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Stressed and Unstressed Syllables

Reference > Literature > Poetry > The Bard

It's funny that people get stressed out over writing poetry. Why? Because poetry is built on stress! Well, actually, to be precise, we should say that poetry in the English speaking world is usually built on stress. So don't get stressed out; stress is normal.

We assume here that you know what a syllable is, so if you don't, click here to learn about syllables.

What is a stress?

Most words that are made up of more than one syllable have at least one stressed syllable and one unstressed syllable. The stressed syllables are the ones which are emphasized, or spoken more loudly. The unstressed syllables are not emphasized; they are not spoken as loudly.

In your English class you may have learned this as "accented syllables." It's the same concept...just a different way of saying it!

For example, say the word "emphasize" aloud. Which syllables were pronounced most loudly? You probably could hear that em was spoken more loudly than pha, and hopefully you noticed that size was also spoken more loudly than pha. This means thatem and size were stressed syllables, and pha was unstressed.

If I wanted to write the word "emphasize" in a way that illustrates the stress (accent), I would write it this way:


You see what I did? I split the word into syllables, and then I wrote the stressed syllables in capital letters.

Here are some more examples:

  • about - a BOUT
  • indeterminate - IN de TERM in ATE
  • examples - ex AM ples
  • poetry - PO et RY

Just for fun, try saying some of these words with the accents reversed (example: "A bout", "in DE term IN ate"). Hopefully you'll hear that they sound kind of silly this way.

Beware: some words are stressed differently depending on what part of speech they are. For example, the word "arithmetic" is both a noun and an adjective. When pronounced as a noun it is a RITH me TIC, but as an adjective, it's AR ith MET ic. So you need to know how a word is being used before knowing how it's stressed!

What about one syllable words? Words made up of just one syllable may be either stressed or unstressed, and often it depends on the context (the words around it). Read the two sentences below aloud. Do you see how changing the stress changes the meaning of the sentence?

  • I can BE a DOC tor.
  • I CAN be a DOC tor.


Write the word "alphabet" as stressed and unstressed syllables.
Write your name as stressed and unstressed syllables.
Can you think of another example of a word that is pronounced differently depending on how it is used?
Write the word "historic" as stressed and unstressed syllables.
How many stressed syllables does the word "biology" have?
Assign this reference page
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Understanding SyllablesUnderstanding Syllables
Metrical Feet and the IambMetrical Feet and the Iamb

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