Emphatic stress is a beautiful tool we can use to imbue specific meaning in our message. Depending on what word we emphasize in a sentence will determine for the listener the true meaning of the words we speak. This is also known as sentence stress. In the examples I’m going to share with you, you’ll see how the same sentence can have different meaning based on what word or words are being stressed. This knowledge will help you understand Native English Speakers easily as well as speak more fluently in conversations and in business.
Let’s jump right into it.
Let’s start with our first example sentence. I’m going to stress different words in the sentence and we’re going to unpack what the real meaning of it is.
Are you going to the store to buy EGGS?
The emphasis is on the grocery item. So maybe the person is surprised that you’re buying eggs. Maybe they know that when eggs are in the fridge that means you’re going to make a cake. So the focus is on the eggs because to the listener eggs mean something important. They’re making sure they heard correctly.
Are you going to the STORE to buy eggs?
The listener is surprised because maybe the speaker usually gets the eggs from the Farmer’s Market rather than the grocery store. So the listener is making sure that the speaker knows what their doing, because maybe the last time they bought eggs from the grocery store they were inferior and complained because of it?
Are you GOING to the store to buy eggs?
This could easily end at “are you going or what?” The intention here is to spark action. Maybe the speaker said they’re going to the store and they got sidetracked so they still haven’t left and you need eggs for breakfast.
Are YOU going to the store to buy eggs?
Here you’re surprised that the speaker is going to the store. Maybe they usually have their groceries delivered and so the listener is questioning their sudden interest in going themselves.
ARE you going to the store to buy eggs?
You’re questioning the action. It could just as easily end at “are you?” with the emphasis being on the verb to be. You’re incredulous that they’re going to leave the house in a blizzard when the store might not even be open in such inclement weather conditions.
Wow, all of that variance in the same question. Interesting, right? You see how easily we can alter meaning and intention based on sentence stress?
Let’s look at another example.
Imagine this sentence was uttered in an office setting where a supervisor is seeing if there's a budget for hiring an out-of-house graphic designer as opposed to using someone on their in-house design team.
Let’s first unpack this expression: “to crunch the numbers” means that you’re going to examine the finances and analyze the budget to determine how much money is needed and how much money is available to allocate to different resources.
So let’s see how the meaning changes in these sentences. Yes, we have the same sentences, but different sentence stress.
I'M going to crunch the numbers again and see if we have the budget.
Here, the speaker is making a point of saying that they’re the one to do this because maybe that’s not usually a task they do. Maybe the speaker is insinuating that they need to do this task because it won’t get done otherwise or maybe they’re not pleased with how someone else crunched the numbers so they’re in charge of this.
I’m going to crunch the NUMBERS again and see if we have the budget.
The emphasis is on the numbers because that seems to be the bottleneck. If the numbers work in their favor, they can outsource the design project. If the numbers don’t work then they’ll have to get one of their designers to do the project.
I’m going to crunch the numbers AGAIN and see if we have the budget.
The emphasis is on again, which means that they’ve already crunched the numbers at least once, maybe even twice. It seems like they really want to figure out a way to make finances work and have enough budget to allocate to an outside designer. Maybe the designer they’re looking to hire for this specific project is extremely talented and perfect for this particular job.
I’m going to crunch the numbers again and see IF we have the budget.
The speaker is in disbelief that they’re going to have the budget. In a sense they’re giving the listener a heads up in that they don’t think it’s likely they have the budget.
I’m going to crunch the numbers again and see if we have the BUDGET.
The emphasis is on the budget. It would appear that the budget is what’s standing in the way of outsourcing this design project to the fancy artist. The speaker could also be insinuating that the designer is too expensive and to maybe look in-house or at some more inexpensive alternatives.
Ok awesome. So as you can see from these examples, sentence stress is the pattern of unstressed and stressed words in any given sentence. For demonstration purposes, we highlighted one stressed word in each sentence, but it’s important to recognize that there can be a few stressed words within a sentence. For example, there might be a word with primary stress and another word with secondary stress. Again, this will depend on the speaker’s intention or the meaning in this utterance. The words that are stressed are the words that carry meaning and important information. And as we saw, meaning can change of course, depending on what specific word or words gets highlighted by the speaker and what they want to communicate to listeners.
Alright Advanced English learners, thanks for joining me in this lesson.
I encourage you to use sentence stress in your own conversation. Play around with trying out different points of emphasis and placing different stress on the words. The more you practice, the more second nature it’ll become.
The full transcript of this lesson can be found on our blog, so be sure to check out advanced english dot co forward slash blog. If you prefer to listen to this lesson, check out our podcast; it's available on our website. And if you love the podcast, be sure to leave us a 5 star review, that really helps us out! See you in the next one where we’ll continue advancing your English together! Until then, keep up the awesome work.