Tonic stress

I’ve just noted that my last A–Z of pronunciation post was back at the beginning of December 2020. Goodness, how time flies when you’re enjoying yourself. Sadly, I wasn’t rushing off to England in December to enjoy myself, but to say goodbye to someone very dear to everyone in my family. Not surprisingly, it’s taken me a while to get my thoughts back into place, and though I’m not entirely sure that they are back, I know that if I don’t get back to writing, I won’t finish the alphabet. That would be a bit ‘untidy’, and ‘and that won’t do at all‘, as Mum used to say.

I also see that back in December I left the door open for myself to be able to stay with T rather than to march boldly on to U. I’m glad I did that because on re-reading what I said at the end of November in Tonic, tone, teachable, I realise that I concentrated almost exclusively on tone, despite insisting that tonic was central to successful communication in both EFL/ESL settings, as well as in ELF/EIL contexts. So let’s put that right now, and take a look at tonic.

As I’m sure you know, the tonic syllable is the most prominent syllable in a spoken phrase. It is also sometimes called nucleus, whilst many ELT course books simply talk about sentence stress when referring to the phenomenon. Strictly speaking, sentence stress is not correct. Spoken language is not often produced in what can be analysed as grammatical sentences or clauses. In general, it’s a lot less organised than that, and it’s more correct to talk about spoken phrases or utterances. However, the term sentence stress is clearly more accessible pedagogically, and so offers teachers greater mileage in the ELT classroom.

Tonic stress, nuclear stress, sentence stress, or whatever other name we give the phenomenon, it all comes down to the same thing, which is the fact that in any utterance, one syllable is markedly more prominent (i.e louder and longer, and with a change in pitch) than the others. This prominent syllable turns out to be central to the creation of the unique message that the speaker is trying to convey.

In something as apparently simple as I love speaking English, for example, the meaning changes if we change the tonic (shown in CAPITALS), giving:

a) I LOVE speaking English. (tonic = love; the speaker is indicating a very positive attitude towards the act of speaking English.)

b) I love SPEAKing English. (tonic = speaking; the speaker is indicating a positive attitude towards speaking English as opposed to reading, writing, studying grammar, etc.)

c) I love speaking ENGlish. (tonic = English; the speaker is indicating a positive attitude towards speaking English that is not true for the other languages they can or might have to speak.)

For learners coming to English from the many languages that don’t use changes in tonic stress to create different meanings, understanding and then acquiring a working command of this key communication feature can be an uphill task. This has been the case these past 40 years with my own students here in Spain, and you may be reading this and thinking that it’s an uphill task for your students, too. If so, read on. Good news awaits. But don’t get too excited. It’s not only good news that’s heading your way.

The good news
The good news is that where a speaker should place the tonic has a relatively simple, reliable rule that even the least motivated of students can manage to learn. Basically, in around 90% of spoken phrases in English, the tonic is found on the last lexical item. This ‘default setting’ is good news if your learners are coming from a language such as Spanish, which leaves its equivalent of the tonic syllable of English to the end of the phrase.

And it is good news because left to their own devices, students coming to English from ‘uncooperative’ languages will tend to say things like:

I’m Spanish.

I’m from Cadiz.

What’s your name?

It’s very popular.

with the tonic in the expected position on the stressed syllable of the last lexical item, ‘SPAnish’, ‘CAdiz’, ‘NAME’ and ‘POpular’, respectively. In other words, transfer from their respective L1s will actually coincide with the default tonic choice of English without any need for teacher intervention. And anything that happens in language learning without teacher intervention has to be seen as good news.

The bad news
The bad news is that there still a lot of situations where even though the last lexical item rule holds true, this doesn’t fall on the last or penultimate syllable of the utterance, which is the underlying default position in languages like Spanish.

Thus in utterances like:

We saw her.

I’ll phone them.

How old are you?

What time is it?

the ‘last lexical item rule’ will have the tonic falling on ‘saw’, ‘phone’, ‘old’ or ‘time’, respectively, whilst L1 transfer will often drag the tonic onto the last syllable and produce:

We saw HER.

I’ll phone THEM.

How old are YOU?

What time is IT?

This could become problematic. And the news only gets worse. We’re still dealing with issues that arise from the incorrect placement of the default tonic at the moment. This default position, with the tonic on the last lexical item, is sometimes referred to as ‘unmarked stress’. Once we move away from this, and into examples of ‘marked’ or ‘contrastive’ stress, then, as you can imagine, life can get very difficult for learners.

Since our job is to make life as easy as possible for learners, we might be tempted to ask if tonic stress is worth teaching. One thing is that it is a regularly used by native speakers to make specific meanings, but quite another is to claim that it is essential in order to be intelligible in English. Native-speaker vowel qualities, for example, are notoriously difficult to master if you are learning English, but seem to admit quite a lot of variation without intelligibility being threatened. Is the same true for tonic stress?

Well sadly (more bad news), tonic stress does not follow the obliging pathway of English vowels, and many pronunciation experts from both EFL/ESL and EIL/ELF highlight correct placement of tonic stress as essential to intelligibility. The placement of tonic stress is the only suprasegmental aspect of pronunciation to be included in Jennifer Jenkins’ lingua franca core (2000), for example, and in his recent book on intelligibility, John Levis argues that ‘prominence is important for both production and perception [of spoken English], and is essential if learners are to do anything more than communicate surface meaning through speaking and listening. (2018: 170)

This last comment on getting beyond ‘surface meaning’ refers (I think) to the situation of a speaker who can pronounce individual words in a way that each word is intelligible to the listener, and yet, because of the poor use of tonic stress, fail to communicate more precise or more complex meanings at the level of full discourse. This in turn might suggest that tonic stress is something that we can leave for more advanced learners, and to an extent that is true. Beginners struggling to get individual words out of their mouths aren’t going to benefit from coaching in the difference between ‘I love SPEAKing English.’ and ‘I love speaking ENGlish.’

However, leaving all work on tonic stress to classes with intermediate or advanced learners is creating a rod for our own back. Time and time again in my classes at the University School of Tourism, I would hear students with over ten years’ learning under their belts saying ‘What time is IT?, their L1 influencing their production and dragging the tonic to the last syllable, as opposed to leaving it on the the last lexical item, TIME.

In my experience, this and other fossilised mistakes proved very difficult to eradicate, and ultimately meant that after over ten years learning English, my students were very poorly equipped to produce either unmarked or contrastive tonic stress, or to understand the significance of either feature when correctly used by their interlocutors.

Given the extent to which specific meanings are created in English by tonic stress placement, this oversight by teachers earlier on in their students’ lives would seem like a disservice. I would earnestly suggest, then, that even if we don’t offer lower-level learners too much in the way of explanations, we should nevertheless insist on correct tonic stress from the moment they begin to string individual words together to produce simple phrases, and from there come back to it regularly as our learners move on to their first attempts at elementary discourse. Later, we could progress to a deeper understanding and to better perception and production of both unmarked and contrastive stress. In doing so, we would open the door for them to a world of possible, precise meanings in English.

(Goodness, I LOVE tonic stress! And YOU?)

Further reading

Jenkins, J. (2000). The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Levis, J. ((2018). Intelligibility, Oral Communication, and the Teaching of Pronunciation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


5 thoughts on “Tonic stress

  1. You assume that there are “many languages that don’t use changes in tonic stress to create different meanings”. Without recourse to a knowledge of many different languages myself, I still find this a bold assertion, and it reminds me of the questionable distinction between stress-timed and syllable-timed languages. I’m coming from the point of view of an L1 English speaker, so I freely admit this might be skewing my own assumptions, but I’m really surprised that not everyone changes the prominent syllable in an utterance to alter meaning in some way.


    • Hi Dan. Glad that these posts are a welcome entry to your inbox. Re the ‘many’, it’s brought over from my reading. It’s certainly not from my knowledge of languages of the world. However, I’ve just checked things out in various works that highlight problems for speakers of English from different L1s and have come up with three ‘categories’:

      a) Tonic is a real issue. Speakers whose L1 is Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Italian, French or Spanish will generally have problems with tonic stress placement, especially for the use of contrastive stress.

      b) Tonic can be an issue. Polish, Portuguese, and Malay speakers of English should have fewer problems, as they use both syntactic changes and changes in tonic to change meaning.

      c) Tonic shouldn’t be an issue. Arabic, German, Greek and Russian speakers of English should not really have any problems as they use a system similar to that of English.

      So it all now comes down to how you interpret ‘many’, although I think its use is justified if the above true in practice. That said, it doesn’t mean that because in your L1 you automatically use tonic shifts to chnage meaning that this will transfer straight through to your use of English as an L2.

      Does this answer your doubts?


  2. /I love tonic stress/TOO/
    As you say, it is difficult for Spanish speakers to both perceive and produce tonic syllalbes to make meaning.Simply because it is not a feature of Spanish intonation and it needs to be acquired. Personally, I believe we should work on more teaching material and approaches to the teaching of nucleus placement since the transfer of Spanish intonation pattern works negatively on students’ oral performace. They make want to say ICE-cream and they end up saying I SCREAM . I have the feeling that even when they have mastered nucleus placement in listening or analysis of short dialogues, Spanish speakers students find challenging to control this intonation feature in natural speech


    • Hi Stella
      Thanks for your comment. You already know what I think, and I can only stress once again that for speakers coming to English from languages where tonic is not used to create meaning (see my reply to Daniel Barber above for the list), it’s a part of pronunciation that is all too often overlooked but the needs including in pronunciation work from early on.


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