Rhythm

As you know, spoken English words with two or more syllables have different stress and length patterns. Some syllables are stressed more than others and some syllables are pronounced longer than others.

The same is true of phrases and sentences. Different words in a sentence have stronger stress and are pronounced longer and other words are weaker and shorter. This pattern of strong and weak stress and short and long pronunciation gives English its rhythm.

It is important for non-native speakers to understand and master the rhythm of English. If the wrong words are stressed in a sentence or if all words are pronounced with the same length or loudness, the speech will be difficult to understand.

Words that have the most stress in English are called content words. Content words are usually the nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and pronouns (demonstrative, possessive, reflexive, and interrogative). These words are important to express the main meaning of the sentence.

Nouns: Terry, car, dinner
Verbs: eat, study, drive
Adjectives: blue, large, oval
Adverbs: quietly, smoothly, equally
Pronouns: that, theirs, himself, what

Function words are those words that are weaker and shorter. They include auxiliary verbs, prepositions, conjunctions, determiners, and possessive adjectives. These words are less important in expressing the meaning of the sentence.

Auxiliary verbs: may, do, have (if not the main verb)
Prepositions: under, around, near
Conjunctions: but, not,
Determiners: the, some, each
Possessive adjectives: my, your, our

 

Listen to the rhythm of following sentences. Note that the content words (in bold) are stressed more (pronounced louder and longer) than the functions words.

 

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  When are you coming to dinner?
 

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  I have never liked the color red.
 

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   Motorcycles can be dangerous to drive or ride on.
 

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  Last month Carol got a new job in San Francisco.
 

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  Not everyone likes chocolate ice cream, but I do.
 

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  Christmas is my absolute favorite holiday.

Stress Timing

Some languages are syllable timed and others are stressed timed. In syllable timed languages, the syllables are the same length and the number of syllables determines the length of time required to say something.

English is a stressed timed language. In a stressed timed language, speakers try to make the amount of time to say something the same between the stressed syllables. If there are three or four unstressed syllable between the stressed syllables, the unstressed syllables will be spoken faster, so that the speaker can keep the rhythm. Also, in order to keep the rhythm, if there are no unstressed syllable between stressed syllables, the stressed syllables are stretched out to space them equally. The time it takes to say something in English depends on the number of stressed syllables, not the number of syllables.

The following group of numbers each have 4 stressed syllables, but the actual syllables in each group is different.

 

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Actual Syllables 
 A. one two  three  four        4
 B. five six  se-ven  eight        5
 C. nine  ten  e-le-ven  twelve        6
 D. thir-teen four-teen  fif-teen  six-teen        8
 E. se-ven-teen eight-teen nine-teen twen-ty       9

To practice getting the beat and rhythm of English try counting from one to twenty. Tap with your finger on a table as you count the numbers. Keep the tapping evenly spaced. The beginning of each number should occur on the tap.

Look and listen to the three sentences below. They all have the same number of stressed syllables, but a different number of unstressed syllables.

Practice the beat and rhythm again try tapping with your finger on a table while saying the sentences. The stressed syllables should be said on the tap. All three sentences have four stressed syllables and should take about the same amount of time to say.

 

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 Bob ate some corn.    (4 syllables)
 

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 Kenny has swam to France and back.    (8 syllables)
 

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 The Americans are buying some souvenirs and posters.  (15 syllables)

For more practice try saying the sentences below. In the first sentence the taps should come on the second word (bought) and the fourth word (book) and should be about a second apart. Continue with this beat and add each new phrase to the sentence.

She bought the book
She bought the book for his birthday
She bought the book for his birthday today
She bought the book for his birthday today she had read
She bought the book for his birthday today she had read long agoin college
She bought the book for his birthday today she had read long ago in college as a freshman
She bought the book for his birthday today she had read long ago in college as a freshman about daffodils
She bought the book for his birthday today she had read long ago in college as a freshman about daffodils and how to grow them.



Rhythm and stress timing in English pronunciation – www.pronunciationtips.com