Though English stress is free there are certain factors or tendencies that determine the place and different degrees of word stress.

Vassiliev describes them as follows:

Recessive tendency is when stress falls on the first syllable which is generally the root syllable . It can be of 2 subtypes:

Unstriked – is observed in the native English words and in the assimilated French borrowings having no prefix. ('mother, 'daughter, colour, 'restaurant).

Restricted – is characterized by placing the word accent on the root of the word if this word has a prefix which has lost its meaning (be'come, be'gin, a'way)
Rhythmical tendency results in alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. It caused the appearance of the secondary stress in multy-syllabic words:ˌorgani'zation,ˌrevo'lution

According to the rhythmical tendency primary stress is on the third syllable from the end in 3 and 4 syllable words:'cinema,'situate,in'tensity

In words with more than 4 syllables we very often find the influence of both – the rhythmic and recessive tendencies - ˌindi'visible

Under the influence of rhythm the accentual structure of the word can be pronounced with one single stress under the influence of rhythm . The rhythmic stress effects the stress patterns of a great number of words in English:'pictu'resque

Under the influence of rhythm compounds of 3 elements may have a single stress on the second syllable.

Retentive tendency is characteristic by the retention of the primary accent in the derivation on the same syllable on which it falls in the parent word:'similar - 'similarly

More commonly the primary stress is retained on the derivative word as the secondary accent:'similar – ˌsimi'larity,'personal -ˌperso'nality,'nation – ˌnatio'nality

I need to distinguish types of stress tendency in some words:

family [ˈfæm(ə)lɪ] - stress is on the first syllable, so I thought that it was recessive tendency. BUT it's a three-syllabic word, stress falls on the third syllable from the end and this is a feature of rhyth­mical tendency. So is it really rhyth­mical?

formidable [ˈfɔːmɪdəbl] and [fɔːˈmɪdəbl]) - here you can see a shifting of the stress - rhythmical tendency, or not??? I know there is also a word formidability [ˌfɔːmɪdəˈbɪlətɪ] and stress is changing here as well, so may it be retentive tendency

And what about words hundred [ˈhʌndrɪd]- recessive? and secretary [ʹsekrət(ə)rı]- rhythmical???

Is it correct???


If you're just talking about "tendencies", how can one ever tell whether you're right or wrong? It doesn't seem to me that this can lead to specific predictions about the stress of English words.

I'm not familiar with your reference Vassiliev. I am familiar with the theory in The Sound Pattern of English (SPE), which proposes a "retentive" theory, that is, a theory in which the stress of complex derivative words is inherited from the stress of the simpler forms that they are derived from. I'll give a couple of references to contrary proposals about English word stress, according to which the stress of complex forms is not based on the stress of the basic forms.

John Ross gave one such non-cyclic theory in his article "A Reanalysis of Stress within the English Word". It's a long article, so I'll just give an anecdote. In SPE, Chomsky and Halle give what I guess they think is a killer argument for their cyclic treatment. And it is a good argument, at first sight.

Compare the stress patterns of "compensation" and "condensation". The first is c2ompens1ation, with no stress on the second syllable, but the second does have stress on its second syllable: c2ond3ens1ation. Yet the canonical C/V forms of these two words are very similar. What could explain the difference?

Have you figured it out? The difference is that the second word is derived from a verb cond1ense with stress on the second syllable, while there is no such verb as *"compense". The SPE proposal is that the derivative form "condensation" retains stress on the second syllable from the basic verb form "condense", but that "compensation" has no stress on its second syllable, because there is nothing to retain.

But Ross notes that not all English speakers agree to the facts, here, and points out some other pairs of forms that work the other way around -- stress turns up in the derived form just when there was no stress originally in the basic form. There are "anti-retentive" forms, that is.

I also wrote a paper criticizing this part of the SPE theory and making a counter proposal. That's English Word and Phrase Stress in Goyvaertz, ed., Essays on the Sound Pattern of English. For one thing, I argued that the SPE cyclic theory leads to missing generalizations about what sort of "weak" syllables can remain without stress, whether they occur after the last stressed syllable of a word or between stressed syllables.

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  • Yeah, I have no definite difference between the stress-patterns of condensation and compensation. – brass tacks Apr 20 '15 at 23:56

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