How Secondary School Students Can Understand Syllables and Stress


In English sounds, syllables and stress are inseparable because the syllable stands as the basis for identifying stress in words. Stress cannot be understood without the knowledge of syllables.

Defining Syllables


A syllable can be defined as a group of words or a word breaking into smaller segments or units that can be pronounced in just one moment of uninterrupted breath.

Remember that a syllable should contain, at least, one vowel and consonant, but in some cases, only a vowel can be a syllable. The following symbol is used to break words (-) not (/) or others.

There are three types of syllables, namely:


Monosyllables are words containing one syllable. It is not possible to break them because they contain only one vowel.

The following are examples of monosyllables: man, girl, good, boy, two, are, was, can come, six, ten, he, she, you, me, one, ate, rat, etc.

Disyllables or Bisyllables

These are words having two syllables. For examples:

  1. Mother     –       mo – ther
  2. Father       –       fa – ther
  3. Market      –       mar – ket
  4. Money      –       mo – ney


These are words having more than two syllables. For examples:

  1. Carpenter          –           car – pen – ter
  2. Location           –           lo – ca – tion
  3. Recover            –           re – co – ver                               three   syllables
  4. Beautiful            –         beau – ti – ful


  1. Competition      –           com – pe – ti – tion
  2. Diplomacy        –           dip – lo – ma – cy                        four syllables
  3. Democratic       –           de – mo – cra – tic

1. Communication –          com – mu – ni – ca – tion                 five syllables

2. Manifestation    –           ma – ni – fes – ta – tion

  1. Personification –            per – so – ni – fi – ca – tion          six syllables

Defining Stress

Stress can be defined as the muscular energy and strong force of syllables in the production of sound.

Stress gives prominence to syllables. The stressed syllable is pronounced with more force than an unstressed syllable. For example:

  1. po – LI – ti – cal
  2. to – MA – to
  3. a – BOUT
  4. cir – cu – LA – tion
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There are primary and secondary stressors. But students are tested on primary stress at the external examinations by WAEC, NECO, and other examining bodies.

Word stress occurs when the syllable given is stressed in isolation, e.g.

im – PO – si – ble,

FOR – mu – la – te,

de – mo – CRA – tic.

Sentence stress

Sentence stress occurs if a particular word is given prominence within the sentence, e.g. ADE is a MAN. ‘Ade’ and ‘man’ are given prominence because they are stressed words (noun).

Rules for Stress

 Though the rules cannot determine all that you should know on stress, the following rules may help you to discover the position to place stress if they are mastered carefully.

1. If the three syllables end in -‘ate’, the first syllable is stressed. For example:

  1. LIquidate
  2. PROpagate
  3. MEdidate
  4. RElegate
  5. LAboratory
  6. INventory

2. If the four or five syllables end in ‘-ic’ or ‘-ism’, most of such words are stressed on the second to the last syllable. For example:

  1. demoCRAtic
  2. photoGRAphic
  3. photoGEnic
  4. vandaLIsm

3. If the four or five syllables end in ‘-ical’, most of such words are stressed on the third syllable from the end. For example:

  1. ecoNOmical
  2. geoGRAphical
  3. hisTOrical
  4. poLItical

4. If the five or six syllables end in ‘-ity’, such words are stressed on the third syllable from the end. For example:

  1. comfortABIlity
  2. maNAgement
  3. imPEDiment

5. If the four or five syllables end in ‘-tion’, such words are stressed on the second to the last syllable. For example:

  1. eduCAtion
  2. inforMAtion
  3. manifesTAtion
  4. indiCAtion

6. If there is a word having two syllables and the first syllable contains the vowel /ә/, the stress should be put on the second syllable. For example:

  1. pro-VIDE
  2. per-CEIVE
  3. com-BINE

7. In most cases, if the compound words making up of two simple words occur, they are stressed on the first word. For example:

  1. HOUSEwife
  2. BLACKsmith
  3. BEDroom
  4. GRANDmother

8. If complex words contain inflections, prefixes and suffixes, stress usually shifts to such suffixes: -ee, ese, ette, eer, esque, etc. For example:

  1. refuGE
  2. pictuRESQUE
  3. montaiNEER
  4. landeRETTE
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But if you have the following suffixes –ble, -ing, -age, and -al, stress will not be affected. For example:

  1. aGREEable
  2. STOpage
  3. disMIssal
  4. COMing

9. If there are content words in bisyllables, that is, a noun, a verb, or an adjective, stress should be placed on the first syllable in nouns and on the second syllable in verbs. For example:

Noun                             Verb

RESpect                        resPECT

SUSpect                        susPECT

CONduct                     conDUCT

CONtest                       conTEST

EXport                         exPORT

PROgress                     proGRESS

OBject                          obJECT

IMport                         imPORT

PROduce                      proDUCE

PREsent                       preSENT

SUBject                         subJECT

SEGment                     segMENT

An adjective in bisyllables vary if the word does not have a noun but an adjective and a verb, the adjective will have stress on the first syllable. For example:

Adjective                     Verb

FREquent                     frequent

However, if the word has only an adjective and a noun, then stress should be placed on the first syllable in nouns but on the second syllable in adjectives. For example:

Noun                           Adjective

MInute                         miNUTE

AUgust                         auGUST


From the words lettered A to D, choose the word that has the correct main/primary stress.

  1. impediment

(a) im – ped – i– ment

(b) im – PED – i – ment

(c) IM – ped – i –  ment

(d) im – ped – i – meant

2. tribalism

(a) TRIB – a – li – sm

(b) trib – a – LI – sm

(c) trib – a – li – SM

(d) trib – A – li – sm

3. laboratory

(a) la – bor – a – TORY

(b) LA – bor – a – tory

(c) la – BOR – a – tory

(d) la – bor – A – tory

4. politician

(a) pol – i – ti – CIAN

(b) pol – I – ti – cian

(c) POL – i – ti – cian

(d) pol – i – TI – cian

5. manipulation

(a) ma – nip – u – LATE

(b) MA – nip – u – late

(c) ma – NIP – u – late

(d)  ma – nip – U – late

6. communicate

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(a) com – mu – nu – CATE

(b) com – mu – NI – cate

(c) com – MU – ni – cate

(d) COM – mu – ni – cate

7. jubilation

(a) ju – BI – la – tion

(b) ju – bi – LA – tion

(c) JU – bi – la – tion

(d) ju – bi – la – TION

8. manufacture

(a) ma – nu – FAC – ture

(b) ma – nu – fac – TURE

(b) MA – nu – fac – true

(d) ma – NU – fac – ture

9. maternity

(a) ma – ter – ni – TY

(b) ma – ter – NI – ty

(c) ma – TER – ni – ty

(d) MA – ter – ni – ty

10. photography

(a) PHO – to – gra – phy

(b) pho – TO – gra – phy

(c) pho – to – GRA – phy

(d) pho – to – gra – PHY

Identify the one with a different stress pattern in the following words

  1. (a) contact          (b) success                    (c) bazaar                     (d) deceit
  2. (a) purpose        (b) reason                     (c) doctor                      (d) condole
  3. (a) immediate    (b) examine                   (c) partisan                    (d) component
  4. (a) reservoir       (b) importance               (c) contribute                (d) deposit
  5. (a) saboteur       (b) quantity                    (c) registrar                   (d) disagree
  6. (a) country         (b) kingdom                  (c) devoid                      (d) answer
  7. (a) glorify           (b) execute                     (c) instigate                  (d) guarantee
  8. (a) combat         (b) control                     (c) confess                    (d) confuse
  9. (a) decision        (b) incursion                  (c) reference                 (d) finance
  10. (a) cargo            (b) cater                         (c) cover                       (d) canoe

WAEC June, 1995 & 2003

Author: Deola Adelakun

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