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I know that stress can shift in an English phrase or sentence to emphasize the words that mean more specifically what the speaker wishes to express, however I'm talking about the general stress where content words are stressed and function words are reduced. For instance,

I WENT to the STORE to BUY MILK.

I read a book on the American accent which says that the primary stress is usually on the last content word in sentences. I think, in phonetics that is called the nuclear stress or final inflection. In the case above, that word is MILK.

I WENT to the STORE to BUY ↘︎MILK.

Which makes me think that all other content words are secondary stressed and only the last one gets the primary stress. So, a sentence (or a thought group) can only have one primary stressed syllable. Am I right?

More examples:

It MUST be the ↘︎STORM.

MUST = Secondary stress

STORM = Primary stress

WHAT ↘︎HAPpened?

WHAT = Secondary stress

HAP = Primary stress

Can I ↗︎SEE it?

SEE = Primary stress

I guess after the nuclear stress there cannot be stressed words anymore, if I shift stress and stress the pronoun now:

↘︎I went to the store to buy milk.

then everything falls down after the pronoun. Right?

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  • I don't understand why my question was proposed to be closed down. May 19 at 23:06

2 Answers 2

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No, this is a common misconception.

When considering languages like English, it's a good idea to distinguish from the outset concepts such as 'stress' (in connected speech), 'accent', and 'nucleus' (or 'tonic syllable').

A syllable which is sᴛʀᴇssᴇᴅ within an intonational phrase (that is, a single 'musical tune') is one which has rhythmic prominence.

An ᴀᴄᴄᴇɴᴛᴇᴅ syllable, in contrast, is a stressed syllable which is also differentiated in terms of pitch from previous syllables (or the pitch contour of a series of previous syllables).

The ɴᴜᴄʟᴇᴜs or ᴛᴏɴɪᴄ sʏʟʟᴀʙʟᴇ is the last accent in the Intonational Phrase (IP). It is also begins the ɴᴜᴄʟᴇᴀʀ ᴛᴏɴᴇ, a special sub-tune which begins on the tonic syllable of an IP and ends with the last syllable of that IP.

The tonic syllable marks the end of the focussed information within the IP and also begins the musical tone, which continues to the end of the IP. This tone itself carries other important information, which applies to the whole IP, not just the tonic syllable.

However, although the nucleus/tonic syllable is extremely prominent, and is, uniquely, distinguished in three ways from an unstressed syllable—by being stressed, by being accented and also by having its own musical tune—it is not necessarily the most prominent syllable in the IP.

Take for example the following sentence:

It was \ Martha who ofollowed the \ /elephant

This utterance seems to be correcting some previous utterance with regards to which individual followed which animal. The diacritics there convey that the sentence has the following pitch contour, which would be stereotypical of a friendly utterance used to correct a previously mentioned idea:

enter image description here

Here, the unstressed words it was are low pitch. The first stressed syllable, which is the first syllable of the word Martha, is both stressed and markedly different in pitch from the preceding ones, and is therefore accented. It may be much, much louder and, in this particular utterance, is also the highest pitch syllable in the IP. [The part before the first accent is often called the ᴘʀᴇ-ʜᴇᴀᴅ. The first accent is often called the ᴏɴsᴇᴛ]

The syllables following the first syllable in Martha, the onset, fall steadily until the nucleus/tonic syllable. The stressed first syllable of followed is lower than the preceding syllable but falls in line with a series of syllables which steadily fall in pitch. Although it is a stressed syllable, it is therefore not considered an 'accent'. [The onset and all of the following syllables before the nucleus/tonic syllable are often referred to as the ʜᴇᴀᴅ]

The stressed first syllable of elephant departs from the falling contour of the preceding syllables, and is therefore accented. Being the last accent in the IP, it is by definition the 'nucleus' or 'tonic syllable'. It also marks the beginning of an idiomatic fall rise pitch contour, the ɴᴜᴄʟᴇᴀʀ ᴛᴏɴᴇ.

Even though the first, stressed syllable in elephant is the tonic syllable and also begins the fall-rise nuclear tone, thus carrying important information about how to interpret the rest of the sentence (it is likely to be interpreted as implying politeness here to soften the effect of correcting a previously mentioned idea), it is probably not going to be the most prominent syllable in the utterance. Prominence may be achieved by a number of means, but two of the most important factors are the difference in pitch from preceding syllables and volume.

In this sentence, the word elephant may carry some kind of contrastive stress marking it out from the fact that someone else followed a camel, for example. However, the it-cleft form of the sentence, It was x who ..., means that it is 'x', in other words Martha who is the main concern of the sentence. Looking at the suggested pitch contour for the utterance (one of many possible ones), one can see that the difference in pitch between It was and the beginning of Martha is considerably greater than the pitch differential between the and the beginning of elephant. It would also be very natural for the first syllable of Martha to be considerably louder than the first syllable of elephant. So even though the stressed syllable in elephant carries the nucleus, the first syllable in Martha is more prominent.

Executive summary

  1. The terms 'primary stress' and 'secondary stress' are usually used when talking about individual lexical items. We don't usually use these terms when talking about intonational phrases in connected speech.

  2. Although, in English, the last accented syllable in an utterance carries the nucleus, it is often the first accented syllable that is the most prominent. (And it might sometimes be yet a different one.)

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  • Is there a dot missing in the illustration? I can’t get the number of syllables to match the number of dots. Also, I find it quite unnatural to rise in pitch on the first syllable of elephant – in natural speech, I would just continue the falling pattern from Martha to the end of the utterance. If I just slowly say the pitches out loud, with no words, it sounds like a pretty evenly descending arpeggio all the way through, though of course with peaks in intensity on fol- and el-. May 23 at 7:54
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Yes, you're right about the number of syllables (will correct that in a few hours' time). Re the falling pitch, the following bit if the description is essential here for having the tonic on 'elephant': "In this sentence, the word elephant may carry some kind of contrastive stress marking it out from the fact that someone else followed a camel, for example." However, that info is left till rather late in the post, I'll move it towards the beginning. If it was just a case of correcting a straight Bob followed the elephant assertion ... May 23 at 9:49
  • @JanusBahsJacquet ... and there'd been no camels etc, then elephant wouldn't be informative and you'd get exactly what you describe where the tonic syllble would have to be on Martha. May 23 at 9:53
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    Ah, yes, I read it as the contrastiveness of the elephant not being implied in the pattern illustrated – with contrast I quite agree. May 23 at 9:55
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This is a very complex area, "stress" is a feature of syllabic pronounce at the lexical level, a feature of English information structure at the pragmatic level, and a feature of intonation at the sentence level. I know a little about it, but have not studied it formally. The feature itself can have components of loudness, rhythm, vowel quality, and pitch that vary in complex ways.

I read a book on the American accent which says that the primary stress is usually on the last content word in sentences. I think, in phonetics that is called the nuclear stress or final inflection. In the case above, that word is MILK.

I don't know about the terms "nuclear stress" or "final inflection"; however, I would say that this pattern is true of the default declarative intonation in American English if no informational stress pattern is present. It is part of what some people describe as the comparatively flat intonation characteristic of most American English accents. I would also say that to my ear, the components involve pitch more than relative prominence.

Even though you might call this a default intonation pattern, it is routinely overridden by stress rhythms imposed by the information structure which is expressed in English with its own stress patterns. If there is clearly a word that is more informative than others, it will receive more stress. Words that represent given, predictable, or assumed information are normally de-stressed.

Typically, such informative words come later in the sentence, because English speakers tend to place more informative and specific words later in the sentence, when there is a choice; however, such placement is by no means a requirement and stress is not directly driven by word placement. I could give such stress to any word in any of the sentences you have listed in your question without changing the order, except the second instance of "to" used to indicate an infinitive, which cannot contrast with any other word in such a position. You can also give such stress to multiple words in a sentence, but will often put them in a stress hierarchy to give more fine grained focus.

I read a book on the American accent which says that the primary stress is usually on the last content word in sentences. I think, in phonetics that is called the nuclear stress or final inflection. In the case above, that word is MILK.

I WENT to the STORE to BUY ↘︎MILK.

This is only one of many stress patterns that could be used for this sentence, and the pitch of "milk" would by no higher than the pitch of "Buy." If the speaker wanted to indicate that what was important about the utterance was "milk," the pitch of "milk" would be higher than the pitch of "BUY" and perhaps louder. All the rest would be "de-stressed," since it would be detail or what one would expect to take place when obtaining milk from outside the house is at issue.

Such a stress pattern focusing on "milk" might be expected if the full context was: "Since there was nothing to drink in the refrigerator, I went to the store to buy milk." In such a case, the fact of a shopping trip may not be surprising or particularly informative, but the choice of drink might be. It's almost as if you said: "Nothing in the fridge, so milk!" The rest is guessable detail. You could replace "buy" with "get" or "bring back" with the same pragmatic meaning; however, if you used the word "steal," this would be highly surprising and informative and would require that you stress that word in addition to the stress on "milk." You could also not stress "milk" and use the default intonation to indicate pragmatically that you took action because of the empty fridge, all else being unimportant detail.

If, on the other hand, milk were already a topic of the conversation, the word "milk" would not receive stress. Imagine that the conversation is taking place where milk is normally delivered to a home, as used to be the case in the US. The full context could be: "Since the milkman had not yet arrived, I went to the store to buy milk." In this case, the fact that milk is what is bought is no longer informative and so the word "milk" would not receive stress. Instead, you might stress the word "store," since the source of the milk might be what is informative. The word "went" would not be stressed, since a trip to the store is what is expected when a store is invoked at all.

Now imagine that the full context was: "I was sitting in the park and feeling really thirsty, so I went to the store to buy milk." Here, you would probably stress both the words "store" and "milk." Both the source of a solution to your predicament and the particular type of drink are informative, so you would probably stress both "store" and "milk."

Now consider the sentence: "I went to buy milk at the store." You could stress either "milk" or "store" or both, depending on what implicit question your statement answers. If you stress the word "milk," the sentence would sound slightly awkward, since so many unstressed words would follow and so would commonly, but not obligatorily, be rearranged as "I went to the store to buy milk." Similarly, if you were to stress the word "store" in this last sentence, it would be better, but not obligatory, to use the first version where the main stress would be at the end. This preference for stressing words toward the end of the sentence is probably what lies behind your source stating that "the primary stress is usually on the last content word in sentences." This is usually the case, but it is not necessarily so.

Lastly, consider the sentence: "I went to buy milk at the store yesterday." Typically, "yesterday" would not be stressed, even though it is the last content word in the sentence. This lack of stress is because the date of the purchasing event is usually not important to the purpose of the communication; however, the date would be important if the timing of the event was especially noteworthy. More normally in such cases, "yesterday" would be placed at the beginning of the sentence to set the scene; but such movement is subject to other nuances of information structure and again is not obligatory. What you stress and what order you use impacts what point you want to make and what thought you want to leave as a potential topic for future discussion.

It MUST be the ↘︎STORM.

MUST = Secondary stress

STORM = Primary stress

Most typically, only "storm" would be stressed; however, you could also give some stress to "must" if you want to express hesitation about your conclusion and implicitly contrast that word with other words that could be used, such as "must not" or "could." With no stress on "must," it is pragmatically the same as saying: "Aaah, the storm." The relevance of your comment is expected to be clear from the context.

WHAT ↘︎HAPpened?

WHAT = Secondary stress

HAP = Primary stress

This is the typical pattern, because "happened" is much richer in information than an interrogatory pronoun; however, if the fact of something happening has already been stated, then it would be normal to remove the expected stress from "happened" as old, assumed information and put stress only on "what." In any case, it is somewhat difficult to separate the stress pattern from the intonational prosody, given that there are many ways to say these words with different nuances. It is even possible to remove all stress from "what," if you are less interested in hearing a detailed description of what occurred than wanting to express your dismay or surprise at the mere occurrence of the event. The fact of your dismay or surprise makes it obvious that there must be a cause that acts as a "what."

I guess after the nuclear stress there cannot be stressed words anymore, if I shift stress and stress the pronoun now:

↘︎I went to the store to buy milk.

then everything falls down after the pronoun. Right?

I don't think this is a rule of prosody, but just something that frequently happens because of other word-order rules. In this sentence, such a stress pattern would be normal if somebody going to the store to buy milk was already given, assumed, or expected information in the conversation. The rules would then remove stress from everything fitting that description. If, on the other hand, some of the details were not given and were noteworthy, they could still receive stress.

For example, imagine the fuller context was: "My spouse went to the neighbors to ask for some milk, but they didn't have any. So I had to go to the store to buy milk." In this case, you could put stress on both "I" and "store" to contrast with the equivalent words used in the previous sentence. Instead of stressing "store" to contrast with "neighbors," you could also stress "buy" to contrast with "ask for," but this would change what exactly you were communicating and imply that "asking for" the milk was somehow problematic as a solution.

Please note that the appropriate stress patterns are obligatory in speech, but admit to varying possibilities, depending on the context and the purpose of your communication. Such nuances of speech are not always easily represented in writing. As a result, formal writing usually avoids sentences that have tricky stress patterns that are not easily predicted in context. Even native speakers may have to reread such sentences to figure out what stress pattern is presumed and appropriate in order to yield a meaning that is pragmatically acceptable.

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