For the Korean learner, it can be a stressful task to determine where to place the stress in English words, especially since Korean stress application is often so simple – put slight stress on the first syllable. In English, word stress is a more complicated matter. It often differs according to the type of word being dealt with. Stress on the wrong syllable can completely change the meaning of words. Do you know the word stress rules for compound nouns, compound adverbs, noun-noun combinations, and noun-verb homographs (words with the same spelling)? If not, you will be able to find out what they are if you read on.
Compound nouns are nouns that have been formed by combining two other words. In two-syllable compound nouns, stress (represented here by capital letters) is on the first syllable. Some examples are BLACKboard, REDbreast, BLUEbird, HARDhat, BATHroom, CAMPfire, and GREENback. If stronger stress is incorrectly placed on the second syllable, as is the case when the syllables appear together as separate words, the speaker will likely be misunderstood. If you say *blackBOARD, it will be understood as black board, which is any piece of wood that is black. *CampFIRE would be understood as camp fire, which could be any fire in a camp, such as one burning down all the tents. And *redBREAST would be understood as red breast, which we all know is not a type of bird.
In noun-noun combinations where the first noun modifies the second, put strongest stress on the normally stressed syllable of the first noun. Therefore, we have noun-noun stress patterns such as these: SHOE store, COFfee cup, WATer purifier, and conVENtion center. You may think that stress is not nearly as important as pronunciation, but this is not true. If the strongest stress is incorrectly placed on the wrong syllable of one of the above words, the resulting sound may be so foreign to the native speaker ear that it will not be understandable. If, for example, you say *cofFEE cup with good pronunciation but with this misplaced stress, the native speaker listener may not understand because of its nonnative stress.
Stress is placed on the second syllable of compound adverbs: overSEAS, upSTAIRS, inSIDE, southWEST. Stress on the wrong syllable could easily obscure meaning. He went *UPstairs may easily be understood as He went up stairs, which doesn’t necessarily mean that he went to the floor above.
In the case of noun-verb homographs, stress is usually on the first syllable when the word is a noun and on the second syllable when the word is used as a verb. Therefore, PREsent is a noun and preSENT is a verb. This is also true for record, rebel, relay, refill, insult, conduct, and download. However, for some homographs, stress is on the same syllable in both noun and verb forms: TAble, LAbel, HANdle, rePORT.
With reflexive pronouns, stress is always placed on the last syllable: mySELF, yourSELF, ourSELVES, themSELVES. And with two-word verbs, stress is always on the particle (the second word): fill IN, hand OUT, put ON, get OFF, hold UP, let DOWN.
Be mindful of the proper position of word stress, so that you are not misunderstood as you try to stay on target with your English studies.