Stress Rules in Business English

Posted on November 27, 2013

“Is stress really that important?” our students sometimes ask, secretly hoping we will say no. Well yes, it is quite important. If you modulate English correctly it sounds interesting and it is much easier to understand. Stress is quite hard because there is often some artistic licence and native speakers will stress the same sentence differently. As a rule of thumb the most important words are stressed and little grammatical words are not stressed unless they are there for contrast.

“She APPLIED for the JOB and we HIRED her.” All the important words for meaning are stressed.
“We HIRED her?” – Sounds like: I saw a woman get interviewed, have we hired her?
“We hired HER?” – Sounds like: She seemed crazy, why on Earth did our company hire her?

If I were to read the next paragraph aloud here’s where I would put the stress:

It’s VERY IMPORTANT to PREPARE THOROUGHLY before GIVING a PRESENTATION. MAKE SURE your SLIDES don’t have TOO MUCH WRITING on and that you can READ THEM even from the BACK of the ROOM. SPEAK more SLOWLY than you WOULD NORMALLY, and ALLOW TIME for QUESTIONS at the END.

Incorrect stress on a word can mean the difference between a noun and a verb in many cases, like “an EXport” but “to exPORT something”. Similarly, you want to make it clear whether you are “preSENTing” to your clients, or giving them a “PREsent”. So in these pairs and many others, the noun is stressed on the first syllable, and the verb is stressed on the last syllable.

Some affixes don’t change the stress of the word. The suffix “un” doesn’t change the stress of the word (unless you are making a comparison). So you can say the meeting was “uneVENTful” or the supplier was “unreLIable”, just as you would say the meeting was “eVENTful” or the supplier was “reLIable”.

Good news! The following suffixes don’t change the stress in a word:
-able
-en
-ful
-ing

In compound nouns, the stressed word is almost always on the first word, the “type”.
COFFEE machine (What type of machine is it? A COFFEE machine).
SHAREHOLDERS’ meeting
PRINTING ink

Some suffixes change the stress of the root word. “JaPAN” + the suffix “ese” become “JapanESE”. Similarly, your clients may be from “CHIna” and TaiWAN” but the people are “ChinESE” and “TaiwanESE”.

If a word ends in “ion” the stress will be on the syllable before the “ion”. So: “We managed to find a resoLUtion”, “There was some conFUsion over the contract”.

This was not a full list but I hope it was useful in improving your English intonation. Please let us know what you thought, or your experiences with English intonation on Facebook or Twitter.

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