophonous Latinate and Germanic suffixes with different stress behaviours:

2.4. Sensitivity to morpheme boundaries

pérson+al, not persónal SW+al
theátric+al not theatrícal WSW+al
anecdót+al WWS+al
dialéct+al WWS+al

Phonological operations restricted to specific morphological domains / environments:

im--press-ionover- [im--press-ion] -able
c)Un-earth-li -ness

2.5. Stress subordination

p. 64 "The rules that determine stress contours are, for the most part, rules that assign primary stress in certain positions, at the same time weakening the stresses in all other positions".

2.5. Alternating stress rule (p.78) (for secondary stresses)

V -> [1 stress] / - C0 V C0 V1 C0]

hurricAn => hurricA1n [Main stress rule]
=> hu1rricA1n [Alternating stress rule]
=> hu1rricA2n [Stress subordination]

3. Liberman and Prince (1977)

"certain features of prosodic systems like that of English, in particular the phenomenon of `stress subordination', are not to be referred primarily to the properties of individual segments (or syllables), but rather reflect a hierarchical rhythmic structuring that organizes the syllables, words, and syntactic phrases of a sentence."


/\/\       \
dew -coveredlawnlaborunionfinancecommitteepresident



"only a stressed syllable may be the strong element of a metrical foot".

Digression on Iambic Reversal / Rhythm Rule / Stress Retraction

SPE and Metrical Phonology both capture the preservation of relative prominence under embedding. But there are counter-cases,

e.g. thirtéen vs. thìrteen mén, àchromátic vs. áchromàtic lêns

Liberman and Prince: "we need an account of linguistic rhythm in terms of which the appropriate stress configurations are marked as `clashing', thus producing a pressure for change."

The Metrical Grid:


For more on the Rhythm rule, see Kager and Visch (1988), and papers by Grabe and Warren, Vogel et al. and Shattuck-Hufnagel in
Connell and Arvaniti (1995). According to these later studies, iambic reversal is not a phonological movement rule at all, bur arises from the interaction of lexical stress and phrase-final accent:

Separate words
Phrasal accentuation:HLHLHL
Lexical stress:*|*|**|

4. Kiparsky (1979): stress assignment is cyclic.

Liberman and Prince (1977) derive the stress of "sensationality" incorrectly:

231- according to Liberman and Prince's stress-marking algorithm

"Since no cyclic rules in [Liberman & Prince 1977] are sensitive to metrical structure, one could equivalently stipulate that metrical structure is assigned only on the last cycle."

If assignment of metrical structure is cyclic (i.e. derivation respects structure built on earlier cycles) the (correct) derivation will be:


"metrical structure assigned in earlier cycles is kept insofar as it is not redrawn by the reapplication of [foot construction]."

5. Hayes (1982): extrametricality

i) The final syllable is extrametrical in nouns and suffixed adjectives, e.g. serendipi<ty>, sensa<tion>, perso<nal>. With this proviso, antepenultimate stress is eliminated. Word final syllables are stressed if heavy, otherwise stress is penultimate (modulo extrametricality).

ii) The final consonant is extrametrical in underived verbs and adjectives, e.g. soli<d>, supre<me>.

6. English stress parameters

As work in metrical theory progressed and was extended to many languages, our conception of English stress assignment became embedded in, and was constrained by, a parametric view of options for metrical structure (Halle and Vergnaud 1987, Booij 1983), taking a lead from Chomskyan syntax.

1) Principles: Words consist of feet and feet consist of syllables.

2) Parameter: In English the rightmost foot is strongest (domain of main stress) e(ráse), i(ráte), mu(tátion), (ècu)(méni)<cal>, (ànti)(dìse)(stàblish)<men>(tári)<an>. Cf. Russian: leftmost - (úa)(sàm).

3) Parameter: Bounded feet are maximally binary; ternary feet are dealt with by extrametricality, and can only ocur at the edges of words (or cycles). Thus: (Hàma)(mèlid)(ánthe)<mum>. Cf. unbounded feet in Khalkha Mongolian (xötElbr) `leadership', French (originalité).

4) Parameter: In words with an odd number of syllables (excepting extrametrical ones), left-over syllables occur at the beginning; e.g. a(génda), To(péka), a(ríse). In Maranungku they occur at the end e.g. (lángka)(ràte)tì.

5) Parameter: In English, non-tonic binary feet immediately precede the tonic foot. Problem: (àbra)ca(dábra).

6) Parameter: The leftmost syllable in a foot is strongest e.g. (mán), (mánner), (mána)<ger>. Cf. Weri (kù)(lipú), (ulù)(amít), (á)(kunè)(tepál), in which the rightmost syllable is strongest.

7) Parameter: Feet are quantity-sensitive i.e. a heavy syllable must be the head of a foot. (Does not exclude possibility that light syllables could be syllable heads too) e.g. (fùnda)(méntal), (spíral) but in(ért).

8) Paramter: Secondary stresses are placed from right to left on the head of every foot other than the tonic foot. (Stress assignment is iterative. Cf. Spanish, Polish.) e.g. (hàma)(mèli)(dánthe)<mum>.

7. The Abracadabra problem.

(àbra)ca(dábra), Kalamazoo, Luxipalilla, Hardecanute, okefenokee, Nebuchadnezzar, paraphernalia, Kilimanjaro: these words appear to require either a medial extrametrical syllable or a ternary foot.

Hammond's solution: secondary feet are built left to right. Following Hammond's suggestion, see also Halle and Kenstowicz (1991) section 7, McCarthy and Prince (1993) section 3.

8. Phrasal stress

Roca and Johnson follow Chomsky and Halle (1968) in contrasting e.g. lexical bláckbìrd vs. phrasal blàck bírd. But we cannot in general state that phrasal stress is right-headed. Noun-noun sequences are usually left-headed (e.g. dóg-hoùse), but there are exceptions (e.g. lòbster ragóut).


Booij, G.E. (1983) Principles and parameters in prosodic phonology. Linguistics 21, 249-280.

Chomsky, N.& M. Halle (1968) The Sound Pattern of English. New York: Harper and Row. Reprinted in 1991 by MIT Press.

Chomsky, N., M. Halle and F. Lukoff (1956) On Accent and Juncture in English. In M. Halle, H.G. Lunt, H. McLean and C.H. van Schooneveld, eds. For Roman Jakobson: Essays on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday. The Hague: Mouton & Co. 65-80.

Chomsky, N.& G.A. Miller (1963) Introduction to the Formal Analysis of Natural Languages. In R.D. Luce, R.R. Bush and E. Galanter, eds. Handbook of Mathematical Psychology Volume II, New.York: John Wiley. 269-321.

Connell, B. and A. Arvaniti (1995) Phonology and Phonetic Evidence: Papers in Laboratory Phonology IV. Cambridge University Press.

Gil, A. (1619) Logonomia Anglica. [Scolar Press facsimile reprint, 1967]. Or see Alexander Gill's Logonomia Anglica (1619), Part II: Biographical and Bibliographical Introductions. Notes by Bror Danielson and Arvid Gabrielson. Translation by Robin C. Alston. Stockholm Studies in English XXVII. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell.

Halle, M.& M. Kenstowicz (1991) The Free Element Condition and Cyclic versus Noncyclic Stress. Linguistic Inquiry 22(1), 457-501.

Halle, M. and J.-R. Vergnaud (1987) An Essay on Stress. MIT Press.

Hayes, B (1981) A Metrical Theory of Stress Rules. IULC.

Jesperson, O. (1909/1954) A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles. Part I: Sounds and Spellings. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Kager, R. & E. Visch (1988), Metrical constituency and rhythmic adjustment. Phonology 5.1, 21-71.

Kingdon, R. (1958) The Groundwork of English Stress. London: Longman.

Kiparsky, P. (1979) Metrical Structure Assignment is Cyclic. Linguistic Inquiry 10(3), 421-441.

Liberman, M. and A. Prince (1977) On Stress and Linguistic Rhythm. Linguistic Inquiry 8(2), 249-336.

McCarthy, J. and A. Prince (1993) Generalized Alignment. Yearbook of Morphology 1993. 79-153.

Steele, J. (1975) An Essay towards Establishing the Melody and Measure of Speech. [Scolar Press Facsimile edition, 1969].


Determine the stress of each syllable and the quality of each vowel in the following examples. (Refer to a pronouncing dictionary if you are not a native speaker of English.) Parse the words into prefixes, stems and suffixes. In each case, account for the alternations of stress and vowel quality in the prefix.